By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The life cycle of modern public celebrity can sometimes last about as long as an infant's attention span. In this short-term world of ours, Taylor Hicks is an American Idol on the top CD shelf, while Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits collect dust in the sale bin. We forget way too easily. Our minds wander off the greatest and only zero in on the latest.
So it might come as somewhat of a jolt to our memory-challenged sports culture to find that Ken Griffey Jr. - a genuine baseball golden oldie - is no longer gathering dust in the sports discard file. Inside noisy Busch Stadium on Monday, the Cincinnati Reds slugger hit all the high notes on his sensational baseball revival tour. He launched two home runs into the right-field seats, the second one a stunning three-run blast that won the game for the Reds off Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen in the ninth inning.
We almost forgot how sweet he could be. We almost forgot how cool he looked standing so tall at the plate, waggling his black bat like some lighter-than-air magic wand. We almost forgot how someone with such an effortless, elegant swing could generate so much instant long-ball power. If Albert Pujols' home-run swing is a frightening explosion of raw thunder, than Griffey's is more like a cracking buggy whip.
And we almost forgot that wherever Pujols ultimately travels on his rising journey as the best player in baseball, Griffey's already walked that road with distinction. He's a former American League MVP; he owns 10 Golden Glove awards; he's been voted an All-Star starter 12 times; he's the youngest member of MLB's All-Century team. And while he might not be ready to reclaim his title as baseball's best player, but he's more than anxious to at least stimulate our memories with the way things used to be.
"I can't believe it, but when we go on the road sometimes, you actually hear people boo him," said Reds manager Jerry Naron. "I think people really have forgotten who he is and what he's done and how he did it. But if there ever was a guy who should be cheered everywhere he goes, it's gotta be him."
If case you've forgotten, with 546 career home runs, Griffey is only three homers shy of passing Mike Schmidt (548) for 11th place on the career list. He's done all of this in spite of missing the equivalent of roughly 2 1/2 seasons due to a long list of torn muscles and broken bones. Yet the oft-injured 36-year-old center fielder is healthy again, held together by more metal rivets than the girders holding up the Busch Stadium light towers. "I got three titanium screws in my backside and a few more in my ankle," he chuckled as he stood in front of his locker stall in the visitors clubhouse late Monday night. "That's what's holding me all together now."
In the so-called post-steroid era of baseball, it's important to remember that Griffey collected all his power numbers without even the slightest hint of performance-enhancing drugs hovering over him. They used to call him "The Natural" as a tribute to his wondrous athletic gifts. Yet in these troubled and suspicious times in the majors, the moniker takes on an entirely new - and decidedly significant - meaning.
"It's a shame there's a cloud over so many people in baseball," Naron said, "but there's not a single cloud in the sky over him. He's the Natural in every sense of the word. He's done it the right way, the natural way, the good old fashioned way."
So while Barry Bonds goes about his joyless pursuit of Henry Aaron's all-time home run record of 755, Griffey lingers in the distance, within reasonable striking distance of 600 home runs and maybe more. They teach us in the sports writing business not to cheer. Yet sometimes you find yourself compelled to root for good guys and sneer at genuine villains. Ken Griffey's one of the good guys, which is why he will be universally celebrated if he can stay healthy and keep hitting them deep.