Good old Griffey still hanging in
Unlike Bonds, oft-injured center fielder is aging gracefully
By Nick Cafardo | March 12, 2006
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They are true and false. Yes and no. Comic and tragic.
Standing together as they have the past couple of days, Ken Griffey Jr., playing in the World Baseball Classic, and Barry Bonds, who visited the nearby WBC players from the San Francisco Giants' Scottsdale, Ariz., training site, might be friends, but they couldn't be more different.
Griffey will sail into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., no questions asked, five years after his significant career is over.
Bonds's journey toward the Hall is expected to be turbulent and possibly as nightmarish as that of Pete Rose, with his involvement in gambling.
Griffey has been depicted as the ''clean" one -- the one who has amassed Hall of Fame numbers with his sweet swing, swift legs, and grace in center field.
Bonds, who once heard every one of the superlatives used to describe Griffey, now is walking under a cloud of suspicion that may have jeopardized his immortality.
Over the past few days, the news stories about Griffey have included reports of him spending hours at a Scottsdale hospital with the family of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett hours before and after Puckett's death. Bonds, meanwhile, has been seen ducking comment about a tell-all book by a pair of San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporters detailing his rampant use of steroids from 1998 on, and also has attended a custody hearing for his children in Los Angeles.
In modern times, nobody embodied natural athletic ability more than Griffey, except maybe Bonds during his Pirates days.
Griffey is older now. His body and face are fuller. He is no longer a gazelle in center. His legs have slowed, but his swing remains potent; he seems to be aging naturally. Bonds's larger, thicker body and bigger head, and his physical breakdowns, have been attributed by many to steroid use.
Griffey's reputation as The Natural has been maintained and has even grown, especially when compared to Bonds.
As the United States team arrived here yesterday from Scottsdale, Griffey, who hammered a pair of three-run homers and knocked in seven runs in a 17-0 victory over South Africa Friday, has become the face of the USA team.
Never overly friendly with the media, Griffey has been one of the most approachable players at the WBC, sharing his insights on the classic, and the life of his friend Puckett. He has talked of his pride in his country and has shown enthusiasm for commissioner Bud Selig's international event. Selig is happy to have him, but Bonds's recently stated desire to join Team USA for the later rounds has everyone in baseball trying to ignore the possibility.
Griffey is being viewed positively in the latter stages of his career, just as Bonds should have been.
''You're talking about one of the greatest," said Johnny Damon, who moved to left field for the WBC to accommodate Griffey. ''There's no shame in [changing positions]. Griffey is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. When Buck Martinez came and asked me if I'd move to left, I said there's no need to ask. I know where Ken Griffey Jr. plays."
Griffey, 36, is tied for 12th on the all-time home run list with Mickey Mantle at 536. If he hadn't suffered a few years worth of injuries, he, too, might have been knocking on the door of Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark.
He's been able to amass the numbers in spite of those numerous injuries, including the devastating hamstring injury (his hamstring was put back in place with three screws) that nearly forced him into retirement in 2004. He's also had shoulder and knee problems.
They are why Griffey stepped up his conditioning program in the offseason; he wants to make sure he finishes his career on top of his game. The fire to be great still burns.
He was Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, hitting .301 with 35 homers and 92 RBIs in 128 games, even though that season, too, was stopped by an injury, a strained foot. He had minor knee surgery this offseason.
But, as evidenced by his outburst Friday, the swing is still there, as are the eyes and the instinctual feel for the game.
Griffey has resisted temptations to leave his hometown and small-market Cincinnati for a contender and the chance to get to the World Series. If they hadn't acquired Damon, surely the Yankees would have loved to have seen Junior stepping up to the plate, with their short porch in right field.
But Griffey is fiercely loyal to his family and his hometown. He's wearing No. 3 this season rather than his usual No. 30 because he wants to honor his three children.
He's also still having tender moments with his father, who is a coach on Team USA.
And the softer side of Griffey really emerged last week while speaking about Puckett. He sat in the USA dugout at Chase Field in Phoenix and spoke for more than a half-hour about Puckett and what he meant to him, and why he held vigil the night Puckett died and tried to console Puckett's 12-year-old son, Kirby Jr.
''There are certain people that you owe it to for the things they've done for you," said Griffey. ''He was that important to my family. It was for the things he said to me, not for the way he played."
And one of the things Puckett said to Griffey back in his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners was, ''Your dad took care of me when I was younger. Now it's my turn to take care of you."
Griffey Jr. never forgot that. Which is why he was so shaken by the sight of Puckett's son walking into the hospital room where his father was dying, to say goodbye. Bonds, too, is often seen with his son, Nikolai, and his custody battle is a sign of how much he wants his children with him. In their love of their children, Bonds and Griffey certainly are alike.
But as they chatted recently in Scottsdale, it struck you -- these two great players both should have been ending their careers with grace and dignity. Only one of them will.