(May 16, 2006) — COOPERSTOWN — Sadly, nothing is certain anymore in this era of chemically enhanced ballplayers. It's increasingly difficult to discern what's real and what's fake, who's doing it with a Louisville Slugger and who's doing it with a syringe.
That said, I'm inclined to believe that Ken Griffey Jr. has achieved what he has on the ball diamond through God-given ability and a lot of hard work.
I think that because:
# No one has accused him of being a user.
# His torso and biceps haven't bulked up grotesquely in a short time like the torsos and biceps of certain sluggers.
# His numbers haven't gone bonkers at an age when even the greatest athletes of all time begin a natural decline.
Oh, and one other thing: His head appears to be the same size it was when he burst onto the big-league scene 17 years ago as a can't-miss 19-year-old.
Griffey seems to have done it the old-fashioned way and the right way: He's earned it.
As a result, he has become more appreciated by baseball fans, reporters and historians at a time when the reputations of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmiero have plummeted faster than a lead ball from the upper deck into a trash can.
Junior was a natural when he began, and he appears to be a natural all these years later. Albeit, a different kind of natural — that is, a non-juicer.
Despite some enormous seasons — 56 homers in both 1997 and '98 — Griffey got lost for a while in the Incredible Hulk shadows of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa. People forget that Junior edged Barry for player-of-the-decade honors during the 1990s and earned a spot on the All-Century Team — a roster that didn't include the surly San Francisco slugger.
Though Bonds and other drug-enhanced sluggers have gained a big career statistical advantage over Griffey, the Cincinnati Reds centerfielder didn't appear concerned about his place in baseball history while fielding questions before Monday's rain-shortened Baseball Hall of Fame game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Doubleday Field.
"I don't worry about what other people do," said Griffey, who ranks 12th on the all-time home run list with 539 and has won 10 Gold Gloves for his defensive excellence. "That's what they want to do. When I'm 70 and my kids have kids, I'll be able (to run around with them). That's the important thing. They'll know that their grandfather and their dad didn't hurt the game any way."
Griffey has always played hard. In fact, there have been several occasions when he may have played too hard. His all-out style has resulted in a series of debilitating injuries through the years. Without the broken wrists, torn hamstrings and knee and ankle surgeries, his career numbers would have been astronomical.
But playing with reckless abandonment is the only way he understands. The hustling style was ingrained in him by his father, Ken Griffey Sr., who was an accomplished big-leaguer, too, although never a superstar like his son.
"Nothing substitutes for hard work," said Junior, who has nine titanium screws in his ankle and wrist. "When I play, I play 100 percent. When I have to rehab, I rehab 100 percent."
Junior said he has never been tempted to try steroids. He said one of the main reasons he has avoided them is that he didn't want to disappoint his dad or his three young children.
"My dad didn't drink," he said. "It was just never in our family to do certain things. He always talked about playing hard and playing right from Day One."
Junior has followed his dad's advice. He said he doesn't think about being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame — nor does he worry about his legacy.
"People are going to believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say," he said. "I know I have to look at myself every day in the mirror and ask myself: 'Did I give 100 percent?' And that's all that counts."
Unfortunately, many of his contemporaries looked for a way to give more than 100 percent. They looked for a chemical, unnatural advantage. They cheated.
Perhaps, they'll be able to look in the mirror and not see a phony peering back at them. But history will view them harshly. And it will make what Griffey achieved all the more meaningful, all the more real.