It's time to admire Griffey up close
By Jim Salisbury / Philadelphia Inquirer Baseball Columnist
Philadelphia baseball fans could be getting their last up-close look at one of the game's all-time greats this week.
The Cincinnati Reds hold an option on Ken Griffey Jr.'s contract for next season, but it's difficult to imagine them picking up his $16 million price tag. The Reds seem committed to integrating some of their nice young talent - we're seeing some of it this week in outfielder Jay Bruce - into the lineup, and Griffey, who will be 39 next season, might be better served finishing his career in the American League, where he can be a designated hitter.
Griffey did not start for the second straight game last night because of general soreness in his left knee.
In the eighth inning, he received a nice ovation from the sellout crowd and drew a walk as a pinch-hitter to remain at 599 career home runs. Griffey could be back in the starting lineup tonight or tomorrow.
Now, we know everyone has gotten caught up in first-place fever during this homestand, and no one really wants to shake it. Having a player like Griffey miss some time . . . well, let's just say it doesn't hurt the home team's chances any.
But if you're a Philadelphia baseball fan, and you're planning to stop into the ballyard tonight or tomorrow, you should be hoping that Griffey gets back in the lineup.
This might be the last chance to see one of the game's all-time greats play up close.
Oh, yeah, and you might get to see him become just the sixth major-leaguer to reach 600 homers.
Griffey's pursuit of 600 has created an opportunity for folks to reflect on his career - and what a career it has been, starting in 1989 when he was a major-league regular at age 19. He ranks sixth all-time in home runs and 19th in RBIs. He was named to the all-century team in 1999, when he was just 29 years old. He has won 10 Gold Gloves and an MVP award and made 13 all-star teams while garnering a head-spinning 44.3 million votes, the most all-time.
Great, great career.
And it could have been so much better.
Sports history is littered with what-ifs, guys who squandered their skills or got hurt and never made an impact in their games. Griffey is the guy who had a world of talent, made spectacular use of it for more than a decade, then, because of injuries, became a what-if during the second half of his career.
He might have been on his way to being the best player ever when he was traded from Seattle to his hometown Reds before the 2000 season. He was just 30 at the time, still roamed center field like a gazelle, and had 398 career homers.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, then skipper of the Cleveland Indians, wasn't sad to see Griffey leave the AL back then.
"I've always said Willie Mays was the best player I've seen, but when Junior was young, those first seven or eight years in the AL, he was right there," Manuel said.
When the Reds traded for Griffey, they envisioned him making a run at the all-time home run record, Hank Aaron's mark of 755.
"I thought he had a good chance," said Phils pitcher Jamie Moyer, a teammate of Griffey's in Seattle.
So did the rest of the baseball world. Griffey - The Kid, The Natural - seemed predestined to hold that crown.
But then the injuries started. From 2002 to 2004, he played in just 206 games. The injuries robbed him of playing time and the at-bats needed to make a run at Aaron's record. Instead, Barry Bonds packed on the muscle late in his career and brought the record down last summer.
If the disabled list were a municipality, Griffey would have voting rights. He has been on the DL 12 times as a big-leaguer. He has missed more than 400 games in his career to injury. That's almost three full seasons.
Over his career, Griffey has homered once every 15.1 at-bats. OK, now, let's say he had been healthy in those three would-be seasons and had 550 at-bats in each. At his career rate, he would have hit more than 100 homers in those at-bats. So, if Griffey had been blessed with good health, he might be going for No. 700 this week, not No. 600. He might have 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBIs, too. Aaron, Babe Ruth and Cap Anson are the only players to reach 2,000 RBIs.
"I don't worry about what-ifs," Griffey said Monday.
Jimmy Rollins thinks about them.
"If he was healthy, I think he would have broken Hank's record before Barry," the Phillies shortstop said. "Think of how much more we could have seen from him if he had been healthy. You never know."
Reds manager Dusty Baker played with Aaron, managed Bonds, watched Mays, and certainly heard of that Ruth fellow. In Baker's opinion, Griffey deserves to be mentioned with the best ever.
He should be.
Because, even though injuries have held him back during the second half of his career, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest to ever lace 'em up.
And this week, he's appearing at ballpark near you, maybe for the final time.