As the baseball season winds down, it's worth asking, are we seeing the last days of the career of perhaps this generations greatest player? While Griffey in Cincinnati didn't work out the way we had hoped, I feel blessed to have seen his swing in our uniform, in our stadium and in our city.
The television in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse was tuned to the Brett Favre Channel. Everybody on the TV was talking about Favre's second unretirement, what it means for the NFL, what it does to Favre's legacy and whether cows in Wisconsin can ever bring themselves to produce milk again.
Ken Griffey Jr. was not listening. He does not need to listen. He will never be that guy on the television set, parachuting in to be somebody's hero, looking for one more reminder of how important he is.
"One retirement," Griffey said, when I asked him if he could see himself making a comeback someday. "And that's just the way it is. I don't think it's fair to organizations to go back and forth. I can't speak for other people. I just know for me that when I'm done, I'm pretty much done."
Are you watching, America? This is how you go out. This is how you solidify your legacy: by letting it go.
Griffey, who turns 40 in November, says he might play next year -- "I'm not going to force myself on anybody, but if it comes around, and I still feel like I can contribute, I'd love to come back" -- but that is a 50/50 call.
This might be the last we see of Ken Griffey Jr. He might walk out of that Mariners clubhouse on Oct. 4 and never come back -- not as a player, and definitely not as a coach or manager, because Griffey does not play baseball for the life. He endures the life so he can play baseball.
Whenever Griffey retires he will leave with his reputation intact. Nobody can prove these things, but Griffey is often held up as the one true superstar of his era, the guy who looked into the eye of the syringe and said no. Juicers often defend themselves by saying "you have no idea how hard I work in the weight room," but Griffey has an even better defense: he was never much of a weightlifter.
"I'd bet my life that Ken Griffey Jr. never did steroids," said Sean Casey, who played with Griffey for six seasons in Cincinnati. "I'd bet every dollar I made in my career. He's the one guy I would bet on."
For all the righteous indignation about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, it is pretty easy to see why they apparently injected their way to better numbers. The rules were lax, the enforcement nonexistent. The benefits were huge.
The better question is: why not?
People say Ken Griffey Jr. never needed steroids. They point to the beginning of Junior's career. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft, one of the best prospects ever. His father was a major league All-Star, and everybody figured Junior had more talent than Senior did. He was a sure Hall of Famer by his early 30s. He did not need steroids.
But you know ... Barry Bonds did not need steroids, either. He was also the son of an All-Star, a high draft pick, a sure Hall of Famer by his early 30s. The difference with Griffey is that he doesn't need any of this. He never cared for the fame. He is an extremely wealthy man and lives like it, but he has never chased every last dollar -- he gave up at least $30 million, and probably closer to $50 million, when he forced a trade to his hometown Reds and signed a nine-year deal.
If he had ... um, juiced properly, then he might have hit 800 home runs. But what would that mean? That he was the best ever? Griffey never bought it. He said he grew up listening to old-time black players like Joe Black, Brooks Lawrence and Chuck Harmon talk about their barnstorming days, and he decided before his first major league at-bat that he could never match what they had done.
"I don't consider myself the top tier of guys who ever played the game, because it was a lot harder for them than it was for me," he said. "Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, what they had to go through in their career ... Can you imagine how much easier it would have been if they were playing now and could concentrate on baseball?"
Griffey always had the kind of talent that leads scouts to say he had "no ceiling," but in his mind, that was his ceiling: he was just a ballplayer. It makes any other disappointment easier to take. The late-career injuries were frustrating, but not as bad as having to drive 20 miles to find a restaurant that would serve him. He will probably finish his career without playing for a World Series winner, but he says "it's just the luck of the draw. It's not something that is going to define me."
Griffey is hitting .220 in his return to the Mariners. It is a good .220, as .220s go, with a little power and a lot of walks, but still: Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting .220. He is not going to let that define him, either.
Griffey has not always handled celebrity gracefully. If a fan heckles him, he is likely to heckle right back. By reputation, he would rather spend 10 minutes getting out of an interview than five minutes giving one. Writers who have dealt with him say there is a secret to getting time with Griffey: ask about his kids.
"They're my kids to raise," Griffey says of the three kids he has with his wife, Melissa. "They're nobody else's. If they had a manual, I would have read it twice."
Of course, he does not raise his kids like you raise yours. When his son Trey needs football advice, Griffey calls former NFL stars Thurman Thomas, Ricky Watters and Darryl Talley. His daughter Taryn's AAU basketball team is coached by longtime NBA players Antonio Davis and Dee Brown.
Don't get me wrong. It's not like the kids get golf lessons from his neighbor Tiger Woods or anything. As Griffey says: "We haven't gotten to golf yet."
This does not seem like a normal life, but Griffey says, "I try to keep my house as normal as possible. To the outside we may not be normal, but to us, we are normal. I'm a normal dad with an abnormal job. I try to make them understand: This is what we do. It's not who we are."
Maybe that is it. He won't let his job define him, in the way Favre and Clemens and A-Rod let it define them. He could have helped his image by signing a few more autographs, but does not seem to get a kick out of it. He could give more sugary answers for TV, but he doesn't want to fake it.
Griffey does not claim to be the perfect parent or perfect celebrity. But he is himself. Whenever he retires -- maybe in two months, maybe in a year -- he will emerge from superstardom with his sense of self intact. He does not see himself as a stat line.
Griffey has a friend in Orlando record video of his kids' games, and Griffey watched them almost every day on his iPhone or laptop.
Griffey usually gets two versions of Trey's football games. One is a highlights package. The other is the whole game, start to finish.
I asked him which one he watches. Both, he said. But he prefers the whole game.
"The highlights are just him doing exceptionally well," Ken Griffey Jr. said. "The whole game, I can see everything."