Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: North Carolina
Pride of a Nation
Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run and a nation yawned.
Ken Griffey Jr. returned to Seattle and a city went nuts.
Different circumstances? Without question. But Griffey's Seattle lovefest also provided a glimpse of the near future.
Players believed to be clean — the Reds' Griffey, the Blue Jays' Frank Thomas, the Astros' Craig Biggio — will be celebrated when they reach career milestones.
Players believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs — the Rangers' Sosa, the Giants' Barry Bonds — will face ambivalence or worse.
The usual caveats apply: No one knows who exactly did what. A player perceived to be drug-free might not be, and vice versa.
Griffey received a hero's welcome when he returned to Seattle last week. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Still, fans form opinions, based on what they see, what they read, what they hear. And their opinions of the resurgent Griffey, 37, only seem to be rising.
Griffey, who has been an All-Star only once since 2000, ranks second among all National League players in the latest fan balloting, trailing the Mets' Carlos Beltran by just 57,642 votes. Bonds ranks fourth among NL outfielders and 10th overall.
Granted, Mariners fans saluted Griffey last weekend for helping save baseball in Seattle, not for his clean reputation. But the contrast with the national indifference toward Sosa's 600th homer was striking. Whatever their failings, Sosa, along with Mark McGwire, helped save the entire sport.
"Going out to eat, I get, 'Hey, we appreciate what you've done, sorry about the injuries, but we appreciate how you've been able to stay out of the cloud and just go out there and be yourself,'" Griffey says.
"The cloud," of course, is the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs.
Griffey, who averaged only 92 games per season from 2001-06 due to injuries, fits the profile of a player who could have benefited from performance enhancers, which can help prevent and heal injuries if used in moderation.
But Griffey maintains that he was never tempted to try the drugs.
"No," Griffey says. "There was no reason. I don't even like to give blood. You can ask my current employers about taking a life-insurance test. I'm like, 'No.'
"For me, it's long-term. Not everybody knows what is going to happen to your body 20-30 years from now. There are benefits from performance-enhancing drugs. I have an aunt that needs it. Roger Clemens' mom, before she passed (did, too).
"If you were doing it for medical reasons? Absolutely. But just to play a game? No."
Meanwhile, the countdowns continue.
Griffey is 16 homers short of 600, Thomas one short of 500, Biggio three hits short of 3,000. None has been linked to performance enhancers, not in Jose Canseco's book, not in the BALCO case, not in other federal investigations. Thomas has been even more outspoken than Griffey about his opposition to steroids.
The reactions to their respective milestones could be muted due to the increased offense of the era and overall skepticism surrounding it; many fans have grown numb to the numbers.
Griffey, Thomas and Biggio also play in relatively low-profile markets rather than major East and West Coast media centers.
And Bonds, in Griffey's estimation, will dwarf them all, simply because he is on the verge of breaking Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755 homers.
"One guy is going for 750," Griffey says. "You look at the situation. Mark was at 70 (in 1998). Sammy was at 66. I was the low man on the totem pole with 56. Not too much was said about me. It's always going to be the guy on top who gets the most attention."
Griffey says he never thinks that he would have been the "guy on top" if not for his injuries. Yet in 2000, he became the youngest player in history to reach 400 homers, a feat since surpassed by Alex Rodriguez. Griffey was 30 at the end of that season, averaging a homer every 14 at-bats.
From '01 to '06, he lost about 250 at-bats per season compared to his previous averages in non-strike years. At his past home-run rate, that translates to about 110 homers. By this time, then, he would have been closing in on 700 — if he had stayed healthy and productive.
But the what-if game? You're talking to the wrong guy.
"That's for everyone else to second-guess," Griffey says. "I have one job to do and that's catch as many flyballs as I can and when I'm hitting, get as many hits as I can; if on the bases, take the extra base.
"There's only one way to play. If I had been messing around doing something stupid and got hurt, then you can say, 'What-if?' But not (when you're) going out and playing as hard as you can. You can never look back. There's no reason to. I never do it."
He's right, of course. It's baseball. Things happen.
As it stands, Griffey needs only two home runs to tie Frank Robinson for seventh on the all-time list. His 21 homers this season tie him with Reds teammate Adam Dunn for second in the NL behind the Brewers' Prince Fielder, who has 27. Griffey also ranks fifth in the league in OPS; Bonds is first.
Publicly at least, Griffey professes no concern for things he cannot control — trade talks, public perceptions, etc. He speaks of how he grew up not as a power hitter, but as a player who learned the little things from his father, Ken Griffey Sr., who hit only 152 career homers. He says he teaches his son, Trey, that effort is more important than numbers.
If Griffey could write his legacy, what would it be?
"That throughout everything he's gone through he never gave up," Griffey says. "I felt it was not my time to retire. I've had a little bad luck, but look at the alternative. I still get to do what I do, and that's play baseball.
"There are some people who can't enjoy what they love to do. I get to do it. I'm not upset about anything that happened in my career. There are little bumps in the road. You just keep pushing."
People appreciate it. Now more than ever.
"The guy I think could be really good in center is Adam Dunn. If someone asked me if Dunn could be a center fielder for the next 10 years, if he started working on it, no one could explain to me why he couldn’t do it." - Brad Kullman