Two notable events happened last night. One of them still makes me sick to my stomach, so let’s talk about the second.
With his little playing time shrinking to occasional pinch hit appearances, Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement, hanging up his spikes after 22 seasons, 630 home runs and countless Cincinnati-induced leg injuries. He was a supreme talent who played the game, in the 1990s anyway, with joy and effortless grace. He made some of the most incredible catches in center field I’ve ever seen, including one in 1997 that resulted in a broken wrist. He hit home runs with that smooth stride. He sprinted around the bases, even if he was never really a base stealer. He saved baseball in Seattle. He was the center of the ultimate argument among baseball fans for a decade — who was better, Griffey, or Barry Bonds?
There was no doubt who was more popular, though. Even before steroids clouded everything, Bonds was still seen as aloof, and love for Bonds did not extend too far beyond the Bay. Griffey wore his hat backwards and was in cool commercials. As a sixth-grader living in Dartmouth, Mass., the Seattle Mariners were easily more popular than the Red Sox among my classmates. He was, for lack of a better term, the man. His average season from the ages of 20 to 29 offers up 38 HR, 109 RBI, 312 total bases, a .302 batting average and a .965 OPS. He was the very definition of a five-tool player.
And, even though I have a soft spot for the Mariners, I never really got behind Griffey as a fan. I didn’t like the way he stood at home plate after one of his homers. I didn’t like the way he pouted about not wanting to be in the Home Run Derby at the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park. And I really didn’t like the way he sulked his way out of Seattle to play for the Reds after the ’99 season.
So when the injuries started piling up on Griffey one after the other, I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t exactly heartbroken, either. By that point, he was just another guy. I thought he was overrated, an anonymous force patrolling center field for a perennially bad team.
I started to buy back into the Griffey camp a few years ago, though. He has, as of June 3, 2010, kept himself out of the steroid talk. The stretch of injuries he went through went from unfortunate to just absurd, and that softened him a bit. When he made the All-Star team in 2007 as a healthy, 37-year-old right fielder, I was happy. It was good to see him in the spotlight again, but better to see him enjoying and embracing the moment.
Recently, there hasn’t been much to embrace. He was traded at the 2008 deadline to the White Sox and didn’t make much of an impact. He was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to Seattle in 2009. And in 2010, he stopped hitting. It happens, even to the great ones.
It’s hard to watch the greats get old, but it’s also real. The only ones who get to stay young forever are those that die young. Even if it’s sad and sometimes painful, growing old is good.
And now, we get to remember the best moments of Griffey’s career, while the lesser ones fade into the distance.