He’d turned 40. He wasn’t hitting even .200, the Seattle Mariners weren’t winning, the crowds at a ballpark he’d funded from the barrel of his bat had thinned, and the solution was to not play Ken Griffey Jr.
“When you’re losing,” he’d said through a forced smile, “it ain’t fun.”
A few days later, on Wednesday afternoon, he’d packed up all of it – the 630 home runs, the 13 All-Star Games, the 10 Gold Gloves, the MVP award, the unsullied reputation over 22 seasons – and gone home, just like he’d said he would.
“If I felt that I couldn’t do it and I wasn’t having fun,” he’d said, “then why would I be here?”
The answer came to him since, maybe from the end of manager Don Wakamatsu’s bench, or from the bottom of the American League West standings, or from the self-possessed mien of some pitcher whose name he barely knew. Or, perhaps, simply from fatigue.
The real answer was, he shouldn’t be.
On his way out, he’d assure the masses he could still hit, contending he was “still able to make a contribution” and that he’d faltered, “without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench.” This was Junior, full of fight and full of himself, exactly as he’d arrived 21 years ago.
He was part Mantle and part Mays, how he slugged and ran down baseballs and looked so pretty doing it. And he was part Daddy, too, a blue-blood child of real hardball, spit from the exhaust of the legendary Big Red Machine.
He’d certainly never grow old, this kid they called Kid. And that swing would never die, because a generation of baseball fans would sigh and compare every swing that followed to it. Junior’s game was speed and elegance, and precision and ferocity, and a gorgeous high finish.
As important, it turns out, his game apparently was clean.
He was “The Natural” long before it meant anything more than a man whose skills seemed derived from the heavens. From the day of his first MVP vote in 1990 to the day of his last in 2005, 16 of 32 MVP recipients eventually were linked to performance-enhancing drugs, Barry Bonds(notes) accounting for seven alone. Enough others – Alex Rodriguez(notes), Miguel Tejada(notes), Jason Giambi(notes), Sammy Sosa(notes), Ken Caminiti, Mo Vaughn and Juan Gonzalez – were rumored to have used, accused of using, or admitted to using, to have fouled those 16 seasons.
Maybe, without the likes of Bonds, Sosa and Mark McGwire, without the hundreds of others – many, and maybe most of them, pitchers – baseball would be lauding the Junior Era, rather than sweeping up after the Steroid Era. Griffey’s veins were sodden with Ken and Birdie Griffey’s blood, and their genes. And in spite of a body that began giving out as he reached his early 30s, he’d retire fifth on the all-time home run list, behind Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and 14th in RBIs. He’d finish 219 hits short of 3,000. Eight times he’d steal at least 15 bases. He’d begin his career as the game’s second-youngest player and finish as its third-oldest.
In between, for a good time, he was the best player in baseball.
That’s the Junior who slipped away from Seattle before Wednesday night’s game against the Minnesota Twins, who turned away from another lineup card he knew wouldn’t have his name on it. He’d had one at-bat in nine days, it lowering his batting average to .184. He’d hit 19 home runs last season and none in 108 plate appearances this season. He had a glove, but never needed it, not once.
We’d said good-bye to Junior already, of course. He wore the familiar uniform and number, but the game had drifted away, even if the swing remained vaguely breathtaking, if only in batting practice.
He’d pushed back on his chair last week, balancing on its back legs, and spoke of the men he’d soon leave. A couple, apparently, had accused him of sleeping through a pinch-hitting opportunity, but that had passed as a silly aside in a Hall of Fame ride.
“The guys we got,” he said of them, but might have been talking about himself, “are professionals. We just haven’t got that bloop hit to get us over the hump.”
He said, personally, he was feeling, “The same.”
The same as what, he was asked.
“The same,” he said. “I don’t have any ups. I don’t have any downs. It’s been the same.”
He insisted he meant it optimistically. He could go on, keep playing, start hitting, continue what began all those years ago.
“If not,” he repeated, “I’d be at home.”
He made the right choice. And as he goes on his way, it would be most honest to remember him as the best of his generation. He won’t have the numbers to prove it. Or the trophies. Or even a single World Series appearance. But put him on a baseball field, level it, and play ball. Ken Griffey Jr. had no peers.
He was, after all, The Natural.