CHICAGO – The stories stuck with him. Ken Griffey Jr. would sit at the dinner table and hear old ballplayers like Joe Black and Chuck Harmon wax on about Jackie Robinson. He would travel to Arizona and listen to Willie Mays tell tales about Jackie. Junior is old enough now to know that when stories stop, the legend dies with them.
So he called commissioner Bud Selig last year and asked to wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Never mind that it had been retired baseball-wide as an homage to Jackie.
"The best way to honor someone is to wear his number," Griffey said. "When I did talk to Bud, he asked if I minded if others did it, too. Of course I didn't. This game is a lot bigger than one person. It's about us as baseball players making a stand for someone who changed the game."
Griffey sat at his locker Tuesday, three fresh No. 42 jerseys hanging behind him. He said he didn't want to embarrass himself wearing the number, so he went out and hit the 595th home run of his career. Around baseball, more than 300 others would wear No. 42 on the day dedicated to the player who broke baseball's color barrier. Black players, white players, Latino players. Entire teams.
The celebration felt good, and yet earlier in the day a flash of news cast a pall: The number of African-American players in Major League Baseball dropped again last year, to 8.2 percent, the lowest number in more than 20 years. Griffey shook his head. He sees so many African-American stars who could sell the game. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, the last two National League MVPs, Prince Fielder and Curtis Granderson, Justin Upton and his brother B.J., Delmon Young and Carl Crawford, even Griffey's teammate Brandon Phillips.
"And who's the one person people read about and saw on TV last year?" Griffey asked. "Who's the one person, if you're a kid, you saw front and center on everything?"
"Exactly," Griffey said, "and it makes it tough, because that's somebody they look at and ask, 'Do I want to go through that?' Whether it's right or wrong, (kids think) 'They're going to talk that way about me.' Do they talk that bad about basketball players? Football players? All last year, he was beaten up.
"I get that question all the time: How come they keep talking about Barry?"
Griffey knew the answer, of course: Because Bonds broke the most hallowed record in the sport while on a pharmacological frenzy.
"Kids don't have the maturity to realize the reasoning behind it," Griffey said. "They just see the end. And they pick another sport.
"The excitement of the game is gone. Everything you read about in baseball for the last couple years has been really negative. Whether it's black or white, it just hasn't been real positive. We need to get past that in order for us to move forward. Because there's a whole bunch of kids who aren't playing baseball."
Like his son.
Trey Griffey is 14 years old. He stands 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds after growing seven inches in the past year. His shoe size is 12½. And when he does hold a bat, Griffey said, "He swings just like me. He's a monster."
The problem is, Trey finds baseball … boring? Slow? Something like that. He plays football and basketball. He golfs with his family on Sundays. He races go-karts and has ridden dirt bikes and relates more to his neighbor James "Bubba" Stewart, the first African-American to succeed as a professional motocross racer, than to any young baseball player.
It's scary to think how the ranks could thin even more, considering the current generation of players, in which such attrition took place, grew up with a universal idol. Griffey came up at 19 years old with Seattle, an instant star because of his talent and charisma. Nike built its baseball operation around Griffey. He was the sport's guaranteed sell to blacks, whites, whoever. When he was 26, Nike launched a campaign touting him for president. Today, the highest-profile African-American player is Howard – and he's less famous than his commercial co-star, Jared the Subway guy.
"We need Jimmy Rollins on the Nike commercial," said Griffey, now 38. "Ain't there. He's the MVP, and (Matt) Holliday's on there. I had a discussion about that. The commercial came on, and I said, 'Oh, that's Mr. Runner-Up MVP.'
"I stir it up (with Nike). It's unfortunate. That's the reigning MVP, and you're not even celebrating what he accomplished?"
Baseball, Griffey explains, has fallen out of favor with sporting-goods companies because its equipment doesn't change. You can use a glove and bat for years. The shoes are specialized. There isn't money to be made.
His point made sense, though there was an inherent flaw, like he was arguing against the marketability of baseball players even though he was proof it could be done and done well.
Griffey reached into his locker, grabbed his hat and slipped it on backward. It was striking. The Kid, all over again.
"This is why," Griffey said. "Know why I wore my hat backward? Because my dad was a (size) 7½ with his hair, and I was probably a 6¾, and every time I put his hat on straight, it (fell down) like this. So I turned it around as a kid.
"I'm 19. I'm still a kid. I just went out there. I smiled all the time, because half the (stuff) was funny. And everybody loved a kid who just played baseball, just went out there and played."
Griffey removed his hat. He's bigger now, thanks to age and fatherhood. He's probably going to be a free agent for the first time in his career after this season, unless Cincinnati picks up his $16.5 million option. He's not even sure whether he'll play next season. Depends on whether he's still enjoying himself.
"Right now the answer's yes," Griffey said. "Maybe next week it'll be no."
Players retire every year, and still, the loss of Griffey would hurt. Even now, in his 20th season, he remains one of the game's icons. When he joins the 600-home run club in the next month or so, there will be a Griffey renaissance, dreamers throwing out the hypothetical: What would baseball be like had he stayed healthy and had he been the one to break Hank Aaron's record?
Griffey's retort: "Who says I won't?"
He's kind to joke. It's not nearly as sad that way.
Instead, we've got the reality of a sport whose most recognized player is a cheater who, even in semi-retirement, gets crucified daily by the media. Griffey doesn't need a marketing degree to see how backward that is.
So he hopes one of these years baseball will listen. The RBI program, which gives inner-city kids a chance to play baseball, helps. The academies in athlete-rich areas should work, too. Ultimately, though, stars sell, and that direct approach is baseball's best chance at engaging those it's losing so quickly.
"Promote the guys," Griffey said. "Commercials – anything. Show the life of the game. Don't just try to get people to buy tickets."
Griffey has witnessed baseball grow from a billion-dollar industry to a $6 billion-plus behemoth. Owners are happy. Players are happy. Business is good. And sometimes that gets in the way of change.
All Griffey can do is keep trying, keep talking, keep telling his stories. He knows someone has to.
- Jackie Robinson