Ken Griffey Jr. is in his 20th season.
(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
LOS ANGELES – Ken Griffey Jr., the 38-year-old man sitting on the equipment trunk in the corner of the clubhouse this evening, will hit his 600th career home run one of these days, more than all but five players, three of whom are beyond reproach.
Yet, there is no buzz.
Griffey, still The Kid at heart if not in legs, is going to swing long and true and elegantly. The ball will jump and fall indelicately into history, arriving alongside those struck by men we know, or know of.
Yet, he will have played his entire career in an era whose story was written by George Mitchell, and co-authored by Henry Waxman.
"I can only speak for this," Cincinnati Reds teammate Adam Dunn says. "This is not a guy who is in any of those documents, who has been accused of taking steroids, a guy who everyone knows has taken something. What he's about to do should be celebrated."
Yet, the panels in center field at Great American Ball Park will turn to 6-0-0 and the ovation might carry no further than the banks of the Ohio River. The appreciation for a career well spent will course the veins of the game but probably not reach the national consciousness, sodden as it is with suspicion.
"Oh well," Griffey said. "I don't even worry about it. Go out there and win a game, go out there and hit a home run, don't hit a home run. Maybe it'll change. Maybe it won't."
We have seen Barry Bonds reach 600, 700, then Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Last summer, Sammy Sosa passed 600 and Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome arrived at 500. Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield are nearing 500, while Chipper Jones approaches 400. We sigh over what we once lauded, Mark McGwire at 65 and 70 in a season, Bonds beyond even that.
First, there is the volume of players reaching grounds where only legends lie.
"Six hundred," Reds manager Dusty Baker says, "now appears to be what 500 used to be."
Then, in some cases, there is the matter of how many of those hundreds are bullet-proof. Based on the lukewarm response to Griffey nearing a place that for decades held only Aaron, Ruth and Willie Mays, even the presumed innocent – such as Griffey – will not be entirely spared the apathy of a confused, wary or disgusted public.
Reds officials report that Griffey's approach on 600 has drawn less-than-expected attention even in Cincinnati, despite various promotions. Granted, Griffey went a month – and more than 100 plate appearances – without a home run, leaving him at 597. (Griffey hit No. 598 Thursday against the Padres.) And, also granted, Griffey hates to talk about it. ("I'm not a hype person," he says. "So, it's kind of tough to hype a guy who doesn't want to be hyped.") But, on April 24, the day after Griffey drew within three of 600, the paid attendance for a game against the Houston Astros was about 17,000. A week ago, a three-game series against the unsexy but first-place Florida Marlins averaged about 14,000 fans.
Rodriguez undoubtedly will be the more celebrated story when he nears 600 in two or three years, because of the city in which he plays, the pinstripes he wears and the assumption that 600 will lead to 700 and eventually to Bonds. Conversely, Griffey does not have a guaranteed contract past this season (the Reds hold a $16.5-million option for 2009) and is an injury risk. He missed significant time in six of his past seven seasons.
It is likely, then, that one of the three or four great players of his generation is bearing down on his final round-figure milestone to the sound of one city clapping. Mildly.
Griffey shakes his head, refusing to address the response to him, his career, this number.
"I'm not the guy who has to talk about it," he says. "I just want to help this team win. If that's getting a guy over instead of hitting a home run, that's fine, too. I've done pretty much everything as a professional athlete except one thing – win a World Series."
Rangers officials said there wasn't much to the Sosa run at 600 either, but Sosa has had to defend himself against accusations he took steroids. And Baker, who last season was an ESPN baseball analyst, even remembered that differently.
"I don't know why it's different from last year or why it's different for Junior," he says. "I really don't know why. Everybody likes Junior. They like and respect him."
Stadiums of fans remain emotionally connected to the home run, the moment of impact, its immediate influence on a game, the glory of 420 feet of bang and flight. They like the home run. But, perhaps, they have cooled on the notion of the amassment of home runs, no matter who holds the bat. We still appreciate the singular drama, but have turned on the gluttonous bulk, the process of sorting the real from the enhanced. That's good, too, because at the current rate there will be almost 600 fewer home runs hit this season – the summer after Mitchell – than last season. Less sorting that way. But, also, less room in our baseball souls for Griffey, for what he's done, presumably above all of that.
"That's a good question," Dunn says. "I've been wondering the same thing. It's a huge deal and it's almost swept under the rug. I mean, 600. Six hundred! It's unbelievable. This is so disappointing. He's a great guy, first and foremost. What he's done for the game of baseball, it's sad. It's a shame. And it's sad."
This is the damage inflicted by the era. The numbers add up, but don't make sense. That is the broad harm done, perhaps irreparably. In person, however, the harm is held in a bemused grin, a what-am-I-supposed-to-say shrug, an uncomfortable shift from his seat on top of an equipment trunk.
"I can't worry about that," he says again. "I just can't."