Cool and clean: Despite steroid era, Ken Griffey Jr. among best ever

Know what Ken Griffey Jr. hated? Sentences that started, “Hey, if you hadn’t been hurt quite so much …”, intended to be a compliment.


Ken Griffey Jr. is headed to Cooperstown. (AP Photo)
Ken Griffey Jr. is headed to Cooperstown. (AP Photo)

Course, to get to that sentence, one had to sit through videos of his children — any of the three of them — on a football field or a basketball court. He’d bring them up on his iPad.

“Wait, watch this,” he’d say, and soon the next generation of Griffeys was hoisting threes in a yellowy high school gymnasium and turning wheel routes into 80-yard touchdowns against overmatched 17-year-olds.

It was revealing, that part of a guarded Junior, seemingly bored with conversations about who he is or, nearer the end, what he was. He didn’t have much time for comparisons to this guy or that guy, didn’t have the head space to ponder a game that had taken regular appointments at seedy wellness clinics, and most of all hadn’t the heart to mourn his days on disabled lists. Didn’t matter to him. He did what he could for as long as he could, did it long enough to become iconic in two big-league towns, hit 630 home runs, kill thousands of rallies in center field and turn Jackie Robinson Day into a participation sport.

He left 500 games or so on the (trainer’s) table, enough of those in his prime that 3,000 hits and a career home run record could’ve been his. He might’ve played in more than the 18 postseason games he spread over 22 seasons. As it was, 2,781 hits, a .284 batting average, an MVP award, six other times in the top 10, and regular trips to the All-Star Game were plenty, of course.

He wouldn’t hear it. For Ken Griffey Jr. was not going to be about what could have been or should have been, only about what was today. And then, perhaps, eventually, what was next. It was going to be on that baseball field today. Better, maybe, on that iPad, where a man at his job had to do a good part of his parenting.

This, you’d think to yourself, is among the best of his generation, among the best ever, waiting on the buffering to watch a high school football play for the hundredth time. This is where the elegance leads, the big bright smile, the swing sowed from grace itself, back to a world handed down by his own father, back to the family business of playing the games.

There’s hardly been any better than Ken Griffey Jr., end to end, from the batter’s box straight out to center field, from the first overall pick in the 1987 draft to, as of Wednesday, three votes short of unanimous in the Hall of Fame class of 2016. A man they called “Junior” and “The Kid” his whole life just a few months ago turned 46 years old. Graying some now and showing the jowls of coming middle age, he poked at his phone in the kitchen of his home and learned that he was in, that no one had ever come so close to winning every vote and that it would be OK to look back if he wanted.

“It’s truly an honor,” he said.

“Amazing,” his father said.

He’d ridden in on this strange and polarizing ballot of smoky innuendo and near greats and near misses and one other inductee (Mike Piazza). He’d ridden in clean from the heart of the game’s steroid era, on the baseballs he sent over outfield walls and the ones he brought back. And when the moment came, he played it cool, assuring the caller, “I am still standing,” because he always played it so cool.

There was the leisurely gait. There was the unhurried swing, the high and glorious finish. There was the smile, not as easy to draw from him as advertised, but still. The cap. Oh, the cap.

See, here’s the thing about that. His father said Sparky Anderson told those fabulous Cincinnati Reds teams their children were allowed in the clubhouse when they won.

Ken Griffey chuckled about those little boys from four decades ago.

“We won,” he said. “And we won a lot.”

So Junior would come rushing in, grab his dad’s cap, plop it on his head, and go play catch. Except the cap was way too big. The brim would fall forward over his eyes.

“So he turned it around,” Ken Sr. said. “He couldn’t see to catch the ball. And he got used to doing that.”

That’s where we found him, the kid built sleeker and stronger than his father, the kid who you couldn’t quite tell whether he expected all this fame and adulation or was blown away by it and so needed a moment. He played 22 seasons, the first dozen or more as the player who could do anything, they last seven or eight as a player who strained to remain upright, and by the end the easiest Hall of Fame vote ever — for the numbers, for the player, for the man, and then for the perception of honor.

He was asked Wednesday about just that, how he apparently resisted what others did not, and he might as well have returned to that iPad and cued up another jumper from the corner.

“It’s real simple,” he said. “I’ve got to look my kids in the eyes. You want to play fair.

“So I never really worried about what somebody else was doing. It was out of my control. … If you couldn’t do it on your own, then so be it.”

It was good enough then. It’s good enough now.