Justice Is Served

June 3, 2010 5:45 AM

Sweet and simple: Griffey Jr. retires


People called him "Junior," and someday those same people will call Ken Griffey Jr. a Hall of Famer.

For now, they are simply saying farewell. They are waving goodbye as he walks off into the baseball sunset. Junior announced in a statement Wednesday that he was hanging up his spikes, his bat and his No. 24, ending a 22-year career that was as good as anybody else's from his generation.

Through most of it, Junior, the son of a big leaguer, was the best there was. He played baseball with a cool grace and a stylish flair that seemed to elude other men, and he was one of the few star ballplayers whose reputation didn't suffer the taint of steroids.

To even mention that word in the same sentence with Ken Griffey Jr. points the spotlight somewhere it doesn't belong. History will put the role 'roids played during Junior's career in proper perspective.

He was a once-in-a-generation ballplayer, the kind who often defines an era. He was a five-tool player, and he was a legitimate star -- the brightest in the galaxy of Major League stars in the 1990s.

Junior's enduring legacy will be his passion or his sweet as molasses swing, which might have been the envy of Ted Williams himself. 

No left-handed bat looked as beautiful hitting a baseball as Junior's did. When the meat of his Louisville Slugger hit a baseball, the ball flew as if propelled by a rocket engine. And 630 of those balls sailed out of Major League ballparks.

Who can say what Junior's home-run total might be if injury had not limited the number of games he played once he left the Mariners after the '99 season. He wanted to return to his childhood home, hopeful of bringing the Reds the kind of success they enjoyed when Griffey Sr. wore a Cincinnati uniform.

But Junior's time as a Red weren't his finest years. 

His eight seasons there will forever be remembered for their unrealized promises and his long stays on the disabled list. His body betrayed him, breaking down like a jalopy with too many winter miles. His game did likewise. He was a shadow of what he had been in Seattle, although he showed glimpses of what his sweet swing could do.

In his return to Seattle last offseason, Junior settled in as a role player. His days atop a team's marquee were far into his yesteryears. He was now the faded star squeezing out one last round of applauses, a faded star trying to achieve another milestone that he had missed elsewhere in his career.

In the rarefied air Junior performed in, milestones are never easily reached. They are hard mountains to climb - Mount Everest-like in so many respects. Milestones like these are never achieved while a man is on the disabled list.

To baseball fans of a more recent vintage, 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. might be remembered less as a superstar and more as the ballplayer who was often too hurt to play. To them, his heralded greatness was more a myth than a blood-and-guts tale.

Peel back the years in his career a bit, check out his numbers from the 1990s and the highlights from the days before the injuries set in, and what will display themselves are the talents that earned him an MVP Award, 10-straight Gold Gloves, 13 All-Star selections and his ticket to Cooperstown.

He proved the greatest centerfielder since Willie Mays, who was the greatest centerfielder since Joe DiMaggio, who was the great centerfielder since Earl Averill, who was the greatest centerfielder since Tris Speaker, who was the greatest centerfielder since ...

Yet Junior was more than the rest of them all for a simple reason: He was a commercial success, a bankable commodity through all of his glory years.

Like youth, glory doesn't last an eternity. Glory must give way to the reality that someone else's name commands the media's headlines these days. For one final time, Junior's name is in bold print. The words are as easily read as his statistical lines: Griffey Jr. retires

What else is there to say that his statistics didn't?   


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