PEORIA, Ariz. — Ken Griffey Jr. sauntered into Mariners camp this week as he always does: On his own terms.
Instantly, Junior was the center of attention, accepting hugs from Mariners personnel he knew, holding court informally with the media and receiving furtive glances from young players who wanted to steal a glimpse of one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Of all the legacies afforded Griffey, perhaps none is greater than this: He can walk onto any baseball field, at any time, without regret or recrimination.
Just ask Barry Bonds if he’d like that luxury. Or Alex Rodriguez. Or Rafael Palmeiro. Or Sammy Sosa.
The list goes on, highly decorated players who are essentially in various forms of exile because of decisions they made in their career. Griffey, of course, faced the same temptations, and by all accounts, he chose wisely. He resisted the juice, played the game honestly, and now, as Willie Bloomquist said Tuesday, “He’s got nothing to hide and nothing to prove. He’s done everything, and he was first-class when he did it all.”
That’s not to say there weren’t elements of Griffey’s career that can’t be picked apart. I know I’ll hear, as I always do, from Mariners fans who don’t like the way he left town in 1999, or the way he left baseball in 2010.
Fair enough. But in the bigger picture, Griffey is untainted by the stain of so many of his peers. He put up tremendous numbers — including 630 home runs, sixth-most in history — and never once has been associated, even peripherally, with performance-enhancing drugs. It’s dangerous to say definitively that a player was clean, but I don’t know anyone in the game who doesn’t believe it with Griffey.
And so, after the injuries that hampered Griffey in the latter part of his career, when he began to age the old-fashioned way — steadily and irreversibly — Griffey still is welcomed back to the game with open arms. Meanwhile, many of those who tried to defy Mother Nature, to bolster themselves with chemicals and had the temporary payoff of eye-popping stats, are now pariahs.
Throughout the 1990s, Griffey and Bonds were on parallel paths, two transcendent talents who vied for the title as baseball’s best. But at some point, Bonds swelled up to superhuman size, and provided production not seen since the days of Babe Ruth. It was wondrous to behold.
But he paid a huge price for it. The story broke Saturday that Bonds will be showing up at Giants camp in a couple of weeks to offer hitting instruction to their top prospects. The Giants had been disassociated from Bonds since 2007, distancing themselves from the PED allegations, the perjury trial, and all the ill will that is associated with MLB’s season and career home run leader.
The wisdom of allowing Bonds to return will be highly scrutinized and hotly debated. Future appearances on the diamond will likely remain intermittent. In many corners of baseball, on and off the field, Bonds will still be persona non grata.
Meanwhile, Griffey received a hero’s welcome Monday, as he always does. Fans scurried over to watch, players gravitated toward him.
“Obviously, he’s my favorite player. And for a lot of these guys who grew up around my age — I mean, he’s the guy. He’s the best,” said Mariners shortstop Brad Miller, who happened to be taking cuts when Griffey arrived.
“It was pretty cool getting to see him out there. It’s like, wow, I’m hitting, Ken Griffey Jr. is behind the cage. It’s always sweet seeing your childhood hero out on the field.”
I’ve always felt that whatever bad feeling existed from Griffey’s abrupt departure in 2010, when he drove out of town without a word of his decision to retire, would dissipate over time. What would remain would be the fond memories of a charismatic career.
Certainly, Griffey’s almost completely positive reception when he was inducted into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame last year at Safeco Field bears that out. And in two years, when he’s elected into Cooperstown on the first ballot, that veneration will only grow stronger.
Meanwhile, Junior will just be Junior — a wisecracking, needling, whirlwind of a presence. His official title is “Special Consultant to the Franchise,” but the job description can be reduced to “be Ken Griffey Jr.” And he can perform it wherever, and whenever, he pleases.
“Any time he comes around, it’s a treat for everybody,” Bloomquist said. “With his personality, he’s still like a giant kid. He’s fun to be around.”
“He goes out and has a great time,” added catcher Mike Zunino. “It just brings a lightness to the practice, to be able to talk to him about how he took the game.
“Unfortunately, he had to battle through injuries, but he did it the right way. I think that speaks a lot of him. You ask a lot of people who they really loved watching growing up, it was always Griffey. He did everything the right way, handled everything the right way, and had a lot of fun playing, which is really awesome.”
Griffey might have forfeited a few career home runs along the way by just saying no to pharmaceuticals, but he gained a lifetime of reverence.