For the 1990s, he was perhaps the best player in baseball, a graceful reincarnation of Willie Mays, a suggestion of what Mickey Mantle might...

For the 1990s, he was perhaps the best player in baseball, a graceful reincarnation of Willie Mays, a suggestion of what Mickey Mantle might have looked like in later years had he not been crippled with injuries.

The youngest to 350 home runs, and 450 home runs.

Ken Griffey Jr. remains, even through injury-shortened seasons in Cincinnati, a hero of the steroids era, the player whose body didn’t seem to change, who hit home runs with bat speed and not bulk.

A kid who remained a kid.

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We don’t know for sure that Griffey didn’t take some kind of performance-enhancing drugs, but there has been little to suggest that he did.

He is a rarity, one of the few players of this era atop the home run list not in some way implicated. In 2005, Griffey told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he didn’t take drugs because he was too concerned about their effects on his health.

Cincinnati medical officials claimed Griffey never once sought the use of steroids even though he was constantly injured.

I admire Griffey for what he did — or didn’t do — even if I think there are better reasons for not taking steroids than simply protecting your health.

The other day I read a blog that made the fan’s case for not being bothered by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, actually lauding Barry Bonds for taking steroids — if he did — to deflect age and injuries at a time that Griffey was plagued by them.

There was no concern for the sanctity of the game, only an appreciation for watching a virtuoso athlete be as good as he can for as long as he can.

It’s obvious the fans don’t care enough about steroid use to stop buying tickets. Nor do teams care enough who keep signing suspected users.

It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone short of the federal government that selling and using steroids without a prescription is illegal.

There is a rush to defend the players, especially those who admitted using steroids or human growth hormone.

I listened to a talk-radio discussion that centered on “What would you do?” What would you do if you were a marginal, 25-year-old big-leaguer who thought the only way he could stay on is to use the drugs?

People seemed to understand and forgive. For the most part, they said they’d do what the players did.

What I don’t understand is the lack of compassion for the athletes who didn’t use, who tried to do things the old fashioned way.

By earning what they got.

In golf they have a phrase “protecting the field.” It becomes the responsibility of every golfer to adhere to the rules so that every other golfer knows play is fair.

Breaking the rule isn’t about getting caught. It’s about breaking the rule, whether anyone else knows it was broken, whether an advantage is gained or not.

There are no umpires to declare guilt. The player is called upon to know the rules and enforce them. To protect the field. To do what is right.

I don’t think we care enough about what is right.

We care about consequences. We care about outcomes.

We don’t care about each other.

A few years ago, I sat down with Dan Wilson, the catcher, in the Mariners clubhouse and talked about steroids. Wilson was the team’s rep to the players union. He acknowledged the need for a level playing field, but wasn’t ready to buck his union’s mission to protect the privacy of the player.

The union was wrong. In trying to protect the individual, it put decency behind deviance. Unwittingly, it took the side of evil over good.

We all recognize a need for due process in these matters, but if players are as indignant as Roger Clemens seems to be, then let them let them sue for libel, which none of them have.

Clearly, baseball needed the same rigorous testing that challenges Olympic athletes. Instead, it got union interference.

I hope that Ken Griffey Jr. is clean, that he loved the game and himself enough to play by the rules. Maybe he could afford to stay clean because he was that good.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that is what makes him a greater player than Bonds.

I will probably vote for Bonds to make the Hall of Fame because there were plenty of years and plenty of evidence before his body blossomed that he was as talented a player as we’ve seen since Mays and Mantle.

Only we’ll never again think of Bonds that way, will we? We’ll think instead of Ken Griffey Jr.

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