Imagine, for a moment, a home-run quest that made Hank Aaron proud to embrace his successor, rather than feel the need to stay in hiding...
Imagine, for a moment, a home-run quest that made Hank Aaron proud to embrace his successor, rather than feel the need to stay in hiding for the duration.
Imagine a race to Aaron’s hallowed ground in which commissioner Bud Selig wouldn’t have to think twice about being there to shake the hand of the new king of swat.
Imagine a joyful run to 755, one that fans could embrace unconditionally — which is precisely what sports’ most cherished record deserves.
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Imagine if it was Ken Griffey Jr., and not Barry Bonds, inching inexorably toward Aaron.
Or even more compellingly, imagine if Griffey and Bonds were racing to 755, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced to 61 in 1998, an incredibly compelling drama, back when the steroids element of the chase was still naively relegated to the background.
And it could have happened.
For so long, it was almost a given Griffey was the one headed for the promised land. He burst onto the scene in Seattle as a teenager in 1989, three years behind Bonds but already a fully formed superstar.
He was the youngest in history to reach 350, 400 and 450 home runs. In 1999, during a celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of his 715th home run, Aaron himself declared, “Griffey has the best chance to catch me, especially if he keeps doing what he’s doing.”
Aaron added, “The only things that would probably stand in his way would be if he got injured or he got complacent.”
Griffey got injured, all right, a litany of ailments — particularly after he left Seattle for Cincinnati in 2000 — that is staggering both in their variety and their adverse effect on his career.
Chone Figgins, Angels: A year that began with a broken finger and a .133 average in his first 90 at-bats has been reborn with a .458 surge over 18 games, including a six-hit game Monday.
Chad Qualls, Astros: When Qualls blew a 9-4 lead to the Angels on Monday in the seventh inning, he hurled the ball into the third deck at the end of the inning. Bad move. Qualls was fined $3,000 and suspended for three days.
Ex-Mariner of the week
Jeff Cirillo, Twins: Cirillo appears to have won the third-base job from slumping Nick Punto, whose average fell to .221. Cirillo had been playing mostly at DH.
“As for the fight with A.J. Pierzynski, who doesn’t fight with A.J. Pierzynski?” — Padres pitcher Jake Peavy on embattled catcher Michael Barrett, acquired in a trade with the Cubs.
Some would argue that something akin to complacency also played a role. Former Mariners manager Lou Piniella himself, in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, seemed to endorse the theory Griffey was paying the price for a lax training regimen early in his career.
“I told him that he needed to work harder as he got older,” Piniella said. “But it’s hard to convince a young man who is at the top of his game and on top of the world. He could have [conditioned] as hard as possible with us and suffered the same fate that he has. [Or], by preparing a little better, he might have remained as healthy and productive.”
Griffey has also surely paid the price for playing so long, and so relentlessly, on the unforgiving artificial turf of the Kingdome.
Whatever the reason, Griffey got sidetracked on his way to Aaron at almost precisely the same time Bonds began to soar. Griffey’s total, at age 37, is a still formidable 582 — eighth on the all-time list, just one behind McGwire — but well off the pace envisioned for him when he reached 400 at age 30.
Of course, volumes have been written on the suspicious causes of Bonds’ meteoric — and unprecedented — late-career surge that has left him, at this writing, six homers away from Aaron.
It has also left him, in most venues outside of San Francisco, regarded as the public face of baseball’s steroids crisis, and, in the eyes of many — Aaron included, by all indications — unfit to hold the vaunted title of Home Run King.
Contrast this with Griffey, who has never been accused, or even suspected, of taking a performance-enhancing substance. Though there are no certainties in this regard, Griffey appears to be about as close to clean as we can hope for in this day and age.
If Bonds and Griffey were both pursuing Aaron, there would be no question who was on the high road, and who was on the low road.
“I really believe that his stature among baseball fans all over the country has risen 100-fold,” legendary Reds announcer Marty Brenneman said. “Because I think people look upon him as a guy who did it the right way.”
Yet Griffey lost his chance to win the race to Aaron in a whirlwind of broken bones and pulled muscles in Cincinnati. And that doesn’t even count the broken finger that knocked him out for a month as a Mariners rookie in 1989, the broken wrist in 1995 that sidelined him for nearly three months, or the broken hamate bone in 1996 that wiped out 20 games.
Players get injured; it’s part of the game. But Griffey has had a torrent of injuries since 2000 that not only knocked him out of the lineup for huge amounts of time, but reduced his once-transcendent skills before age had a chance to do so. It’s as if he had his prime yanked out from under him.
The tone was set in 2000, his first season with the Reds, when Griffey missed the All-Star Game with tendinitis in his knee and was hampered all year by hamstring injuries.
Since then, it has seemed as though his body has given way tendon by tendon, ligament by ligament. In the previous six years before a healthy (so far) 2007, Griffey has played in just 554 of a potential 972 games.
There’s no telling, of course, how many homers have been lost to the disabled list, and the ravages of injuries. But it has certainly been substantial — perhaps enough to have thrust him near Bonds’ territory.
“I don’t know where he would be. I haven’t calculated, but he would probably be somewhere over 700, for sure,” Reds manager Jerry Narron said.
Added Narron, “I will be much more surprised if he does not hit more than 700 home runs than if he hits less.”
But by then, Bonds is likely to already have finished his desultory march past Aaron, and Alex Rodriguez will likely be poised to shoot past all of them.
Start to ask Griffey about the injuries, and he interrupts before you can get to the question.
“No,” he said. “You’re going to ask me if I ever think, ‘What if?’ No.”
His best friend on the Reds, outfielder Adam Dunn, says Griffey has never lamented about how the injuries have affected his legacy.
“Never. Never. Not one time.”
His longtime agent, Brian Goldberg, confirms Griffey has never pondered, even in private moments, what could have been.
“He doesn’t get upset at that,” Goldberg said. “Believe me, we’ve had enough conversations over the last 21 years, that would have come up with me.”
“I’m not going to stick around just to break someone’s record,” Griffey said Friday at his Safeco Field news conference. “The people who have been around me the longest know that numbers don’t mean that much to me.”
But in baseball, numbers are sacred. And the baseball world would be a happier place if Griffey were leading the pursuit of Aaron.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org