Let's not lament the "what could have been" when it comes to Ken Griffey Jr. as he closes in on baseball history. Let's celebrate the "what...

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Let’s not lament the “what could have been” when it comes to Ken Griffey Jr. as he closes in on baseball history.

Let’s celebrate the “what is.”

Because what Griffey is about to accomplish, when he hits his next home run to reach 600, is a monumental feat. Unqualified, with no asterisk or apology necessary.

Only five men have done it. Only three have done it without whispers of impropriety, and they are the A-list icons of the sport: Aaron, Ruth, Mays.

This is heavy-duty company that Griffey is joining. And unlike Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the latest two members of the 600 club, there has been nary a whisper of any steroids involvement by Griffey.

Yet so much of the coverage of Griffey’s pending achievement — overshadowed even in Cincinnati by the stunning emergence of rookie Jay Bruce — has been tinged with regretful notions.

Indeed, there is a feeling that Griffey could have done so much more had he stayed healthy. It’s only fitting, in one final twist of the knife by the baseball gods, that as he sits on the cusp of 600, he had to sit out Monday in Philadelphia with a sore knee.

By now, the litany of Griffey injuries is familiar, from hamstring to knee to shoulder to ankle to groin. The 13 stays on the disabled list, eight of them since the Mariners traded him to Cincinnati after the 1999 season. Hundreds of games lost that could have had him approaching 800 by now instead of 600.

As Mariners’ coach Norm Charlton said Monday of his former Seattle teammate, it is “almost tragic.”

He added, “I think Junior was the one guy we really felt had a chance to catch Barry — or Hank at the time. …

“Is he a first ballot Hall of Famer? Yes. But his numbers could be unbelievably more than they are without the injuries.”

That, over the years, has become the Griffey story line. But perhaps it’s time to take a new angle and realize that he has persevered despite the adversity, and kept pounding homers.

No, not as prolifically as the early pace he set in Seattle, when Junior went 49-56-56-48 his final four years. The sky was the limit then, and for Mariners fans, it hurt to watch him take his magic to Cincinnati.

Nine seasons later, it’s obvious that the trade to the Reds has not worked out the way anyone planned. Certainly not Junior, who has had a mixed reception in his hometown as the injury-marred seasons have mounted.

But every player who has laced up spikes has had a chance for 600, and only five have gotten there. When Griffey makes it six, with a limp and a flourish, it is a cause for praise without reservation.

There have been whispers over the years that Junior is paying the price for lax preparation in the Seattle years. It was all so easy for him in his Mariners’ days, when he was The Natural, that he never felt the need to tune his body. Or so goes the pervasive school of thought.

Charlton scoffs at that notion.

“I think the thing that a lot of people didn’t realize is that Junior has always had a gym at his house,” he said. “Junior has always gotten his work in. Junior liked to come to the ballpark and really have fun. It always gave off the appearance he wasn’t doing anything, but Junior got his work in in the morning before he came to the ballpark.

“He’ll probably hate me for saying this: He got in his work, but he came to the stadium and it was almost like he wanted everyone to think it was so easy for him, and he was just that talented.

“I think he gets labeled as someone who never really worked hard, but he never let anyone see him work hard.”

That viewpoint is seconded by Mariners’ trainer Rick Griffin, who knows Griffey’s behind-the-scenes work habits better than anyone.

“He was a natural, but Junior knew his body when he was young as well as anyone, and when he needed to do things,” Griffin said.

“And he did do things. He’d come into the training room all the time. … He’d do exercises sitting by his locker, or find a place by himself. He didn’t do things in front of everyone, because he didn’t want people seeing him doing it.

“He’d stretch all the time. They’d say, ‘He doesn’t stretch with the team.’ Well, he’d stretch for 30 minutes before we even went out there. He was already loose.”

Said Griffin, wistfully: “Being selfish, I wish he could have stayed here, and I wish I could have had the chance to take care of him and help him. … I’m going to say I think I could have helped him.”

We’ll never be sure to what heights Griffey would have soared if he had never played his early years on the unforgiving AstroTurf of the Kingdome. If he had not played the outfield with such reckless abandon, crashing into walls without concern for the consequences.

But this is not the time for what-ifs. This is a time to realize that what Griffey did — and what he is about to do — is spectacular. In its own right.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.