By NICK LECO
June 15, 2008
Is it me, or did Ken Griffey Jr.‘s 600th career home run seem rather anticlimactic? In case you missed it - and most of you probably did - Griffey slugged his milestone homer on Monday off Mark Hendrickson of the Marlins. In doing so, he became the sixth player to join the 600-home run club, joining Barry Bonds (762 career jacks), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660) and Sammy Sosa (609). It’s a remarkable accomplishment and a testament to the unbelievable career Griffey has had, but why do I get the feeling that this great moment in baseball history has been, well, rather downplayed?
I mean, for a while, the only evidence I saw of the tremendous feat was a little blurb on the bottom of my TV screen that said Griffey had hit his 600th home run and then a short clip of him being interviewed. Even the game was sparsely attended, with barely 16,000 fans in attendance. Granted, the Reds were the visiting team and Florida doesn’t exactly draw well, but with a chance to see history you would think baseball enthusiasts would be more than willing to go. Heck, Billy Crystal’s spring training at bat got just as much play on telecasts as this home run did.
So what gives? Has Griffey fallen this far in the eyes of baseball fans? Has so much time gone by since he dominated the game so effortlessly that we forget how good he really was? Is reaching 600 home runs no longer a big deal?
If you ask people about Griffey, many will still marvel at the talent he displayed on a nightly basis throughout the 90s. They will tell you about the majestic blasts he hit at the old Kingdome. They’ll tell you about his extraordinary range in center field and his hightlight-reel catches, or the time he hit the B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards at the 1993 Home Run Derby, or the time he sprinted home with the game-winning run in the 1995 American League Division Series. Young men in their 20s and early 30s will tell you how they wore No. 24 in Little League in honor of Griffey, and how they wore their hats backwards, much to the chagrin of their coaches. Each has their own special Griffey memory. Then in the next breath they’ll say, “Hey, didn’t he just hit his 600th or something?” Yeah, in case you missed it.
The fact is Griffey was one of the most dominant and talented baseball players ever to play the game. He was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft and forced his way into the Mariners’ lineup two years later at the age of 19. He started the All-Star Game the following year at age 20. He earned All-Star Game MVP in 1992 and won the 1997 American League MVP Award. He was a Gold Glove winner every year from 1990 to 1999 and was named to the MLB All-Century Team in 1999 at just 29 years of age. Over a four-year stretch from 1996 to 1999 he hit 49, 56, 56, and 48 home runs respectively. His talent was limitless and his potential knew no bounds.
Yeah, everyone knows about the injuries that have plagued him since his much-hyped homecoming to Cincinnati. If only he hadn’t gotten hurt he might have had a chance to pass Aaron on the all-time home run list. If only he hadn’t gotten hurt he could have gotten 800. If only. But everyone who plays professional sports for a living gets injured, and Griffey was no exception. For 11 years he was almost invincible, playing close to 150 games a year. But the injuries from 2001 to the present were like the baseball gods’ way of evening things out, bringing this superhuman baseball phenom back down to the playing field. And yet he still hit 600, and isn’t done yet.
However, that’s not the full explanation as to why his recent milestone has been less heralded than we could have imagined 10 years ago. To find the answer, you simply have to look to two dates in history - 8/9/02 and 6/20/07. Those were the days that Bonds and Sosa hit their 600th home runs. Bonds and Sosa: Fair or not, their names will forever be linked with steroids and performing enhancing drugs. Their achievements, milestones - their entire careers, really - have been dragged through the mud so much over the past few years that people have become bored with the whole idea of extreme home run totals. Baseball fans’ collective ecstasy during the McGwire/Sosa Great Home Run Chase of ‘98 and the subsequent letdown when they realized that what they were witnessing was no different than pro wrestling - a fake, a farce - is too fresh in their minds.
But Griffey did it the right way. You know Griffey didn’t take steroids. Griffey didn’t cheat. Griffey didn’t lie. Griffey played the game the right way. He hustled. He ran balls out. He worked hard in the cage. And no one will disagree with you when you say all that. They’ll agree that all that is true, and that Griffey belongs on that pedestal with Aaron, Ruth, and Mays. No, people won’t tell you they have devalued Griffey one bit. What has been devalued is the 600 home run club, which feels a little less exclusive than it should. Aaron, Ruth, Mays and now Griffey have Bonds and Sosa to thank.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by The Associated Press