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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 6, 2009 at 11:23 AM

Ken Griffey Jr.: The last happy superstar?

It’s hard to over-estimate how happy Ken Griffey Jr. has been this year.

I’m sure he’s not happy with his .190 batting average, and I know he’s not happy to be suffering from a condition called diverticulitis — an inflamed colon. That just sounds painful, and judging by the way Griffey was walking around in the clubhouse the past couple of days — hobbling stiffly like Festus from Gunsmoke (a dated reference, if ever there was one) — it was painful. But even then, Griffey was in a cheerful mood, laughing and joking and holding court.

It’s the way he’s been since day one this time around with Seattle. He’s genuinely happy to be with the Mariners, genuinely happy to be around this group of guys. I honestly haven’t seen any of the occasional moodiness he used to flash during his previous stint in Seattle. You never quite knew what you were going to get when you approached Griffey back then. Same way, I’m told, during his near-decade with Cincinnati. Now you do know — you’re going to get a pleasant, cooperative, warm, welcoming guy. It has been a true revelation.

So what’s going on? I think Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer has nailed the crux of it with an outstanding column in today’s paper. Daugherty contrasts the ugly circumstances surrounding Alex Rodriguez , who is now doomed to finish out his career amidst ridicule, controversy and doubts over the legitimacy of his accomplishments, with Griffey, who is the one superstar being allowed to go out with dignity. He’s never had a scandal. He’s a great family man. He’s had one of the most brilliant careers in baseball history. And within the industry, it’s taken as a given that he did it cleanly. That’s no small feat for a guy with 613 homers. Maybe if Griffey had juiced up, he’d be pushing 800 homers. But maybe his supplier would have squealed to George Mitchell, or an investigative reporter would have dug up the dirt, and Griffey would be facing the same murky future as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, A-Rod, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, et al. As Daugherty points out, “All dishonored, all excommunicated. We see them, we offer a thin smile and look the other way. Do you think any of them wanted to end his career the way he did?”

Here’s what Mike Sweeney told me in spring training when I was working on a Griffey feature to kick off the season: “He’s one of the few sluggers in our era that 100 percent has been clean. I love that about him.”

I think Griffey is totally at peace with his career as it winds down to a close. Yes, he’s declining, but that’s the natural way of things. In the steroids era, we’ve come to expect super-human feats from aging players (Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds). Griffey is doing what 39-year-old players are supposed to do. He’s slowing down. Maybe he’ll be able to pull it together and still have a productive season. Maybe he’s at the end of the line. But either way, he knows that he’s beloved by Mariner fans, unconditionally (unlike in Cincinnati, where a segment of the fan base never warmed up to him, particularly when he kept getting hurt). And he knows that when his career ends, he’ll be able to reap all the rewards — including a first-ballot, no-brainer Hall of Fame selection that will very likely elude the others previously mentioned. He won’t have to go in hiding, even though I suspect Griffey will be content, for awhile, to be nothing more than an involved father while his kids progress with their education and sports careers. But when he does return to Seattle, at his choosing, he’ll get a hero’s welcome. Every time. Of that, there’s absolutely no doubt.

I know that we can never know for certain, in this era, that any athlete is clean, but I feel as confident about Griffey as is possible that he has nothing to hide. And I’d suspect that’s one reason he’s a very happy dude right now.

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