By Bob Finnigan
Bob Finnigan covered the Seattle Mariners as The Seattle Times’ beat reporter for 25 years, from 1982 until 2006. He now lives in Oregon.
This week, when the Mariners honor Ken Griffey Jr. by installing him in their Hall of Fame, the contrast between Griffey’s performance purity and Alex Rodriguez’s impurity is stark. But back in 1996, the difference was purely one of the Junior’s limitless talent fulfilled and what A-Rod had done once with the promise of many more to come.
I voted for Griffey as American League MVP that year over Rodriguez, and my own rationale was simple. I believed that Griffey was the Most Valuable Player - not the best player that year, which inarguably was Rodriguez – but most valuable to his team. Many Mariners fans disagreed with my choice, which cost Rodriguez the AL MVP. (He narrowly lost to Juan Gonzalez of Texas, 290-287, with Griffey a distant fourth.)
As Rodriguez went on to bigger things and we found out he had turned to better hitting through chemistry, I found myself wondering if Seattle fans would like to take back some of their bitterness over that 1996 MVP ballot.
When I was faced with this conundrum – Alex was having a run-away super season and Griffey was just having another good Griffey year – I took the issue to Lou Piniella. Lou and I had a lot of chats in his great decade as Mariners manager. He said that in his mind the MVP was Griffey.
He explained it this way: Junior was the foundation of a tremendous Seattle lineup and he knew that other teams focused on not letting Griffey beat them. Game after game, Griffey got the best from opposing pitchers no matter how much other Seattle hitters might hurt them. Despite this unspoken burden, Griffey always excelled.
Now, I’m not going to say Lou swayed me. He only confirmed what I thought I saw, what I truly believed: When it came to most valuable, Griffey was the only choice. In the face of Rodriguez’s output that year, it was a tough choice, but the only choice.
Much was made of a story I did late that season when I asked Alex who the MVP of the team was. He said Junior. Fans, outraged by the vote, castigated me for “relying’’ on Rodriguez’s opinion because anyone could tell it simply was said out of politeness and should have been ignored.
Alex’s opinion was no more than a cute angle for an off-day piece. What I came to realize later is that his apparently unselfish statement was from a guy forever trying to win approval. Contrary to his recent actions, when he stupidly tried to enhance his already rare talents, Rodriguez was a smart kid. As he got older, he apparently got dumb and desperate.
He essentially stage-managed his own image in those early days. Remember his refrain of Cal Ripken Jr being his early hero and Derek Jeter later being his pal? How endearing, right? How heart-warming that this youngster would be linked to two Hall of Famers playing the same position. What a fairytale of a story.
Curious how two-sided this relationship was in the late 1990s, I asked Jeter about the friendship once. His response (and after all these years, I paraphrase): “He’s called me on the phone a few times … But are we friends? No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I don’t really know him.’’
Trying to boost his image, Alex told me that when his playing days were done he wanted to be a teacher and coach baseball. That may have been the same conversation where he told me he was taking a writing course and wanted me to critique his work. I never saw a word.
I wrote a story that Alex did not have everything. He had oodles of talent, looks, charisma, but he did not have everything. He did not have a father.
Alex sadly told me how his father had left the family. Alex said he tried but could never reunite with his dad. I hope that has changed. He needs people who truly care about him, now more than ever.
Rodriguez followed the money to Texas and wound up surrounded by some questionable characters on the Rangers’ roster. He gravitated to the Big Apple, a moth to a candle, and in that glare, his makeup and background may have made him defenseless to doing the wrong thing.
Meantime, there was always Griffey, the product of a good dad who presented his son with a role model who also was a fine major-league player, and a lovingly strong and supportive mother.
I don’t know if Alex resented that Junior was the real leader of a team that had a handful of them – Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, Norm Charlton, even Joey Cora. Alex could lead on the stat sheet, but I know of no teammate – not one – who ever would have followed him in the clubhouse or off the field. Outside of his cousin, an ever-present one-man posse, I don’t know if he had anyone to hang around with, to be real with.
More than anything, he resented Griffey’s popularity. In futile efforts to attain this, Alex stayed approachable, was a great quote, but he could never do anything but try to please, to be all things to all people. He was whatever you needed him to be. And he never realized that by doing this he became unreal and unconvincing.
Griffey did not want to be approached at times, usually after games when he had done his normal, sometimes amazing, things to help his team win. But he was always so real and did it all so naturally.
There is irony in the air in these times, for Mariners fans especially, but perhaps for the game at large. One player with all-time talents is going into his first Hall of Fame, with Cooperstown to come, and the other, no less talented, is going home.
I hope Alex Rodriguez will see the difference – really feel it and learn from it. But until we see a change, and now we may never, we will always doubt he can.
One man was, and is, blessed by ability he has, the other cursed by what he is.
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