By Warren Mainard
Warren Mainard attended King’s High School in Shoreline and played tennis for Cascade High School in Everett. He recently returned to the Seattle area after 20 years in the South to serve as the lead pastor of Essential Church in Bellevue.
Ken Griffey Jr. was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame on Aug. 10. That event spurred me to reflect on the power of Junior’s legacy, not only as a Mariner, but also as a future Hall of Famer. Upon further review, I have come to conclude that without a shadow of a doubt, Junior was the greatest player of his generation, and arguably, the greatest baseball player of all time.
Full disclosure: I am a totally biased fan. I grew up in Seattle as a Mariners fan. In my office, I have a signed baseball by Junior as well as the May 7, 1990 Sports Illustrated titled “The Natural.”
Whether I’m biased or not, the argument for Griffey’s supremacy is still convincing. Let’s begin with the numbers – 630 home runs, 1,836 runs batted in and a .284 batting average. “The Kid” was a 13-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner and seven-time Silver Slugger. He was a regular-season MVP, an All-Star Game MVP and a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. To combine such prodigious power with the slick fielding at a premier position (center field) alone puts Junior in a rarified category. But that is only the beginning of the story.
Griffey’s career began just as the steroid era of baseball took flight. In his rookie year, the leading home-run hitter in the American League was Fred McGriff, who hit 36 home runs. The 1990s saw the rise of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez. All of these prodigious power hitters have now been linked with steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. It seems “The Natural” was one of the few players in the game who had the right to carry that moniker.
If you remove likely or confirmed cheaters from the record books, Griffey is one of only two players to have two of the top eight home-run seasons in baseball history. The other? Babe Ruth. Again, erase the PED users from the all-time home-run leader lists and only Aaron, Ruth, and Mays stand above “The Kid.” For these reasons, Griffey can be proclaimed as the greatest player of his generation.
What about the greatest player ever? This is where it gets interesting. Only a handful of players can compare stats and accolades with Griffey. Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle each can stake a claim as the greatest. However, they did not play in the same era as Griffey, especially when you consider two primary factors – PEDs and specialized pitching.
Hitters were not the only ones using PEDs during Griffey’s career. Pitchers were in on the deception as well. Well-known pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Kevin Brown and many others have been linked in a variety of PED-related scandals and reports. So not only was Griffey overshadowed by juiced sluggers, he was also having to bat against illegally pumped-up pitchers. In addition, the modern age of specialized pitching resulted in lower pitch counts for starting pitchers and less-hitter-friendly situations for guys like Griffey. It is impossible to know, but fun to imagine how many home runs Griffey could have hit if he had been playing in a time when PEDs were not rampant.
So, why do more people not include Ken Griffey Jr. in the discussion of greatest player ever? I believe it is for two primary reasons:
1) Griffey’s spectacular performance throughout the 1990s was overshadowed by the media mania produced by super-sized sluggers McGwire, Sosa and Bonds. Remove them from the public eye and all eyes would have rested on The Natural’s greatness.
2) Griffey’s injuries in his 30s caused writers and fans to focus more on what could have been, rather than what he actually accomplished. One can’t help but wonder what Griffey would had done if he had stayed healthy from 2001 to 2004, the prime of his career. If he had been healthy, he likely would have eclipsed Ruth and Aaron in home runs, topped 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBI.
He didn’t stay healthy, however, and so the debate continues. Yet even with the injuries and the what-if’s, the case can be made that no one has played the game any better than the young man with the sweet swing and unforgettable smile.
For this biased fan, there is no greater player than Ken Griffey Jr.
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