Junior should be everyone’s hero

And then there was one. Amidst all the failed tests, all the name-dropping reports, and all the emotional press conferences of the past few years, only one truly phenomenal baseball player has managed to stay clean throughout it all: Ken Griffey, Jr.

Junior is the last man standing when it comes to baseball’s steroid era. The last cardboard hero who kids of the ’90’s cling to in search of a meaningful figure from their now-corrupt youth. Mark McGwire has been axed, Roger Clemens embarrassed, Rafael Palmeiro brought to his knees, Barry Bonds indicted, Alex Rodriguez humbled. Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, and the list goes on. We can only speculate about blown-up, larger-than-life figures who have yet to be formally cited: Bret Boone, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and hundreds more. No one is presumed innocent anymore. Everyone is guilty. And yet…

Griffey has played 20 seasons now, and hit 611 home runs. Numbers like that should raise a few eyebrows. In 2005, at age 35, Junior blasted his age, hitting 35 longballs that year. In 2007, age 37, he managed to take 30 deep. In back-to-back seasons of 1997 and 1998, when steroids were heating up, Griffey hit 56 dingers each year. He has numbers that overshadow those of his accused constituents. And yet…

He came into the league in 1989, listed at 6’3″, 195. He was lanky, but could still drive a ball over the fence with ease. Unlike most power hitters, he didn’t so much lumber as he did prance. In center field, he possessed the grace of a gazelle, and if you didn’t know any better you might confuse him for a speedy leadoff man, or possibly even a pitcher (he did possess that pitcher’s physique, after all, along with a low-90’s fastball). Since those two decades have passed, Griffey has gotten bigger. Last year, he was listed at 6’3″, 228. Thirty-three pounds heavier than the lithe teenager that used to roam the Kingdome turf. And yet…

His off-the-field life is quiet, and he rarely makes public appearances. The national endorsements that were everywhere in the 1990’s have subsided once injury began to plague the superstar in 2000. Besides the numbers, the talent, the backwards cap, and the smile, there isn’t much we know about Junior. He’s a family man, with a wife he met in Seattle. He has three kids. He spends his offseasons in Florida. He lives a life most celebrities can only dream of; private and down-to-earth. He could be doing anything behind the gates of his mansion, and we’d never know it. And yet…

He a friend of Barry Bonds. The two met at an All-Star Game and struck up a bond. The similarities between them were endless: both were rangy outfielders that didn’t look the part of power hitters; both were superstars, seemingly burdened by the attention heaped upon them at all times; both had fathers who preceded them in the Major Leagues; both spent time living in Florida. It was that last commonality that brought the two of them together on a more regular basis. Griffey and Bonds would invite one another into their respective homes. They were friends, if not teammates. Bonds has since been labeled the guiltiest of the guilty when it comes to steroids. And yet…

And yet none of it seems to hold true with Ken Griffey, Jr. Of all the players victimized by their own bad decisions, Junior doesn’t seem capable of committing such a mistake.

His numbers only tell part of the story: he’s never seen a huge uptick in production from one year to the next (a telltale sign of steroid use); has remained consistent from his rookie year until 1995, when injuries first hit; and would likely have already broken baseball’s home run record were it not for 2001 through 2004, when 111 was his season-high for games played.

He’s gained weight, yes, but in a befitting sort of way. He’s added fat where lean muscle used to be. He’s added a paunch where chiseled abs used to reside. A budding second-chin makes appearances from time-to-time, and his face is much chunkier than it used to be. You wouldn’t normally think of such features in a positive light, but the man looks human. He looks like the rest of us, and always has. No overly-muscled physique, no expanding skull, no acne, no denying the aging process.

He’s a family man, through and through. He left Seattle for less money, simply to be closer to home. He boasts about his kids like any proud father would, and not in a pushy sort of way. He takes pride in the fact that his oldest child, Trey, is an aspiring running back, baseball be damned. He shelters his family from the burdens that come with being a celebrity. To them, he is a husband, and he is Dad. Nothing more, nothing less.

He knows Bonds. He knows Alex Rodriguez. He played on a 1998 Mariners team that, so far, has seen three people linked to steroids. According to former Mariner outfielder Shane Monahan, one of the three, the number of guilty parties on that team is much higher. And yet it doesn’t matter. Because every one of us knows that inside us we have facets of humanity that keep us from making the stupid decisions that our friends make. We have consciences. We have a voice. No matter our acquaintances, we are our own person. Ken Griffey, Jr. is his own person.

We might be wrong. One day Junior might just be another name, on another list, lumped together with all the asterisks of our era. But right now, he’s not. And if you had to ask me to speculate on the matter, I’d say he’s innocent. For twenty years, Ken Griffey, Jr. has been human when many of his coworkers have not. He’s made humane decisions that we can all relate to, suffered injuries that prove he’s no robot, and ultimately resembled the physical appearance of a human being through it all.

Junior needs to be put on a pedestal by Major League Baseball and exemplified: THIS is the man, the player you will strive to become. The last great hope for a lost era. The only beacon of truth in a time of lies. The one whose numbers don’t deceive us, whose appearance doesn’t befuddle us, whose transgressions we can easily overlook. Ken Griffey, Jr. is my hero. And if he isn’t your hero by now, maybe you need to reevaluate the way you look at heroism.

3 thoughts on “Junior should be everyone’s hero”

  1. Very good article. Griffey has always been my hero and I’ve always felt that he was different than all of those other superstars that have been linked to steroids. He’s definitely baseball’s last hope for kids of my generation.

  2. The reason for that is so we can get more content on the main page. Otherwise we can really on feature one article at a time.

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