It all started when Bret Michaels had his stroke and I thought for sure he was going to join Janis. Then, while riding around last week, I heard Pearl Jam on WROQ — “your CLASSIC ROCK station.” Then today, the bottom just fell out of my delusion that I am still young when I turned on ESPN SportsCenter to find out Ken Griffey, Jr. retired last night.
To me, Junior will always be the best baseball player of my generation. He is the anti-Barry Bonds. When everyone else in the game, from the power hitters to the ball girls in the outfield corners, was juicing up on performance enhancing drugs, Junior stayed clean. In time, he passed the tarnished likes of McGwire and Sosa to settle in at number five on the all time home run list for major league baseball. Over a career that began the year I graduated high school, that gorgeous left-handed arching swing blasted a ball over the outfield wall 630. Every time, it was his own power that did it. Nothing in a bottle, pill, or needle.
In many ways comparing Junior to Barry Buffoon goes deeper than just the home runs. It shows a lot about raising children. Bobby Bonds was a pretty good baseball player too, but he was a consummate jerk as well. That makes it no surprise that son Barry would be surly, ill-natured, and divisive as well. Across the country, however, Ken Griffey, Sr. was putting together a masterful career with “The Big Red Machine” of the 1970’s and he was doing it with class and grace.
Like father, like son.
Junior wasn’t just clean, he was classy. Win or lose, he kept a calm demeanor. He wasn’t a press hound and truthfully shunned the spotlight as much as possible. Unfortunately for him, when you singlehandedly save a franchise from shutting down — the Seattle Mariners in this case — the press is going to want to talk to you A LOT. When he left the revived M’s to play elsewhere, he turned down the gobs of money thrown at him by nearly every team in baseball, including my beloved Braves. Instead, he took a much lower salary to play for the Reds — his daddy’s team, his hometown team. In this sports era of contracts the size of some small countries’ GNP, Junior was never the highest paid player in baseball, but he was certainly one of the classiest. In five years, he’ll be a lead-pipe lock for first ballot election to the Hall of Fame and it won’t shock me in the slightest if he’s the first unanimous selection since Lou Gehrig was given a special election so he could see his bust in the HOF before the disease that bears his name took his life.
So “The Kid” is done. He’s 40 years old, just one year older than me, so that means my generation of baseball players, the ones I sat and watched in college as rookies and wished I could be, are passing. It’s not a terrible tragedy, I suppose, but it is one more signpost on life’s road saying, “Son, you’re not as young as you used to be.” So now I’m one step closer to becoming one of those old guys who drives the young people nuts with stories about “I remember when . . . ”
Hopefully, I’ll be good at the job.
Congratulations on a magnificent career, Junior, and for the rest of you, know that I love you and keep those feet clean!