Griffey's Tenure With Reds Mostly a Game of 'What If?'

If we had the chance to do it all again, would we? Could we? We paraphrase a cheesy old lyric from Barbara Streisand's 1973 hit "The Way We Were." It's not exactly the right keynote for a di

May 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

If we had the chance to do it all again, would we? Could we?

We paraphrase a cheesy old lyric from Barbara Streisand's 1973 hit "The Way We Were." It's not exactly the right keynote for a discussion about Ken Griffey Jr., which might be entitled "The Way We Weren't." But it's still a pretty good question.

If we had the chance to do it all again, how would it have turned out? Would it turn out the way we hoped, with Griffey winning a couple of MVP awards and helping the Reds win pennants as he chased down the all-time career home run record?

The fact is, obviously, we don't have that chance. We only get what we've had, and if we had the chance to do that all again would we? Here's a better question: Would he?

Griffey grew up in Cincinnati and apparently didn't know what to expect when he returned in 2000 at the age of 30.

He didn't know that if he hit 40 homers with 118 RBI, the fans and media would beat on him as an underachiever. He didn't know that Cincinnati fans are especially tough on their best players.

He didn't know that if he took less than his market value to sign with the Reds so they could pick up a pitcher for a pennant drive, the Reds would turn around and instead trade Denny Neagle at the All-Star break in 2000. He didn't know that if he perceived slights, he'd be perceived as a guy who perceives slights.

And nobody knew about the injuries. Nobody knew Griffey wouldn't be doing the 1990s over again, that he would fall from one of the 20th century's greatest players to a sometimes All-Star in this century.

Griffey came to the Reds with 398 career home runs, and he's since hit 199 in more than eight seasons. He's lost about 360 games in the last eight years to aches and injuries, probably costing him about 100 home runs and 400 hits.

Now Griffey is 38, his contract expires at the end of this season and the idea of trading him makes sense for numerous reasons. The Reds will keep him around until he reaches 600 career home runs, then move him to a contender for a prospect or two.

All together, Griffey's stay in Cincinnati is a disappointment from a playing standpoint but a rather happy development in terms of his public personality. He came back home as a baseball superstar, somewhat sensing entitlement and constantly fueling ridiculous controversies by refusing to let them die on their own.

Today Griffey is a sympathetic and mostly gracious figure, robbed by injuries of his chance to own pennants and many of the major records. Stuck on a losing ball club, he's not as exuberant as The Kid — but he's not a kid anymore.

As the years have passed, Griffey is less willing to talk in the media about peripheral baseball issues, having won an enormous public relations victory by staying quiet about steroids, the defining issue of these times in baseball. Practically everyone now suspects that the record setters cheated while Griffey stayed clean and marked time on the disabled list.

A sense of justice tells us that Griffey's career is twice cursed — once by his injuries and again by the falsity of today's record holders.

From exuberant kid to brooding superstar to distinguished eminence of good will and charity, Griffey made two costume changes in Cincinnati. The Reds will miss him when he's gone, because he gives this ball club a touch of class. It's not exactly what anyone wanted, but we take from this what we can.

The story of Griffey's career is best told on his page, about halfway down, where it lists his year-by-year awards and league rankings. For Griffey and any Reds fan, that page tells a crushing tale.

It shows Griffey on 13 All-Star teams — 10 in 11 years with Seattle and three in eight years with the Reds. It shows Griffey with 10 Gold Glove awards, all with Seattle. Ten times has Griffey finished in his league's top 10 in slugging percentage, but nine of those were with Seattle. Nine times he's finished among his league's top 10 home run hitters, but seven of those came with Seattle, for whom he led the American League four times.

Maybe we didn't expect Griffey's best years, but we expected some of his best years, and we didn't get them. Instead, we ended up with a bittersweet story. Remembering the exhalation among Reds fans when their ball club brought in Griffey for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer, they weren't looking forward to a bittersweet story.

But the Griffey saga still is years from conclusion, and we have no idea how it'll turn out. He still has milestones to go before he sleeps.

Griffey is about 400 hits away from 3,000, about 1,000 total bases from becoming one of only four players to finish his career with 6,000, and another 280 RBI will have him one of four players with 2,000. And another 103 home runs, of course, make him one of only four players with 700.

If Griffey plays to 42 — like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds — all those marks are within sight. That means four more seasons after this one. From this day through the end of the 2012 season, Griffey would have to average 86 hits, 22 homers, 59 RBI and 223 total bases per full season.

That's basically his 2004 season, when he played 83 games, batting 300 times with 76 hits, 20 homers, 60 RBI and 154 total bases. Griffey's place in history is secure. With 1,500 more at-bats — four-plus years like his dreadful 2004 — it will be enhanced.

It's barely conceivable that any of it will happen with the Reds. If the Reds keep Griffey through the end of this season, they'd still have to pay him $4 million just to buy out their $16.5 million option next year.

Better to make the best deal for him with another club, then move forward. Maybe the Reds will develop a star out of it, and maybe Griffey will have a postseason moment or two.

Chances are that some other club will cash in on the Griffey milestones, another club that can afford it. The Reds will miss out again.

Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]