Keeping Score

Ken Griffey, Jr. Calls It Quits

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LARRY W. SMITH/epa/Corbis

He should have been the one to break the home run record.

Ken Griffey, Jr. announced his retirement from baseball on Wednesday, and any baseball fan who relished watching the smiling, bouncy Seattle Mariners center fielder in the 1990s must feel some pang of regret. Griffey, known simply as Junior, stormed into the majors in 1989, when he was just 19 and young enough to play with his father, which he did for two seasons (Ken Griffey, Sr, a mainstay on the great Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s, was an underrated player in his own right). No athlete started his career in a more impressive fashion than Junior: by the time he was 30, Griffey had slugged 398 home runs, and seemed to steal just as many from opponents by leaping over all those center-field walls. Hank Aaron would never survive this onslaught.

In 2000, the fairy tale shifted from Seattle, whose team is still in the Pacific Northwest solely because of Junior’s exploits, to his hometown team, his father’s team, the Cincinnati Reds. For Griffey, 40, the decade ended almost as soon as it began. Injuries robbed him of his smile, his moonshot home runs, and his acrobatic catches; meanwhile, a beefy Barry Bonds, the player with whom Junior always jostled for “best in the game” status, kept launching what are widely believed to be fraudulent home runs into the bay. Bonds’ pursuit, and ultimate surpassing, of Aaron’s record morphed into an awkward circus that baseball would rather forget. A healthy Griffey, who was never implicated in the steroid scandal that tainted almost every power hitter of his generation, might have already surpassed 800 home runs today.

It’s a testament to Griffey’s talent, and the prodigious nature of his first act, that despite all the hurt, he still ranks fifth on the all-time home run list, with 630. His second stint in Seattle, where he returned in 2009, ended amidst some embarrassment: in early May of this year, he reportedly fell asleep in the clubhouse during a game. It was a less than dignified ending for a player who always represented what’s so right about baseball. The incident won’t overshadow his tremendous career. Just call it one more unfortunate break for a player who seemed destined to have none.