Toe to Toe: Hodes versus Schmidley (Hodes)
A few weeks ago, Schmidley and I debated sports's greatest heroes. Just this past week, perhaps the greatest anti-hero of all-time was indicted for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury during the BALCO investigation four years ago. Without a doubt, Barry Bonds will never be remembered as simply one of the greatest players to ever play -- he'll always have a shroud of uncertainty surrounding his much-heralded career. That's unfortunate, but a tragedy?
Ken Griffey Jr. was the most popular player of the 1990s. Beyond that, he was one of the most enjoyable players to watch. The gracefulness with which he swung the bat and glided through the outfield could only be described as magical. And then injuries got the best of him.
The second half of his career has been filled with injury after injury, never allowing Griffey to be Griffey. Yet despite the injuries, Griffey sits just seven home runs shy of 600. Imagine what he could have done.
From 1993-2000, Griffey was the ideal everyday player, rarely missing time and hitting 40 or more home runs in seven of eight seasons. Since 2001, Griffey has only played in 60 percent of his team's games and rarely approached 40 home runs. His best attempt came in 2005, when Griffey stroked 35 home runs, not to mention 30 doubles, hitting over.300 in only 128 games. Most players would call that a career year, but for Griffey, it was only a glimpse of what he once was.
Want even more startling numbers? From 1993-2000, Griffey averaged 44 home runs per season. That includes time lost to the strike in 1994 and injuries in 1995. Since 2001, Griffey has only averaged 22 per season. I don't know what's more shocking -- the fact that his home run production was cut in half or the fact that his home run production could fall by half and still be so prolific. Had Griffey continued to average 44 home runs through 2007, we'd be looking at a man sitting just shy of 750 for his career, about to break America's most valued record, and he'd be doing it with the support of an entire country.
Barry Bonds is a tragic figure, but the bigger tragedy is a player never getting the chance to be as great as he can be. Ken Griffey, Jr. showed his greatness in the 1990s. So did Bonds. And if Bonds never allegedly took steroids and Griffey was never plagued with injuries, Schmidley and I would be debating which of the two was the greatest player of all time. The difference between these tragedies, however, is that we still saw Bonds at his best. In fact, we saw him become better than his best. And regardless of Bonds's alleged problems, nobody can ever take his accomplishments away from him. Griffey never had that chance.
Maybe it's just fate that prevented Ken Griffey Jr. from being his old self for so long. It's happened before, and it'll happen again. He's still had a great career, and true baseball fans will always appreciate him. More importantly, nobody will remember his career with any bitterness, only awe at what one man was able to do in spite of so much adversity. Griffey was simply dealt a bad break.
Years ago, another great was dealt a bad break. Lou Gehrig, however, never pitied himself, only thinking of how lucky he had been. I can only hope that Griffey feels the same. As rough as he has had it, he has no reason to hang his head. And hopefully, when he's trotting around the bases for the 600th time early in 2008 to deafening cheers, he'll consider himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.