Baseball Needs Ken Griffey, Jr.
In fact, with scandals parading their way throughout the world of competitive athletics, one can make the argument that sports, as a whole, needs Ken Griffey, Jr.
The face of the game of baseball over the past several years and, to a certain level, the entire sporting world, has been Barry Bonds.
In 1996, Bonds became the second player in baseball history to hit 40 or more home runs and steal 40 or more bases in the same season. At that point, most believed that Bonds was already the game's best player.
Five seasons later, Bonds shocked the world and broke the single-season home run record set just three years earlier by Mark McGwire.
Beginning with his record-setting 73-home run season, Bonds won four-straight National League MVP awards and put up numbers rivaled only by those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
So, here we are, it's 2005 and Barry Bonds is the game's most incredible player, having set new heights with his bat and carried an otherwise mediocre team to contention, year in and year out.
So what's the problem?
Here's that naughty word again; steroids.
Whether Bonds knew it or not, he did take steroids. He admitted to being on banned substances at certain points over the past four years - quite possibly during his amazing 2001 season.
The face of baseball is looking more and more like Mr. Yuck than the Smiley he once represented, at least on the field. (We all know he isn't the happy-go-lucky bumper sticker type in everyday life and with the media.)
Looking further into the recent past of the game's best players, we see that the 1998 National League MVP was Padres' slugger Ken Caminiti. Caminiti, who has since died, admitted to using steroids during his great run of success, including his MVP season.
The AL's MVP in 1988 was Oakland bash brother, Jose Canseco, the author of the book "Juiced", who claims to have injected steroids into 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi as well as fellow bash brother and one of baseball's favorite modern-day good guys, Mark McGwire.
Canseco admits to using steroids throughout his career and claims he "can tell" that other superstars, such as Sammy Sosa, Bret Boone and even Roger Clemens have used a form of steroid in recent years.
Whether Canseco is correct or not is beside the point.
Bonds and Giambi have admitted to using steroids in some fashion. As for the rest of the suspicious and the "outed", it doesn't matter if they are guilty or not.
The game, the players and their accomplishments are nothing short of tainted.
The home run chase in 1998 between McGwire and Sosa could have been a steroid induced barrage of long balls. The same chase that very well could have saved the game of baseball from the depths of "nobody-really-cares-anymore" may have been as phony as the super duper decoder ring that comes in the breakfast cereals we all love to indulge in at midnight while watching Jay Leno or the late edition of SportsCenter.
This spring, all the talk in every camp, especially those of the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, has been on the steroid issue.
Nobody seems to want to talk much about the Boston Red Sox ending the 86-year curse or the winter that produced nearly a billion dollars in multi-year contracts.
The game could use something else to talk about. The game needs a hero again. Someone to grab the attention of all of the little leaguers and slap that smile back on their faces. Baseball is in dire need of a new name to drool over.
Or, maybe it just needs an old friendly face to run with.
Remember 1999? I do. That was the year when the Yankees swept the Atlanta Braves to win their third World Series title in four seasons.
That was the season in which baseball was still flying high after that great chase for 61 home runs.
That was the year that Pedro Martinez won his first American league Cy Young and Randy Johnson captured his first of four consecutive National League Cy Young awards.
Chipper Jones and Ivan Rodriguez won their first MVP awards and the Texas Rangers won their third AL West title in four years.
Larry Walker won the second of two straight NL batting titles, while Nomar Garciaparra won his first of two successive AL championships.
It was also the last year that Ken Griffey, Jr was himself. That was the last time No. 24 was "The Kid."
Griffey was the big shiny new car that Major League Baseball received in 1989, when the M's brought the teenager north from spring training in Arizona.
The league needed a spark. Business was fine, but certainly not booming. Small markets had very little reason to head to the park to watch a team that had no chance of making the postseason.
And then, came Junior.
Immediately, the 19-year-old took the baseball world by storm, drawing fans to the old Kingdome. Not because he was able to propel the Mariners to victory more than they'd ever been capable of to that point, but because of the way he played the game.
For the next 11 seasons, the M's boasted one of the game's most beloved players. The game's most skilled center fielder. The best baseball player in the world.
Fans from everywhere hopped on the Griffey bandwagon. From coast to coast, shore to shore, Griffey was the ambassador that baseball needed to thrive into the 90s and beyond. He was the blueprint for all that baseball wanted in its players.
A blue-chip talent,a soft-spoken personality and a smile that beamed from his face like a child's on Christmas Day.
After the deal that shipped Griffey to his "home" in Cincinnati, it all came crashing down.
Sure, he had a nice 2000 season in Cincinnati after the trade from the Seattle Mariners. His 40 home runs and 118 RBI were typical of Griffey's talents at the plate.
But it wasn't the same.
Griffey used to be happy, healthy and, most of all, the game's most treasured personality.
Five injury-riddled seasons as a Cincinnati Red has removed Griffey from the limelight. From knee injuries to hamstring problems to the shoulder injury that forced Griffey to miss most of 2003, the former No. 1 pick of the Seattle Mariners and son of Big Red Machine member Ken Griffey, Sr, could not pick a better time to prime himself for a return to glory than right this very season.
The Reds could use his bat, his defense, his presence - on the field and in the clubhouse.
Baseball could use his star, his perfect left-handed power swing and that infectious smile.
A healthy Griffey would be a blessing to the game. A gift from the sporting gods. Imagine "The Kid," at 35, robbing some poor slugger of a home run with two outs and two men on. What do you think you'd see?
That's right. You'd see the ear-to-ear grin on Junior's face as he ran the baseball back toward the infield on his way to take his cuts at the plate.
Dream of what this season might hold, should Griffey somehow put his injuries to bed and for the next six months find the strength to be the Griffey we all knew and loved, way back in 1999.
His father would smile with joy. His team would gleefully embrace the re-existence of George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. The game would be indebted to the Hall of Famer, just that much more than it already was before his star began to fade.
The fans, even those still irked at what took place after the 1999 season that led to the trading of the superstar, would sit back and crack that tradition-filled baseball smile. Even in Seattle. Even me.
All would be forgiven, and the past four seasons forgotten.
In light of the steroid issue dominating the news of the game, Baseball needs Ken Griffey, Jr.
Now, more than ever.
Jason A. Churchill can be reached via email at JasonAChurchill@InsidethePark.com
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