Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Because of the kids!"

I would like to share a fond personal memory:

I was a senior in high school as the new millennium approached (at least what the general public considered the new millennium, which as we all know, actually didn’t begin until 2001), and AOL was asking its users what they felt the Song of the Century should be. The classic rock lovers, I among them, weighed in the heaviest on this question. I cast my vote for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which was running neck-and-neck with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” However, as I kept scrolling down through the votes, I noticed that another song had beaten both by long shot. It was John Lennon’s impassioned, secular call for world peace, “Imagine” and this realization brought an understanding grin to my face.

“Imagine all the people living for today. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

The turn of the millennium brought the dawning of a new era for Major League Baseball. New legends were emerging before our eyes, breaking ancient records at an alarming rate.

None of us wanted to believe at the time that the era we were actually witnessing was created by performance-enhancing drugs. Ten years later, the lie and the disease of steroids are still with us.

It’s gotten to the point when the system of innocent until proven guilty no longer applies. Guilty by association has never been a more damning accusation.

And now over the past year, names have been slowly leaking off a supposedly sealed list of positive tests. Every name that’s revealed is followed by varied reactions on a spectrum with shocking at one end complete lack of surprise on the other.

With all the scandal unfolding, it’s natural for us to keep hanging on to some sense of purity and decency in the game.

There’s not much left to grasp, but the media and fans alike believe with deep conviction that one name still represents innocence and natural ability: Ken Griffey, Jr.

Steroids don’t cause people to fall unconscious, and that’s about the only controversy Griffey has stirred during his 21 years in the big leagues. Given the time during which he played and the astronomical numbers he put up as a member of the Seattle Mariners, he should be thankful that the only pressing questions from reporters are about his snoozing activities in the clubhouse during the late innings.

Fifteen years ago, Griffey, along with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, helped wake baseball back up from its nap with his explosive blend of power, speed and defense. He also struck endorsement deals with nearly every sports corporation imaginable. If you ate Wheaties or played Super Nintendo, you saw Junior’s face.

And when people finally started asking questions about these hammering heroes, Griffey was the only one whose physical frame still resembled the one from his rookie card.

The heat was on for the beefed up stars by the time Congress got involved in the steroids investigation in 2005. At the now-infamous hearing on steroids in March of that year, no seat was set aside for Griffey, because everyone knew one wasn’t necessary.

Since 2001, Junior has been crippled by countless injuries that have kept him from the production that made him a star in all but one season. One short-term benefit of steroids is that they help the body heal quickly from injuries. As anyone in Cincinnati can tell you, Griffey was hurt more often than he was healthy.

Junior’s descent from prominence reminds me of the movie “Unbreakable.” Griffey almost seemed like Bruce Willis’ superhero character in the 1990s, but his constant trips to the DL over the past decade have transformed him into Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Elijah, a.k.a. Mr. Glass.

Junior exhibits an interesting duality of those opposing forces in the film. He remains a beacon of light through baseball’s dark times, while he physically resembles a figure worn down by a body which can’t function any longer through the demands of his sport.

And what makes Junior so innocent, anyway? We have recently learned that certain kinds of performance-enhancing drugs or infrequent usage of others won’t drastically affect the physical appearance of the athlete taking them. Just ask A-Rod or Manny Ramirez.

The simple fact is Ken Griffey, Jr., just seems to be too much of an upstanding guy to sink to such a level. To our knowledge, he’s never cheated on his wife or made enemies of teammates or the press. He grew up around the game thanks to his father, who didn’t struggle with the personal demons that Bobby Bonds, Barry’s dad, did.

All Junior has to do is look into the camera and flash that smile that continues to remind us of his squeaky clean image, and he’s maintained that image while dealing with both the positives and drawbacks of being a star for more than half his life.

Regardless of whether or not Griffey was napping in the clubhouse during a game a few weeks ago, the veteran certainly sleeps easy at night knowing that he has given the game everything his body would allow, and nothing more.

And as long as his star shines above us baseball fans, we can all rest easy as well.

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