Friday, January 25, 2013
Ken Griffey Jr.: The Last Clean Superstar?
Instead, I decided to take a look at Ken Griffey Jr. and what his eligibility might mean to the baseball Hall of Fame. It was announced that he would be inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame on August 10th, 2013 and it got me to thinking about him and Cooperstown. Whether you think the HoF is a crock, the holy seat of all baseball, the voting is a sham, the voting is perfect, what have you, my intent is not to sway you from your opinion. Rather, it's to take a look at the Seattle Mariner's unadulterated son and icon of Mariners baseball, The Kid and what he may mean for the HoF and the Steroid Era.
It is widely agreed that Griffey Jr. is a first ballot Hall of Famer. He may not be a unanimous choice, but the difference in being a first ballot inductee and a unanimous choice is a difference I find to be marginal at best. He led the league in home runs 4 times, was top 10 in MVP voting 7 times, winning once, an All Star 13 times. He ended his career with a .284/.370/.538 line, along with 630 home runs, 1836 RBI and 2781 hits. With the injuries from the beginning of 2001 through 2006, those numbers are just an indication of something that might have been. We'll never know if he would have surpassed Hank Aaron in home runs before Bonds, but when a person dreams of baseball and their heroes, nothing is out of reach.
The title of the post implies Griffey Jr. being the last of something. In the case of baseball, The Kid may turn out to be the last of the "clean" players eligible and nearly a lock for the HoF with no black cloud hanging over him, no questions about steroids or other Performance Enhancing Drug usage, only his numbers, play on the field and personality to root for his cause. In his class are Garret Anderson, Brad Ausmus, Jim Edmonds, Mark Grudzielanek, Trevor Hoffman, Chan Ho Park, Mike Sweeney and Billy Wagner. There are arguments to be made for most of those players, but what player doesn't deserve some sort of argument for his induction? Future eligibles include Pat Burrell, Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Posada, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, Brian Fuentes, Chipper Jones, Hideki Matsui and Omar Vizquel. In 2017, Guerrero may very well be the last to be elected on the first ballot. Even Guerrero, however, isn't a lock for making it in either. I may be overstepping, but seeing the list and looking at the players that will be eligible in the coming years, Griffey looks to be the last of the surefire, first ballot HoF type player.
For the first time since 1996, the BBWAA did not elect a player into the Hall of Fame. Unless you've been living under a rock the last few years, you know the players that were eligible and the players with the PED question tagging along on the ballot. Included in those not inducted this year were Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Craig Biggio. I toss Biggio on the pile because, even with a number like 3000 hits, he didn't make it the first try. Whether right, wrong or just plain stupid, it is what it is. It has become the norm for the voters to shut out those with questions raised about their on field performance and whether it was aided by PEDs. Any player the voters deem to be under suspicion about their possible use of PEDs has a better chance of winning the Nobel Prize for physics than being voted in their first time on the ballot. Baseball writers who vote on HoF inductees are becoming the Joe McCarthy's of the BBWAA. If you don't get the reference, go back to school and slap your history teacher. Also, yes that is my own opinion. Whether you agree or disagree, you should still go back to school and slap your history teacher.
With the growing paranoia of who may or may not have used drugs to improve their on field play, it will become more and more difficult for a player to step up to the plate of HoF eligibility unscathed. Even players suspected, such as Jeff Bagwell, have PED suspicions hanging around their neck for no other reason than he hit the ball pretty far. I'm sure there are other reasons the voters found palatable to keep a player from getting elected, but the fact remains that even a question with absolutely no proof can get a player shut out. The Steroid Era and it's players are infamous and the players themselves will suffer for it. A backlog of eligible players may have guys waiting several years before they are elected, if at all. A maximum of 10 players are allowed on the ballot, which makes future years interesting, and not in a good way.
Playing catch up when new blood enters the BBWAA will be daunting, I believe. Baseball changes slowly and with more players becoming eligible every year, a change of heart would be of little consequence to those players to be considered on the fence. With the slow changing of the guard on the voting front, what players get left out in the cold? Would Bonds, after 4 years of not being elected because of PEDs, be more worthy than a guy who had fewer career home runs and the lesser of career years? Obviously, Bonds is only one player in that particular upcoming fight, but you get the idea. Would the voter's change their minds that quickly on players under suspicion, whether the suspicion is right or wrong, in time to elect those players and listen to the collective voice of the fans of the lesser but still deserving players? I suspect that won't happen.
So back to the Griffey question. With the mess of the Steroid Era and the rampant suspicions that come with it, is it possible for a player to be a first ballot Hall of Famer any more? In my opinion, Griffey is and could possibly be the last first ballot player for some time. We're seeing how knowledge can change the hearts and minds of not only the voters, but all fans. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing when coupled with the ignorance of the past, giving life to paranoia and unencumbered accusations through actions and words of the public at large. The Kid played the game in a time when players were putting themselves above all else by trying to gain an edge through illegal means. Throughout his career, Griffey has remained free of the prosecutorial environment of an era gone mad and remains so right now.
It's not a foregone conclusion that Griffey will remain free of all out accusation on down to whispered questions in the dark corners of bars, but he just might. The Steroid Era has called into question the validity of the Hall of Fame and whether or not it signifies what it once did. That's something only you can decide. No matter what you may think of Cooperstown, it is an opinion that will color your perception of future inductees and possibly baseball as a whole. To play in this era and not be swept up in all of the hoopla surrounding PEDs and their past and current usage is an accomplishment all its own. For a player to do that and be elected his first time eligible when players like Bonds, Piazza and Bagwell are shut out on suspicion alone is an unassailable feat. We'll find out in another 3 years and some months whether Griffey will be inducted on his first ballot or not. Circumstances and the voters may change to where he only becomes one of a select few rather than a class all his own. The way things look right now, Ken Griffey Jr. may turn out to be in a class all his own during a time when the only class was the classless.
I guess that's not entirely fair given that not all players were on something, but a player of his caliber who wasn't doing some sort of drug is a rare thing during that time. I will say I'm not convinced Bagwell did, but he didn't make it on the first try and could very well leave Griffey as the only remaining player who is above reproach and a sure bet for a first ballot induction. This is not gospel and could change within the remaining time before he is eligible, but the fact remains that The Kid may very well be the last player we see for a while who remains spotless throughout his journey to the Hall who played in a time when nearly every superstar player walked away from the game wearing a scarlet letter.