Griffey personifies baseball's best

Griffey personifies baseball's best

Sure, you can look back on the seven-plus seasons Ken Griffey Jr. has spent in Cincinnati and call it a disappointment.

After all, when the Reds sent Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer to Seattle for Griffey on Feb. 10, 2000, it was a red-letter day in the Queen City of the West. The '99 Reds had won 96 games and finished just 1 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central Division, and adding the then 30-year-old center fielder in the prime of his career was widely viewed as the piece that would put Cincinnati in the playoff picture for years to come.

Unfortunately for Griffey and Cincinnati, the expectations following the prodigal son's return to Ohio -- his father Ken Griffey Sr. was a starter on the Big Red Machine of the 1970s -- proved to be far greater than the reality.

The Reds won 85 games in 2000 while Griffey hit 40 homers and made the All-Star team in what to date has been the high-water mark of his Cincinnati tenure. The Reds haven't had a winning record since then and Griffey, now 37, has been limited to fewer than 112 games per season in five of the last six years because of injuries.

As disappointing as his run with the Reds has been, as he closes in on 600 career home runs, Griffey deserves to be applauded for what he has accomplished during his entire career, not just in Cincinnati, and for what he's meant for baseball and could mean in the years ahead.

In an era in which some of his contemporaries' achievements have been tainted by steroid rumors or other unsavory associations, Griffey's image is as unsullied today as it was when he was selected as the first overall pick of the 1987 First-Year Player Daft.

Think about that a moment.

We're talking about a 13-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glove winner and a seven-time Silver Slugger. He's been a Most Valuable Player (with Seattle in '97), an All-Star Game MVP, led the league in home runs four times and driven in 100 or more runs eight times. A career .290 hitter, Griffey has hit .300 or better eight times.

This is a guy who has already amassed Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, and there hasn't been a hint of impropriety along the way.

This is one of the greatest players the game has seen and a guy who stays out of trouble and yet he somehow gets less recognition today than others who have accomplished less on the diamond.

The biggest criticism anyone can level at Griffey, outside the disappointing run with the Reds, is that he's been injury prone. He missed 260 games during 2001-2004.

While it's true he's been hurt a lot since he turned 30, he was usually injured as a result of playing the game hard. Other times involved accidents that could have happened to anybody, like slipping in the shower. At worst, Griffey is guilty of having tough luck.

Ask a few of his former managers, guys like Lou Piniella and Jerry Narron, and you get nothing but praise for Griffey and the way he plays the game. The consensus is Griffey is a gamer, a guy who plays the game the right way.

"He's always had incredible talent," Piniella said. "And he makes it look so easy, but he doesn't take [his skill] for granted."

It is a skill that has taken him to a plateau only five others -- Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Sammy Sosa -- have reached. Unlike the two most recent members of the 600 homer club, Griffey joins without the cloud of controversy.

You might have seen Griffey's name on the disabled list several times, but not on a court docket. You haven't seen Griffey's name associated with corked bats, grand jury testimony or unfortunate off-the-field incidents.

Others exercise the kind of poor judgment that provides tabloid fodder. Not Griffey.

Maybe it's because he has spent his career playing for teams not located in the biggest media markets, but Griffey gets considerably less attention than the new home run king, Bonds, and the player some observers believe will break Bonds' record one day, Alex Rodriguez.

And yet you wonder whether Griffey, if he is able to stay healthy and keep playing into his 40s, will end up on the career home run chart. He's averaged 31 each of the last two seasons and should top that number this season. If Griffey hangs around until he's 42 or 43 and maintains that average, he would wind up with around 750 home runs.

Six hundred, 700 or 800, with Griffey, his place in history shouldn't be measured solely by how many. How he got here, in an era in which integrity isn't as common as it once was, is nearly as impressive.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.