Ken Griffey is entering his fourth decade in Major League Baseball. His first game was April 3, 1989, batting between Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis, playing against Dave Henderson, Carney Lansford and Dave Parker. This was so long ago that 46,163 fans were in attendance at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium. I was 13 years old. Jason Heyward was five months away from being born.
Over the next 21 seasons, Griffey would hit 630 home runs, including the 19 he hit last year with a beer gut. He never played in many postseason games — his three playoff games in the last 13 years were with the freaking White Sox — and he was chronically injured, particularly during his time with the hometown Cincinnati Reds, a team on which he spent 8 1/2 years without anything noteworthy happening. Griffey is a Hall of Famer, and beloved as The Kid. You know all this. We might forget that there was a time he was thought of as one of those moody, pampered superstars — or even that when he came into the league, there were a few old-timers who complained about his wearing his hat backward — but Griffey is going to retire this year (probably) as one of baseball's shining beacons, one of the guys who Did It The Right Way. In fact, that might be his lasting legacy, even more than being a great player: Ken Griffey is almost assuredly, when he is elected to Cooperstown, going to have to hear about the fact that he didn't do steroids the rest of his life.
This is a terrible way to remember Griffey, and I suspect he hates being known as A Steroid Casualty even more than he hates that he played in an era where everyone else used steroids. (This is assuming, of course, that Griffey never used performance enhancing drugs, which is not something we should assume about anyone. But I digress.) This is Griffey's real curse: The brilliance of his playing career will always be overshadowed by the era he played in. His supposed halo will get in the way of anything he did on the field. Ken Griffey is damned.
It's in every story you read about him anymore. The most recent, and best, example is Jon Heyman's paen to Griffey's Veteran Influence at SI.com. It includes the following lines:
Even at 40, he is still Junior, a kid at heart, enjoying himself playing a kids' game, and being the best baseball ambassador he can be, with his humor and his homers, which by all accounts have come exclusively through incredible genes and natural means.
While some may view any declaration skeptically in the steroid era, there is zero evidence on Griffey. And while a few of baseball's bigger home run names finally have been exposed as having failed baseball's first steroid test of 2003, word is that Griffey passed that test — no surprise to anyone around baseball, or to him. In fact, Griffey backed up the contention he passed with an explanation of his lifetime of non-usage.
And then he hit 45 home runs at age 23. There was no need for an additional unnatural boost — though, that didn't stop others.
He has a one-word answer when he is asked about his choice never to take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs: "Why?'' he kept saying. Why, indeed. If he's hitting 45 homers as a kid of 23, why even try to enhance his natural ability? But plenty of otherworldly stars did. Extra help in the form of a pill or needle was never even a consideration for him.
I understand Heyman's (repeated, and repeated) point, which is the worst thing you could do for Griffey. There's going to be a sad sack cloud around Griffey throughout the rest of baseball history, because of a fundamental contradiction: For all the talk about how steroids supposedly besmirched the record book, people look at his numbers and, almost unconsciously say, "Oh, man, imagine what he would have done if he had used steroids!" If Griffey would have used PEDs, the way you're supposed to use PEDs — in moderation, to keep yourself healthy and on the field, rather than to massively bulk — he might have played enough to hit 800 homers. (Note: My math should probably be checked there.) That's the subtext to every Griffey story: He could have done more. He just didn't "cheat." He is praised for this, but there's a tragic bent just under the surface. What those stories really say is, "If Griffey had used PEDs, and we never found out about it, we'd consider him the greatest player of all time." They secretly wish that were the case.
Griffey is as much a part of the steroid era as anybody else is. Putting him in the What Might Have Been category, it makes it implicit. That's not how Griffey will want to be remembered. But that's how he will be.