Thursday, June 3, 2010

The End of the Road and the End of Innocence

So, not much happened around the league yesterday, right? Right. The Common Man is sure you want to talk about Yovanni Gallardo’s homerun yesterday as much as he does, but instead, The Common Man wants to talk about one of the little news stories you may have missed yesterday, as excited as you were about the return of Matt Tolbert.

Yesterday afternoon, Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement from baseball, ending his career with 630 homeruns (5th all time) and a 135 OPS+. For a while, Griffey was the best player in the American League, but his dominance effectively ended after 2000. In 2001, he fell victim to the first in a string of leg injuries that culminated in completely rupturing his hamstring in 2004. While he bounced back in 2005, he was unable to sustain that level of performance and became no better than an average offensive player, but below average for a corner outfielder. TCM has talked about the end of Griffey’s career extensively before, and doesn’t want to rehash everything here, but lists Griffey as having a -1.4 WAR from 2008-2010, which would tie him with Ernie Banks at #149 for worst career endings.

Yesterday and today, Griffey is being celebrated for the excitement he brought to the game in the 1990s, as well as for being the best player not “touched” by the steroid scandal. Ken Rosenthal says, “He is a first ballot Hall of Famer, not simply because he hit 630 home runs, but because he is the few players from this era who is not tainted by allegations of performance enhancing drugs….This will not be a problem for Griffey unless some bombshell emerges…and no one expects that to happen.” Rosenthal goes on, saying “We’ll never know if Griffey could have avoided some of his many injuries — or, on the flip side, if his injuries would have occurred with even greater frequency….We will always remember him clean.” Rosenthal’s doe-eyed optimism and faith is kind of touching, actually. Of course, we have no proof that Ken Griffey used PEDs. Nor have we heard anything about him using. But had anyone accused ARod of using PEDs before the positive tests in 2003 came to light? Didn’t everyone (The Common Man included) assume Rodriguez hadn’t used them because he didn’t need them? Did anyone actually think Andy Pettitte had used PEDs before his usage became public knowledge?

And, in Griffey’s case, there may have been a need there. Indeed, one of the recurring themes from PED users who have admitted their transgressions has been a desire to recover from injury faster. Has there ever been a more frustrating rash of injuries than those suffered by Ken Griffey from 2001-2004? Was he ever approached about using PEDs? Did he make any discreet inquiries about whether they would help him get back on the field? Did he succumb to temptation? It's entirely possible to construct a narrative in which Griffey was disappointed in himself and his body enough to look into, and perhaps use them. And using the Bonds criteria (his body was bigger than when he was a rookie, and so was his head!), it's possible to build a circumstantial case, if you were inclined.

But obviously there’s no way to answer these questions without, as Rosenthal says, some kind of bombshell. Griffey surely won’t talk about it, nor should he (at the risk of incriminating himself and tainting his legacy). And anyway, The Common Man chooses to assume that Griffey was clean, because TCM always liked Junior. But don’t pretend that Griffey was above performance enhancing drug use. Plenty of great players have used PEDs, including those who probably didn’t need it and who you would not normally have suspected. Ken Griffey was a terrific ballplayer, and a first-ballot hall of famer, but he wasn’t a saint. Griffey probably didn't use steroids, HGH, or any other kind of performance enhancers. But if he did, in this day and age, we really shouldn't be surprised.

Best to just leave it out of the analysis all together and be content that Griffey was a terrific player for a long time, and one of the game's most popular.

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