Friday, June 20, 2008

Last look at 'The Kid'

I have never been more afraid of an opposing player than Ken Griffey Jr.

That's saying a lot. In the past 20-plus years as a Yankees fan, I've seen some real pinstripe assassins. Edgar Martinez, Juan Gonzalez, Chuck Finley, Randy Johnson (on two levels), David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Chone Figgins, just to name a few.

And while all the above players instilled varying levels of fear, none had the knee-quaking power of Griffey, who routinely torched the Yankees throughout the mid-90s. I remember being at Game 1 of the ALDS in 1995, a 9-6 Yankees win in which Griffey hit two of the five homers he'd ring up in the series. Sitting in the right-center-field bleachers, my brother and I watched in awe as the second homer ricocheted like a bullet off the Bud Light sign facing the upper deck. When the Mariners won a dramatic Game 5 at the Kingdome, it was only appropriate that Griffey scored the winning run, his beaming face from below the mob plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He came up as "The Kid", a nickname that reflected the idea that he would never get old. But Griffey was scientific proof that everyone does age ... some faster than others. His days as a truly dynamic player were over by 30, as a mountain of injuries stole hundreds upon hundreds of at-bats from him. He's been left out of the steroids witch hunt presumably due to this fact, which is amazing considering he was the game's greatest player during the hey-day of MLB drug culture. The Griffey of today bares only a passing resemblance to the slugger who ruled the 90s. At 38, his face has hardened and his once svelte build has been replaced by a gait in his walk and a paunch in his midsection. Years of injuries have transformed him from five-tool superstar to lumbering slugger.

That said, he is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But like The Mick before him, Griffey stands as one of baseball's great "What If's", a once-in-a-generation talent whose body never quite let him reach his potential. That he has 600 homers and fans speak of him with regret goes to show how truly special he was.

This weekend doesn't guarantee to be Griffey's final games in the Bronx. There have been rumors that the Rays are interested in a trade, but it's likely any deal is contingent on Griffey proving he's more than a injury-plagued .244 hitter. It's quite possible that's what he is at this point. If this is the end, watch closely at the one thing that hasn't changed for Junior. He still has that swing ... one the prettiest home run strokes you'll ever see from a left-handed batter.

So when Griffey steps into the box tonight at the Stadium, I can promise you that the nostalgia hound in me won't be rooting to see him put one into the upper tank (presumably off Kyle Farnsworth in a 5-4 game). However, if the Yanks are up 10-2 in the eighth and the bases are empty, welllllll ...

Don't tell Hank and long live "The Kid".

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