Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. Once they were inextricably linked. Both were the spawn of superstars. Both came to the game with great fanfare and great expectations. Throughout the 1990â€™s, they exceeded the wildest hopes of fans and experts alike.
It was easy to see them as opposites. Griffey was â€œThe Kid,â€ cap backwards, smile reminiscent of Willie Mays. He had a pure zest for the game, went all-out on the field, body be damned, in his enthusiasm to play the game right. Jr. speeding around the bases for the winning run of 1995 ALDS over the Yankees, his Mariners teammates waiting with open arms for him as he popped up from his slide, was a signature moment of 1990â€™s baseball.
Bondsâ€™ smile was mocking, a sarcastic jab at his critics. His game was marked by arguments with managers, scorn from teammates like Andy Van Slyke who talked him down publicly and poor post-season performance. Nothing Bonds did was above criticism, no matter how well he played. Sid Breamâ€™s slide across the plate in the 1991 NLCS was a triumph for Bravesâ€™ fans, but is incompletely accounted if Bondsâ€™ poor throw up the first base line is left out. Bonds at the plate, arms extended skyward in self-praise and adulation is a different symbol of â€˜90â€™s baseball.
I wonâ€™t present a heavy duty statistical analysis of Bonds and Griffey in their first full decade. You look it up. Bonds won three MVP awards, and should have won a fourth. The 1991 award for Terry Pendleton was a farce then, and now. Bonds was runner-up. Griffey won his own MVP Award in 1997. Griff was an All-Star every year, Bonds an 8-time NL representative to the Summer Classic.
Who was better? A toss-up. I would make the case for Bonds, but when it came time to choosing The All Century Team, Griffey was there, alone. Was Bondsâ€™ nastiness a factor? Absolutely. Was Griffey so wonderful? Maybe. Did personalities decide? No doubt.
Letâ€™s face it, since 2000, Ken Griffey, Jr. has been a mediocre to awful baseball player, for over a decade an overpaid hanger-on. He had a couple of decent years with the Reds, nothing that would put him at the upper end of major league standards in any of those seasons.
Bonds, well, say what you will, but his performance was other-worldly. Four more MVP awards, World Series and playoff redemption, the all-time leader in home runs. Steroids be damned! You can take all the other PED-enhanced performances and they donâ€™t come within a whiff of Bondsâ€™ best. (For all you anti-steroids people, explain why so many users suck. Then tell me how, without reservation, steroids are a boon to a baseball player. Remember, Randy Velarde was still Randy Velarde after he was found to have used steroids.).
And while every issue is fair game to diminish Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr. has skated from skepticism and insinuation. Several years ago, on SABR-L, the daily digest of baseball back and forth, I cited the amazing parallels between Bonds and Roger Clemens â€“ head size, exceptional seasons at advanced age. Boy, was I hooted at. â€œCome on, Clemens has a tremendous work ethic, heâ€™s this, heâ€™s that.â€ All I tried to do was point out the obvious. It was there all along, if you wanted to look.
Griffey has never been accused of taking steroids. Neither was Rafael Palmeiro. Or A-Rod. Does Griffeyâ€™s career follow the PED trajectory of Bonds or Clemens? Clearly not. But it does follow a similar path as Mark McGwireâ€™s, amazing play and a quick and sudden breakdown. Am I accusing him? Not really. Is it possible? Certainly. To ignore the overwhelming use of steroids during Griffeyâ€™s era, and his remarkable collapse, is to pretend that somehow, just somehow, he has been removed from all that surrounded him. Itâ€™s hard to accept at face value.
Whether Griffeyâ€™s current slumber story is true or not is unimportant to me. I find it interesting how quickly people come to his defense. Itâ€™s always been that way, so, if ESPNâ€™s reporting this morning is true, that Jr. is hurt and teary-eyed over the story that he was unavailable to pinch-hit because he was snoozing in his clubhouse chair, does that mean it didnâ€™t happen? Remember how much crap Barry Bonds took about his recliner in the Giantsâ€™ clubhouse? Where were his defenders? A shot at Bonds was as obligatory as praise for Griffey.
The whole point is that it doesnâ€™t really matter whether Ken Griffey, Jr. is a good guy, or Barry Bonds is an asshole. What should matter is that Ken Griffey, Jr. is perceived as a lock for the Hall of Fame after a decade of weak play and a slow grinding accumulation of career numbers and Barry Bonds isnâ€™t.
Give it some honest thought. Itâ€™s all there, if you want to look.