NEW YORK — He's working on his 20th season now in the big leagues, and he's not what he was. But Ken Griffey Jr. still has that sweeping home-run swing and he still has a terrific hold on people's imagination. He stepped up to the plate in the sixth inning Sunday at Yankee Stadium just as the sky was darkening and the wind started whipping. A game-delaying cloudburst was about to cut loose and something striking, something right out of the movies, happened in the rapidly dimming light.
For the first time all afternoon, it was possible to see the camera flashes firing — dozens of them — when Griffey stepped to the plate.
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Griffey ended up coaxing a walk that time up. But in his next at-bat in the eighth, he turned on a fat pitch from Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth and lined home run No. 601 of his career sneaking just over the right-field fence, and this time, fans didn't just take photos. Knowing the 38-year-old Griffey might never be back for a regular-season game in Yankee Stadium, they gave him a standing ovation that coaxed a little wave from him once back in the dugout.
Asked later if he thought the fans were saying goodbye to him, Griffey said, ”Nah. No. No.“
But it was a sentimental gesture, all right — the kind Griffey studiously tried to avoid all weekend on his first trip back to play the Yankees since 1999. Back then, he and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez were still teammates in Seattle. And Griffey was at a similar career juncture that A-Rod is at now.
Griffey was supposed to be the player of his generation who would break the all-time home run records, not Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire. When Griffey joined the Reds in 2000 at about the same age that Rodriquez is now, Griffey was the superstar who was supposed to hit so many more home runs he'd not only go flying by Mantle and Mays, Ruth and Aaron, he'd re-set the records so high no one could touch them. Maris' single-season record of 61, Aaron's mark of 754? They all seemed possible. Even 800 career homers didn't seem out of the question for Griffey until injuries hit.
Now all that's considered A-Rod's destiny instead.
”If he stays healthy ... I don't see why not,“ Griffey agreed.
And that's as far as he went.
Griffey could've gone on to stress how injuries turned his own career into a cautionary tale, or how a lot of so-called ”sure things“ can go wrong on the way to Cooperstown.
In five of his first eight seasons with the Reds, Griffey missed 328 games — or an average of 65 a year. He's averaged a home run every 14.9 at bats coming into this year. If you do the math, he really might have passed Aaron before Bonds did.
But Griffey won't go there. He seemed determined this weekend to fight off even the slightest suggestions of sentimentality or what-ifs.
Though he's never been accused of using steroids himself, Griffey won't confess to sharing the pride that Mets' pitcher Pedro Martinez expressed earlier this season about being able to dominate during baseball's steroid era even though he was clean himself. Griffey just laughed Sunday and said, ”Nah. Pitchers have five days to sit around thinking about things like that. I play every day.“
On the day he hit No. 600 he said he didn't even remember running the bases. ”I think I floated around,“ he said.
Simply being able to play at all seems to make Griffey grateful. Sunday, it felt familiar to watch him slap his cap on backward, same as he did when he was the effervescent 19-year-old kid that everyone called Junior, then head out for some pre-game batting practice, ribbing a couple teammates as he went.
When a clubhouse guy complimented Griffey on his remarkably good mood, Griffey smiled and said, ”You know me, man. I'm always happy.“
It's A-Rod's turn now to deal with What Could Be.