Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Junior's dignified 600th stroll

Posted: Monday June 9, 2008 11:30PM; Updated: Tuesday June 10, 2008 2:00AM

Jack Wilkinson > VIEWPOINT

Like Nos. 200, 300, 400 and 500, Ken Griffey Jr.'s 600th home run came on the road.

In the annals of Junior Achievement, this milestone looms large, even on his considerable, Cooperstown-bound résumé. It's not every night that someone hits home run No. 600, even in these pharmaceutically enhanced times.

It happened for just the sixth time in major league history Monday evening. If only the setting had been more apt. It's OK to hit No. 600 on the road, as long as that road isn't an exit off the Florida Turnpike. But there was Ken Griffey Jr., in the left-hand batter's box at godforsaken Dolphins Stadium, a fine setting for football, an abomination for baseball.

Before a gathering of 16,003 -- a smattering of whom congregated near the right-field foul pole, all seeking a piece of history -- Griffey joined a most exclusive big league club. He became the sixth player to reach the 600-homer plateau. On a 3-1 pitch in the bottom of the first inning, Griffey got the best of Mark Hendrickson. The Marlins' 6-foot-9 left-hander hung the most tantalizing curve this side of Jessica Biel, and Griffey smacked it into the dying sunlight of a South Florida night.

Or as George Grande, the Cincinnati Reds' longtime play-by-play man, put it so nicely: "The 3-1 to Junior ... That's going back! ... Yessirree! That's gonna be ... gone!! One more step up the ladder to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame for Ken Griffey Jr.!

"Celebrate, Griffey family. You deserve it!" Grande continued, as TV zeroed in on Griffey's wife and their two youngest children, sitting in the stands, his wife, Melissa, wiping away a tear. Too bad it didn't occur in Griffey's hometown, Cincinnati, where he grew up the namesake of a Big Red Machine icon, starred himself at Moeller High and returned home in 2000 after spending 11 stellar seasons in Seattle.

Cincinnati Reds Ken Griffey Jr. watches after connecting with his 600th career homerun during first inning action against the Florida Marlins in MLB National League baseball action in Miami, Florida June 9, 2008. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (UNITED STATES)

One, two, three steps out of the box, Junior finally went into his home run trot Monday. He'd just joined five other men in baseball's exclusive 600-homer fraternity. Of course, only three of those five -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays -- are untainted. Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa? Please.

"Griffey's clean. If anybody in baseball is clean, I'm pretty sure he is," said Jeff Herzenach, 39, who grew up a Twins fan in Minnesota and is now a bartender in Atlanta at the Brewhouse Café and an astute observer of the sporting scene. "He's one of the only ones."

On Herzenach's current reading list? Vindicated, by former All-Star-turned-tell-all author Jose Canseco. "I wanted to hate Jose Canseco so bad, that [jerk]. But now, I'm reading it and he didn't even mention Ken Griffey Jr. once." Indeed, few -- if any -- people have used the words "steroids" and "Junior" in the same sentence.

"If he didn't get injured," Herzenach said, "I bet he'd be going for 700. Now that 500's been wrecked [Rafael Palmeiro, come on down!], you're gonna have to hit 600 to get into the Hall of Fame. Bonds is juiced. Sosa?" He smiled. "Babe was a drunk," he said, laughing. Prohibition be damned. "Hank Aaron was clean-cut. And Willie Mays was Willie Mays."

At 7:51 p.m. EDT Monday, less than a half-hour after Griffey went deep and into posterity, this was posted on the Cincinnati Enquirer Web site by Justin M. Gibson of Taylor Mill, Ky.: "I am a Cleveland native and have been a Junior fan since I was 12. I couldn't have been more prouder [sic] of him than if he was my dad! Only three players in history [have] done it clean, with him being the fourth. I wish Cincinnati would have been a more gracious city for him, but the fans here are terrible. Go back to Seattle, Griff, where a true legend like you is appreciated. But I will miss seeing you play!"

If South Florida was no country for old men to make home run history, Griffey's hometown hasn't exactly enveloped him in a warm, welcome-back embrace. Since a second-place finish in 2000, the Reds have had seven straight losing seasons and are well on their way to an eighth. Griffey, who belted 40 homers in his 2000 return, has had just two 30-homer seasons since. He's been chronically injured, hamstrung by hamstring woes in particular. Blessed by good genes and bad legs. "General soreness" is how the Reds' recent pre-game notes describe his physical condition.

Cincinnati Reds' Ken Griffey Jr., left, laughs with Florida Marlins' Andre Dawson, center, and Tony Perez during the Reds warm up before a baseball game against the Marlins Monday, June 9, 2008 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Yet he's rarely alibied, and never honked his own horn. Never had to. When Griffey hit his 600th, his was a dignified, major-league loll around the basepaths. Not too slow, not too fast, not showy in the least, before hugging his oldest son, Trey, in the dugout. It was the antithesis of Bonds' preening, look-at-me sashay after his 756th dinger.

Give Hendrickson credit for pitching to Junior, who was 5-for-8 lifetime off the elongated lefty, with one homer. Since hitting his 599th homer, Griffey was 7-for-17 (.412) with nine walks (think they were pitching around him?) during that seven-game stretch. It's a pity Griffey didn't wait until Tuesday, when the Reds begin a nine-game homestand in the bandbox that is the Great American Ballpark, to hit No. 600. He deserved to do so at home, literally home, even if he and his family now live in gated-community, sequestered splendor in Orlando in the offseason.

He's still a Cincy kid at heart, a Skyline Chili-fed son of a key cog in the Big Red Machine. Yet the Queen City has never really warmed to Junior. Not as you'd expect, or he and the club hoped. The team has a 21st-century stench to it, Griffey hasn't been the Kid who smote 398 homers in 11 seasons in Seattle (209 in his last four seasons alone), and this may well be another endless summer for the last-place Reds.

Come late July, the question may be this: Will Griffey, the sixth man to belt 600 homers, become the first to be traded in the same season? The eight-year extension he signed in 2000 has a club option for 2009. Whatever the Reds decide, Griffey, at 38, still has aspirations to join the 700 club. Who knows how high they'd have been had he not been injured so often this decade? Say, 800? The one 800 club member? Who'll know?

Know this: Junior's achievement was not only extraordinary, but untainted. Welcome him home properly, Cincinnati.

No comments: