In 1999, before the All-Star Game, people voted on the MLB All-Century Team. Four current players, at the time, were included: Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken Jr., Roger Clemens, and Ken Griffey Jr. There was a great deal of talk about how Griffey, just 29 years old and still widely considered one of the game’s elite, would doubtlessly be on the All-Century Team for the next century.
Griffey got traded to the Reds from the Mariners before the 2000 season, and he put up a strong line during his first year in Cincinnati: .271/.387/.556/.942, 133 OPS+. Through 2000, Griffey had accumulated 74.5 career WAR, an astounding amount. But from that point on, he’d be attacked by injuries which would both cut his seasons short and severely diminish his effectiveness when he was actually healthy. Griffey would only put up 3.9 WAR from 2001 through and including 2010. In 1996 through 2000, he’d had 630, 692, 716, 704, and 623 PAs; in 2001 through 2004, he only had 412, 228, 199, and 346 PAs. He rebounded in 2005, but that was his last truly strong season.
Ken Griffey Jr. will and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In 1999, he looked like he was going to be the face of the next decade, but it ended up being a nearly completely lost decade for him. I am quite certain that if he doesn’t get hurt and relatively sucky, we’re talking about him breaking or already having broken the all-time home run record. Baseball’s a game of unpredictable redemption, but it’s also a game of unpredictable and sometimes heartbreaking endings. You’ve always got to be a little bit nervous to be a baseball fan.
Griffey retired yesterday, and though I’ll remember him for a lot of things, including his awesomeness during my childhood, that awful slide into home plate in the 1995 ALDS, and the stupid drama with him supposedly sleeping in the clubhouse, I’ll always think it’s kind of nice that his last major league hit was a walk-off single. 2010 was an awful year for Griffey – in 108 PA, he was worth -0.9 WAR – but it ended like that, with one last whiff of what he was like in his glory days. The worst year of his career, the one that had Mariners fans screaming for his retirement, ended in something good. And that’s really all you can ask for.