Back in May 1990, Sports Illustrated put Ken Griffey Jr. on its cover for the first time. I remember it well because I was a reporter at SI at the time, and I was responsible for fact-checking the story.
This spring, in the middle of working on my own cover story on Junior, I went digging in my basement for that old issue of SI. When I found it, a couple of things struck me. For one, the 20-year-old Griffey's body looked a lot like the 32-year old Griffey's body. That is, heavy and powerful in the legs, lean and sinewy from the waist up.
The next thing that hit me was the cover-line on the magazine: "The Natural."
Of course, those words were chosen because of the novel (and the Robert Redford movie) of the same title. But, some 12 years later, "The Natural" has taken on a different meaning in baseball. A meaning that relates to the first thing I mentioned, how little Griffey's body has changed over the years.
For some reason, I expected Griffey to look huge when I set off for Sarasota in late February. I'd heard he was "working out hard" in the off-season. And, over the last few seasons, we've seen what happens when players "work out hard." We've seen players gain 20-40 pounds while lowering their body fat significantly. We've seen guys who were lithe and lean, even into their 30s, become bulky. Guys who didn't have half Griffey's power become incredible sluggers. And, to go along with what we've seen, we've heard the whispers that it's not "natural" for guys to get so big and strong so fast.
"Vitamin S has changed the game," one GM said to me this spring. The S stands for "Steroids." And while both the Major League Baseball Players Assocation and Major League Baseball itself would like you to ignore the issue -- because home runs are exciting, I suppose -- steroids were the single most talked-about topic in spring training. And because there is no drug-testing at the major league level (except for players in the drug after-care program who are tested for street drugs, but not for steroids), the reality is, steroids have become an accepted part of the game.
I wrote this in The Magazine's baseball preview two years ago: If you are skeptical about the power that's on display in baseball these days -- if you think it's steroid-induced -- you have every right to be. And until there is some form of testing, you have every right to remain skeptical.
So I asked Griffey what was up? Had he been working out hard, or not? "Yeah, I hit in my cage almost every day," he said. "I've got an Iron Mike pitching machine with an automatic ball-feeder. I never have to pick up a ball, so I hit for hours at a time."
But what about the weight room? To my eye, it looked like Junior had lost a little weight since I saw him last summer. "The only lifting I did this winter, and the only lifting I ever do, is for my legs," Griffey said. "I don't do any upper body stuff. I believe hitting home runs is more about technique, about leverage. I hit golf balls with Tiger Woods all the time. It's the same thing. He hits it far because of his leverage. The arc of his swing. He gets that arc because he's flexible. I don't want my upper body to be tight."
But, I ask, isn't it tempting, seeing guys getting so big, doing so much damage to the baseball (not to mention themselves)? I mean, scary as it is to say, because there are health risks involved in steroid use, to-use-or-not-to-use is a legitimate question that now faces every major league player. "Not for me," Junior said. "I'm scared to get a shot from the doctor. I'm not doing it to myself."
Of course, every behemoth-like player in the major leagues could tell you the same thing. So long as no one's getting tested for the stuff.
But, with Griffey, you believe him. No, maybe he won't chase the home run record -- not the single-season record, anyway. But when you look at that picture, taken 12 years ago (try that with some of your other stars), you believe.
After all these years, you believe Ken Griffey Jr. is still "The Natural."
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