Don't forget Griffey ... the best of his generation   

Updated: February 23, 2007, 2:33 PM ET

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Though the ritual is now as much a part of spring training as freshly cut grass and Bengay in the rookie's jock, I continue to find it equal parts perplexing and annoying.

Barry Bonds

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Think Barry's teammates really enjoy hanging out with him?

Barry Bonds reports to Scottsdale with the Giants, throws darts at the media, treats the team's equipment managers and publicists like dirt -- then goes all cute and cuddly on us.

Remember last year, when Bonds dressed up as Paula Abdul (only with larger breasts -- which is alarming, considering that his are real)? Or how about a few years earlier, when he jumped through hoops to declare his love for Jeff Kent, aka The Man Bonds Wants To Swallow a Grenade.

This year, the scene involved new San Francisco ace Barry Zito, who on Wednesday posed for pictures alongside Bonds as both men laughed and smiled and wore T-shirts reading "DON'T ASK ME … ASK BARRY!"

Oh, boy.

It is, of course, a ploy; an attempt by His Big Headedness to temporarily con us into thinking that, gosh darnit, Barry Bonds really is one heckuva guy. And remarkably, it works. Teammates laugh at his jokes, fans clamor for autographs and ooh and aah at his gothic BP home runs, reporters -- desperate for a story after one too many "Pedro Feliz looks to be in great shape" features -- feed us the inevitable drivel (and trust me, you will see this):

By Joe Schmoe
Baseball Suckup

After years of alienation, Barry Bonds seems to be having more fun than ever. Now nearing the end of his career, he appreciates the game like never before, and has attacked spring training with a renewed vigor.

"You can just see the difference," says Biff Sniff, a Giants teammate. "Barry is relaxed and at ease. He's just one of the guys."

Approximately 2,215 miles away, in Sarasota, Fla., there is a man who deserves better. Who deserves your attention and affection.

Once, when Reds slugger Ken Griffey Jr. was a 20-something wunderkind patrolling center field for the Seattle Mariners, reporters and fans flocked from across the map to watch him in spring training. Griffey was "The Kid" -- a seemingly happy-go-lucky, backward-hat-wearing puppy dog who could hit, field and run with the gusto of a Willie Mays and the pop of a Mickey Mantle. He was the future of the game, and along with Bonds, one of its two best players.

He also happened to be a major pain in the ass.

Back then, Griffey had an attitude. He would offer snide answers to relatively intelligent questions. He would complain about a lack of respect, and -- if the mood struck -- insult anyone within striking distance. People would tiptoe past his locker, eager to avoid any sort of exchange. It was what one would expect from a pampered brat at the height of his profession, and it grated the masses.

In other words, he was Barry Bonds.

Ken Griffey Jr.

AP Photo/Al Behrman

Junior, pitching to his son Tevin, looks pretty comfortable this spring.

The thing is, Griffey changed. As Bonds allegedly loaded up on the drugs and piled up the statistics, Griffey began to decline. One injury followed another -- a sprain here, a break there -- and his once-daunting speed vanished. What followed was a drop-off in Griffey's outfield defense; it was still very good, just no longer Gary-Pettis-meets-God. The bat seemed to slow down a bit, too. What can you say? Getting old bites.

With his decline, however, came something beautiful. Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to truly start appreciating the game. He took on a leadership role in the Cincinnati clubhouse, mentoring Adam Dunn as if he were a younger brother. He cracked jokes left and right; bounded out of the dugout with renewed vigor; exchanged smiles with Sean Casey. It was almost as if, with mortality, Griffey discovered fun. For the first time, he was seeing baseball through the eyes of the Scott Fletchers and Kiko Garcias and Shawn Abners and Dan Pasquas of the world; the mediocre denizens who make up 90 percent of the big leagues and struggle each day to survive. Griffey no longer took his abilities for granted. Instead, he cherished what he once was and appreciated what he had left.

Following the 1998 season, during which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa launched the Home Run Chase that Really Wasn't, Griffey and Bonds -- near-lifelong acquaintances -- met up in Florida. Bonds confided in Griffey that he was about to start taking some "hard-core stuff" to keep up with the big boys.

Griffey nodded, but knew all along it wasn't for him.

At the time, the decision was mostly about the reality at hand: Griffey already ranked near the top of the profession. Why be greedy?

Yet with what we know now, that day should go down as a landmark. It was the day when Barry Bonds decided to cheat and break all the records, and Ken Griffey Jr. decided to be honest and fade. It was the day when Barry Bonds decided he was bigger than the game, and Ken Griffey Jr. decided the game was bigger than him. It was the day Barry Bonds committed himself to greed. It was the day Ken Griffey Jr. committed himself to happiness.

That's the rub -- isn't it? Most anyone who knows Bonds will tell you his life is one miserable sinkhole. He is an awkward, off-putting man with the social skills of a knee brace. His marriage is, at best, scarred by years of infidelity. His relationship with the two children from his first marriage is strained. His closest friends are all on his payroll, and his post-baseball future looks to be an endless line of autograph shows.

Yes, he will pass Hank Aaron's all-time home run record at some point this season. But when he does, what will the mirror tell him? That he is a cheater. A liar. A man who did wrong in breaking the mark of the classiest of legends.

As for the soon-to-be 38-year-old Griffey, the injury bugs continue to bite. This past December he broke his hand wrestling with his three children. And, with the certainty of a Hall & Oates reunion tour, other breakdowns await.

With 569 career home runs, Griffey sits comfortably in 10th place, a mere 26 away from leapfrogging Sosa into fifth. But whether he does so hardly matters. Griffey is a baseball legend -- perhaps not the best player of his generation, but undeniably the best clean one. He can sleep at night and never worry about federal agents or a grand jury or a tarnished legacy.

Of course, don't ask me.

Ask Barry.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero."


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