Hoping for the return of the spectacular
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

There are two eras in Seattle Mariners history: Before Griffey and After Griffey.

Before Griffey, you didn't expect much and you didn't get much. Before Griffey, you didn't often admit to being a Mariners fan. You sat quietly on the steel bleachers in the Kingdome in your silly royal-blue-and-gold, inverted-trident polyester cap and admired the talented players on the other team. You sometimes stared blankly at the turf, telling yourself that though this wasn't quite baseball the way you imagined it -- the way people write about it in books and stuff -- it was something, and if you didn't concentrate too hard, it could sometimes feel close, like maybe it would do in a pinch.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Back in happier days, Ken Griffey Jr. was the pride of Seattle.

In the BG era, you were fond of Alvin Davis, proud of Phil Bradley and Mark Langston -- solid, professional players, you'd think -- but you tended to keep these things to yourself, because if you brought them up, someone would want to talk about the Joe Simpson-Mario Mendoza years, or about the welcoming, airplane-hanger vibe of the Concrete Confines. They'd want to mock and deride. You didn't want to get into that -- there was nothing but forced chuckles and shame down a road like that -- so you stayed quiet, listened to games on the car radio in your garage, didn't expect much and didn't get much.

After Griffey, it was different. After Griffey arrived, you were stinking with hope. You taped his at-bats and played them back in slow motion. You tried to convince your wife to let you get a personalized license plate saying ILUVJR. You wrote his name and jersey number all over Pee-Chee folders (and you hadn't carried Pee-Chees in years). You took a ball out into the backyard each afternoon, threw it in the air and ran under it, crashing into the fence and bouncing back, with your glove held high above your head, and you smiled, just like he did. You were proud and garrulous, AG, chatting-up folks you didn't know in airports, airports in cities like Boston and New York, cities with real teams and genuine ballparks, cities that only wished they could claim him.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey's pretty swing hasn't connected as much in recent years.

He wasn't solid or professional, he was spectacular. He was arguably the best player in the game. It was more than that: The game, the whole sweet spirit of it, seemed wrapped up in his brilliant, easy style. (Yeah, that's a bit much, but that's the way his game was; it made you want to say too much, made you wish you could find the words -- make up new words if you had to -- to say too much and then some.)

You watched him wiggle the bat behind his head and shift his hips a little. You watched him turn on the ball and bring the wood through the zone, so quick and so smooth it must have been riding on a rail. You watched him move back, time a jump, pluck a ball out of the air as if it were an apple hung high in a tree. You watched these things and felt lucky to be seeing them.

This, you thought, is greatness. And the numbers backed you up. He was popping 40 and 50 dingers a year and coming after Hank.

You basked and reveled. The Mariners were legit. He was a star. You were a fan. His power seemed something you could draw on. His achievements were yours. You kicked the small-town, low-expectations dust off your shoes and walked around in a shining city on a hill; some folks called it Seattle, you called it Griffeytown.

And you felt it would last forever.

Your thoughts on Griffey
Last week, we asked the fans of SportsNation a series of questions about Ken Griffey Jr.: Is Griffey done? You can still vote in the polls or check out the results.

We also wondered if Griffey is still headed for the Hall of Fame.

But it didn't. Those days and that feeling are long gone now. A few sour years worth of gripes and grumblings, a trade to Cincinnati, slumps and injuries, injuries and slumps, SportsCenter clips of strikeouts and grimaces where once there were only moonshots and grins, and the march toward the Hammer's record lost on some back road full of pop-outs and doubleplay balls.

It's still a Hall of Fame career, no doubt (if he never plays another game, his numbers compare favorably to Frank Robinson and the Mick) but the luster, and the giddy feeling you once had in the glow of it, are gone.

You heard last week that the Padres tried to trade Phil Nevin for him. You heard the White Sox scoffed at a deal for Magglio Ordoñez. You heard Tony Kornheiser wondering aloud on the radio the other day, "Has anyone ever fallen so far, so fast?"

All of a sudden, you're thinking about him in the past tense, and the poetry of his swing seems forever lost. It's a strange, vertiginous feeling. The shift from something effortless and great to something labored and common, even when it's played out in small acts over a few years, is steep. There are two pictures of Griffey in your mind now, one laid over the other, with almost no overlap.

An intense kind of empathy comes over you. (Yeah, he's in Cincinnati now, but you're still feeling him, you still feel for him.) I mean you're literally trying to imagine rising fastballs and biting curves coming at you the way they come at him. Hitting ain't easy. Part painter's touch, part axeman's blow; we're talking delicate balances. It would be easy to lose balances like those (you're hurt, you're pressing, you want to show the world you're worth the big contract you signed), easy to have timing and pressure, feel and force, slip out of alignment.

Replica jersey fan
Where have you gone, Ken Griffey Jr.?

The feeling you had for Griffey when he was the Can-Do Kid and you were riding high on the Junior Love Train was simple compared to this -- simple and cheap. This feeling has layers. Disappointment, sure. Frustration, yes. But those feelings are rolled in and around compassion and understanding now, too. You're another kind of fan with this feeling: less dazzled but somehow closer to him, and more genuinely impressed with what he did when he did it so well. And you find yourself wondering what it must be like for him to wonder where it went and how to get it back.

From this place, imagining yourself alongside him, you try to bust out of thinking about the past, and about this ugly present, and set your sights on the future. Griffey's only 33. He ain't dead yet. There's a world and a lifetime of baseball ahead. Look at Bonds at 38. Why not a renaissance for the Kid? It could happen, couldn't it? And wouldn't it be sweeter -- sweeter now for all the struggle that precedes it, sweeter than the smooth genius of the Griffey of old -- if it did?

But Bonds never dipped like this.

So you think of Ali, of the down-but-not-out resiliency that seemed to ooze from his pores. Yeah, you think, Ali's the model -- Ali in Zaire, all crafty and counted-out dangerous. You hit Amazon, send Griffey a copy of "When We Were Kings" on DVD, start dancing around the living room chanting, "Junior, bomaye! Junior, bomaye!"

But hitting a baseball is different than hitting a punching bag, or George Foreman's chin, and you're enough of a student of Bill James to know that 33 isn't exactly the peak age of offensive performance, and declines are usually just what they look like: declines.

So, romance and hope aside, you know there is a chance it won't get better from here, and it might get worse. Maybe greatness is just like that: burning hot, withering fast ... you know, fleeting. (Maybe the reason it's a cliché is because it's true.) Maybe we're drawn to it because we have an unspoken sense of how rare it is. Maybe the pangs you feel watching him swinging and missing these last couple of years, or thinking that he might be done now or soon, are the true measurement of how great he was.

Maybe what it is is that there aren't two eras, but three: Before Griffey, After Griffey and Post-Griffey. And maybe what you feel now is some bittersweet, memory-soaked cocktail of grateful and sad.

Eric Neel reviews is a regular columnist for Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



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