Different player/Different era: Ken Griffey Jr.

What he did: Griffey retired last week as one of the greatest ballplayers of his generation, so I won’t regurgitate all the statistics and stories of his greatness that have since shot around the Internet besides to say his 630 home runs, astonishing first half of his career and spotless reputation throughout make him a definite Hall of Famer. But that’s not why I’m writing these words.

This post was inspired by a Joe Posnanski article in the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated that included a quote from baseball legend Buck O’Neil about Griffey, “He could play in any era.” It seemed like an interesting idea worth exploring more and the article subhead teased it. But the piece was mostly about Griffey’s greatness early in his career and how much more he might have achieved in his own era had injuries not taken their toll over the past decade. It’s a story many have written in the past several years. Posnanski told his story gracefully, as he often does, but I think he missed an opportunity.

Perhaps Posnanski was apprehensive about painting a broader picture of how Griffey might have fared in a particular different era, which isn’t always easy to do. I’ve heard a retired baseball scout I know named Ronnie King say more than once that the game should be judged in 10 year intervals since it changes so much. Still, this new Thursday segment is built around the idea that such comparisons can be made. I’m going to delve deeper into what O’Neil said about Griffey.

Era he might have thrived in: For our purposes, let’s forget the color barrier that barred blacks from playing prior to 1947 and look at how ridiculously well a young Griffey might have done in the 1930s.

Why: This was the Golden Age for hitters, and if Griffey played then, he might have hit .400 or won a Triple Crown or both. The 1930 Philadelphia Phillies for instance hit .315 as a team even with a center fielder named Denny Sothern hitting .280. If Griffey replaces Sothern he joins an outfield of Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul who hit .386 and .383 that year, respectively. Imagine that 3-4-5 in the batting order.

Griffey also gets to play his home games at the Baker Bowl, one of the few stadiums in baseball history that was more of a hitter’s park than where he spent his best years, the Kingdome. As a left-handed pull hitter, Griffey would destroy the 280.5-foot Baker Bowl right field short porch, even with its 60-foot fence. Either Griffey gets adept at hooking flies over it or he sets the record for doubles. No matter what, the man who hit .327 in 1991 soars to greater heights than ever before.

I invite anyone to take a stab at what Griffey’s numbers might have been in 1930 (I’m guessing 55 home runs, 180 runs batted in and a .395 batting average.) Better, I encourage anyone to offer their perfect era for Griffey.

Different player/Different era is a Thursday feature here that examines how a baseball player might have fared in an era besides his own.

The Kid leaves the picture

All the talk yesterday regarding a blown call costing a pitcher a perfect game may have taken some attention away from what would have otherwise been the story of the day: the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr.

Granted, it wasn’t as surprising a story, since the once seemingly-eternally young Griffey looked more fit for a senior softball league by the end, hitting below .200 for the Mariners and purportedly falling asleep in the clubhouse, missing pinch hitting duties. It wasn’t fun to see Griffey at the end, a beloved player for his youthful energy, supreme talent in the first half of his career and his (we all hope it’s true) steadfast refusal to use performance enhancing drugs. And he was a tragic figure for having more injury-marred seasons than healthy ones in the last decade.

Griffey played in his final game on May 31, one day after the 75-year anniversary of the last time Babe Ruth shuffled out in a Boston Braves uniform that never looked right. Both Griffey and Ruth left the game at 40, shells of the immortals they once were, and, as I wrote in November, their ends bring to mind other greats like Rickey Henderson and Willie Mays who looked like old men by the end of their careers.

Really, short of Ted Williams, who hit .316 his final year and homered in his last at-bat, star players rarely seem to bow out near the top of their games. They generally stay until teams will no longer play them, or — in recent years — if they have some kind of steroid-related disgrace, as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jose Canseco could attest.

I think I understand why players don’t want to leave. I know I do what I love in life because something feels missing from it when I don’t. In my case, I’m lucky because one of the things I love most, writing, can be a lifelong pursuit. Baseball players get a limited number of years to pursue their passions, and while the sport offers more years of competition than many others, it probably still feels all too short. So I’m sure there must be a temptation for a player to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment out of baseball while there’s still time, to milk every last cheer, to earn every last contract dollar.

Griffey at least had the good sense to make his retirement effective immediately, instead of opting for a tear-filled farewell tour. It seems he’d make a great hitting coach somewhere should a team give him a shot. If Mark McGwire can get this opportunity, as I wrote about in October, it seems only fair to consider Griffey as well.

With everything being said, Griffey finished with 630 home runs, likely rates among the finest ballplayers of his generation and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I have family in Seattle and am happy to say that childhood trips there included a few visits to the Kingdome where I saw Griffey in his prime, when he had one of the most graceful swings I’ve seen. That’s the image I’ll keep of him.