The senior days for Ken Griffey Jr.

Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote about the twilight of Willie Mays’ career in a 1973 column, when the future Hall of Famer was hitting .211 for the New York Mets. Murray wrote:

We all thought Willie Mays would just get younger. He was one of those touched individuals for whom time seemed to run backward. He was one of those guys in this life you smiled just thinking about him. You might have hated New York, the Giants, the rest of the team, the manager, or the owner. But you couldn’t hate Willie Mays. It was like hating a kid in a baby carriage, or Skippy, or Charlie Chaplin in his tramp costume on the lam from the cops. Willie Mays was everybody’s pal when he was in uniform and you were in the seats with a beer and a hot dog. Willie was Mr. Feelgood. Other people got old. Willie stayed 20.

By 1973, however, Mays was 42 and long-past effective. In fact, the image of him falling down in the outfield in his baggy Mets uniform, as if kidnapped from an Old-Timers game has become symbolic of the once-great athlete whose time has passed.

We see it often. Michael Jordan appeared mortal his final season, coming off the bench in a Washington Wizards uniform that never looked quite right (granted, washed up for Jordan meant averaging 20 points a game instead of 30.)  More recently, Barry Bonds found himself mercifully out of work at 43, a felony indictment keeping him from hitting below .270 for some unfortunate club. Meanwhile, Brett Favre seems to be defying the odds, mocking them almost, as he compiles big numbers for the Minnesota Vikings this fall at 40, though he could hit the geriatric stage within a year or two if he keeps playing.

The latest legend ready for pasture may be Ken Griffey Jr. The Kid turns 40 this Saturday and if he has sense, he’ll make this next season his last.

Gone are the days where Griffey averaged north of 40 home runs and played crack defense in center field for the Seattle Mariners. Signed in a sentimental move to return to the Seattle last season, Griffey hit just .214, the worst designated hitter in baseball, by far and a weak point in a Mariners lineup that must advertise for .228 hitters (I’d like to see that Craig’s List post.) I half-expected Griffey to quit quietly after this season, but he signed another one-year deal recently. He probably will not be an everyday player next year, though he does win points with the fans and among his teammates in the locker room. He’d be wise to consider coaching.

I remember a different Griffey, one I cheered for. I have family in Seattle, and a few times during my childhood, I visited the Kingdome, a veritable playground for a 20-something Griffey.  The last time I saw Griffey play, in June of 1998, he cranked multiple doubles to deep right center. He left Seattle for the Cincinnati Reds after the following season, and the rest of his career has been an injury-riddled mess. That being said, he’s still among the best of his generation.

Looking at pictures of Griffey this past season, I saw a weary, old man, not the ebullient, 25-year-old photographed under a dog pile of teammates, celebrating Seattle’s win over the New York Yankees in the 1995 divisional playoffs.

Then again, few people can stay 20.

Brett Favre: A few times this has been done in the baseball world

I’ve been watching with mild disgust these past few weeks as the latest iteration of the Brett Favre saga has unfolded.  The future Hall of Fame quarterback recently came out of retirement, for the second time in as many seasons to play for the Minnesota Vikings (he previously did this with the New York Jets.)  Twice now, Favre has finished a season, retired, said he’s 99% retired and then come back on the eve of the next season.  He’ll probably qualify for Medicare before he finally retires for good.

Favre is certainly not the first athlete to do this.  In baseball, the practice of retiring and then coming back is practically an art form.   Here are a few ballplayers who’ve had a hard time walking away:

Roger Clemens: The undisputed king of the un-retirement game.  Football has Favre.  Basketball has Michael Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Magic Johnson.  In baseball, there is Clemens.  At last count, he has retired three times, and only reason the 354-game-winner has stayed put this time is because of the ongoing rumors about his steroid use.  Somewhere, he and Barry Bonds are probably holed up in a bunker together, waiting for this thing to blow over.

Rickey Henderson: Henderson made more stops than the circus in his Hall of Fame career.  At the end, at age 44, he played independent league ball with the Newark Bears in hopes of making it back to the big leagues.  It worked.  He’d probably still be playing today if someone would give him a job.

Arky Vaughan: A lesser known name than Clemens or Henderson, Vaughan was a star in his own right during his prime in the 1930s and ’40s.  An All-Star shortstop, Vaughan walked away from baseball at 31, in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, due to a dispute with his manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher.  Vaughan spent time on his ranch in California and did not play ball for a total of three years, before returning for the 1947 season.  He played two final seasons as a reserve and then retired for good.

Jim Palmer: The Baltimore Orioles pitching great retired following the 1984 season and then attempted a comeback in the spring of 1990.  He didn’t make it out of spring training.

Jim Bouton: It was easy for Bouton to retire from baseball just past his 30th birthday, following the success of his bestselling 1970 book, Ball Four. However, he got the itch to play again a few years later and spent a couple seasons in the minors before returning with the Atlanta Braves in the fall of 1978.  He wrote about the experience in a postscript to Ball Four.

Bo Jackson: Give Bo credit for trying, though this was a sad sight to see.  A two-sport star with the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders, Jackson was never the same after blowing out his hip in a Raiders playoff game.  He played baseball again, but not as the star he was before.