PEORIA, Ariz. -- Here on the outskirts of Phoenix is one of the rare treasures of baseball, Ken Griffey Jr., he of the 630 home runs, every last one believed to be legit, and counting. He is fitter than he was last year -- eight or nine pounds to the better, a Mariners person said, and he looks even better than that -- and his knees finally feel fine after two straight years of pain, underperformance and surgery. He is also almost as entertaining in the clubhouse as he is on the field, riffing on anything and everything that comes to mind. (His hot topic on this day, while watching Nomar Garciaparra call an end to his career on MLB Network, was how he won't call a press conference when he retires. "I'll send a fax,'' he said.)
Even at 40, he is still Junior, a kid at heart, enjoying himself playing a kids' game, and being the best baseball ambassador he can be, with his humor and his homers, which by all accounts have come exclusively through incredible genes and natural means. While some may view any declaration skeptically in the steroid era, there is zero evidence on Griffey. And while a few of baseball's bigger home run names finally have been exposed as having failed baseball's first steroid test of 2003, word is that Griffey passed that test -- no surprise to anyone around baseball, or to him. In fact, Griffey backed up the contention he passed with an explanation of his lifetime of non-usage. Though physical appearance and career trajectory can't be offered as airtight proof anymore, it's also fair to say he's experienced a normal regression in power numbers as he's gotten older, and undergone normal body changes.
When asked about passing that seminal 2003 test during an all-encompassing interview, Griffey didn't bat an eye. Nor did he accept congratulations. "There are a lot of people who passed that test. I don't worry about those things,'' he said. It's true a vast majority passed, but megastars Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz have been revealed to be among the 100 or so who failed, and many of Griffey's other slugging rivals have been caught in other ways.
Beyond the doings of his three ultra-athletic kids, Griffey doesn't seem to worry about too much. That includes that steroid-linked stars Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rodriguez stole many of the headlines during Griffey's era. He won't besmirch anyone else ("those are my friends,'' he said) and he doesn't appear to be the least bit upset about being surpassed statistically in some cases. He is a true natural. So the unnatural way never even occurred to him, he said. "No, not even close,'' Griffey said. "I thought I'd be just like my dad. I didn't believe I'd hit 100 home runs, let alone 200, let alone 6.''
Unlike the superstar teammate of his dad's, Pete Rose, Griffey said he doesn't worry or even think about individual numbers and only knows the home run total of 630 because folks keep bringing it up to him. Though there have been ups (mostly in Seattle) and downs (mostly Cincinnati), he fulfilled the promise his ballplaying father predicted for him. While Junior was expecting much less, he said his dad told him a couple years into his career, "You're going to be one of the best players ever.'' And then he hit 45 home runs at age 23. There was no need for an additional unnatural boost -- though, that didn't stop others.
He has a one-word answer when he is asked about his choice never to take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs: "Why?'' he kept saying. Why, indeed. If he's hitting 45 homers as a kid of 23, why even try to enhance his natural ability? But plenty of otherworldly stars did.
Extra help in the form of a pill or needle was never even a consideration for him, he said. It goes back to his DNA, he said. "My family doesn't even drink. You know the booze everyone gets at holiday time? For years that stuff is still in my house,'' he said. "My dad said to go play and have fun, and that's just the way it is.''
And just because it wasn't that way for many of Griffey's greatest ballplaying contemporaries doesn't mean he wants to relive the era with regret. "To me, it's time to turn the page,'' he said. "Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn ... all these are great young kids people can relate to now and put their energy into, and not get worked up about what happened 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Let it go. Guys now are still putting up numbers.
"The pitchers Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels ... these are the guys people should be looking forward to seeing play. What happened then happened then, and nobody can do anything about it. We made adjustments in the steroid policy. These kids need to have the support of everyone. They are going to carry us to a new level.''
Griffey isn't making bold predictions about going back to his old power levels but looks like a new man after batting just .214 with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs last year before undergoing knee surgery in the offseason. And he feels like a new man, too. "Last year I couldn't do anything,'' he said. "It's tough to do things when you can't do things.''
Yet, Griffey was still carried off by teammates after the Mariners' finale in a show of exhilaration following an 85-win season that came out of nowhere. To no one's surprise there is optimism throughout Mariners camp after last year's strides and even bigger winter. Though some inside the game believe they vastly overachieved last year and that they'll be fortunate to repeat the feat in a division that's long on youth and pitching, the Mariners are understandably invigorated by the addition of a second ace pitcher, Cliff Lee, and their main rival Angels' great catalyst, Chone Figgins, who has been hitting in the cages at 7 a.m. as he acclimates himself to a new position in the batting order and on the field. The plan for now has Figgins slated to bat second and play second, as well. Early on, he looks awesome, but the positional switch likely will depend on whether Jose Lopez can get the hang of third.
"The improvements we made definitely help the ballclub out, but we still have to go out and play. Nothing is handed to us,'' Griffey said. Yet another "improvement'' was importing Milton Bradley, the temperamental star who blew up on Chicago's North Side last year. Bradley seems better located in the faraway Great Northwest and occupies a locker a few paces down from Griffey, who seems to be making a special point of involving Bradley in his seemingly nonstop revelry. Still, Bradley is wasting time reliving his unhappy times in Chicago and typically blaming others. But Griffey has another plan for him.
"He just has to have some fun,'' Griffey said. "He's a great kid. I think he's hurt by misconceptions. I've known him for a little while, and he's not what everyone thinks. People should come over to see him instead of forming opinions based on what they hear. This is a guy who works hard and fits in. And when he's on, he's one of the best players in baseball.''
That's debatable, but what's obvious is that it's a real treat for Seattle to have an all-time great, two, counting Ichiro Suzuki, who lockers across the way and is also a major target of Griffey's barbs (on this day he questioned how spindly Ichiro could possibly attract a wife who's such a great cook). "Tremendous,'' is the one-word summation the Mariners' bright, even-keeled young manager Don Wakamatsu uses regarding Griffey's clubhouse reach and influence. "He enjoys himself,'' Wakamatsu said. "But he knows when to get serious, too.''
Griffey attributes their promising 2009 season not to luck, as some suggest, but to having a "bunch of fighters.'' And now there are more tangible things to promote. "We do have a pretty good one-two punch,'' Griffey said of the Ichiro Figgins combo -- though he could have been talking about the pitching one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and Lee.
"We have some guys who are going to swing the bats. One-two-three with Milt hitting third,'' said Griffey who already has the lineup in his head ("Where does he have himself batting?''' wondered one Mariners person. No surprise, it's fourth)."I don't think we're going to have a hole in our lineup. We're going to put the ball in play and do some damage.''
Griffey, who is in many ways is the real home run king of his era, expects to do more damage this year. He looks and feels better, and he anticipates adding to a home-run total of 630 that was achieved through all sorts of injuries, and by all accounts, without any outside help. It's been an amazing career, truly it has.
Or as he put it, "I did all right for myself''
• The Red Sox and Josh Beckett are continuing to make progress in negotiations, though the team is thought to want to replicate the John Lackey $82.5-million, five-year deal while Beckett is looking for a slightly longer term deal. Baseball sources still believe this will get done, though it may take a few more weeks.
• Jose Reyes' assessment that he is "fine'' to a reporter was misconstrued to mean that he is perfectly fine. Yes, he'll be OK, but not before what the Mets' estimate is "two to eight'' weeks rest. This, obviously, is a blow to a team that can't endure many more of them.
• Todd Helton's two-year, $9.9-million extension through 2013 is interesting in that Helton also agreed to defer $13.1 million of his 2011 salary. It's clear he is committed to a career only as a Rockie, and people around the team say there will be a place for him once his playing days are.
• Ron Mahay, a very good lefty reliever still looking for work, is looking for a major-league deal. And you'd think he'd get one.
• The Cooperstown-bound John Smoltz is content to wait for the right deal. He could wind up doing the mid-year deal, a la Pedro 2009.
• Andruw Jones looks like he's in great shape in White Sox camp, which just happens to be a facility shared with the Dodgers. Wonder what the Dodgers think when they catch a glimpse of Jones' new and improved physique.
• The Indians' top catching prospect, Carlos Santana, is said by scouts to be sure to be an excellent hitter, and he also has a cannon for an arm. But there are still some questions about his defense. The reason the Dodgers reluctantly let him go is that they weren't entirely certain of his catching ability, and also because they had Russell Martin, an All-Star catcher at the time. Martin's star certainly has fallen since, though.
• Even before Don Mattingly said it aloud, it was well known that the Dodgers agreed to make him the successor to Joe Torre when he was hired. It's an unusual set-up but it makes sense. If Torre leaves after 2011 (he's expected to sign a one-year extension through '11, though I'm not entirely convinced he'll be done then), Mattingly will be a great choice.
• Current odds to win the World Series at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas. The favorite: Yankees 7-2; the long shots: Pirates, Nationals 150-1. My best bets: Angels 14-1, Rockies 20-1, Mariners 18-1, Rays 18-1, Rangers 25-1. My worst bets: Dodgers 10-1, Cubs 12-1, Royals 100-1.
• Can Joba Chamberlain please report to the bullpen?
• May Three Dog rest in peace. Willie Davis, aka Three Dog, who died this week at 69, was a great Dodger and the all-time L.A. Dodger hits leader, who didn't appear to be at peace in his later years.