PEORIA, Ariz. -- Here on the outskirts of Phoenix is one of the rare treasures of baseball,
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
Beyond the doings of his three ultra-athletic kids, Griffey doesn't seem to worry about too much. That includes that steroid-linked stars
Unlike the superstar teammate of his dad's,
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. "
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,
"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
"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
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
"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
• The Cooperstown-bound
• The Indians' top catching prospect,
• Even before
• 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.
• May Three Dog rest in peace.