06/20/2004 3:50 PM ET
Junior back on Hall of Fame track
Griffey hits milestone on bumpy road to Cooperstown
The Hall of Fame status of Ken Griffey Jr. has gone from definite to "whatever happened to him," back to probable, all within the span of about four years.
|Ken Griffey Jr. has 500 homers, but it isn't the only thing he has going for him when talking about his Hall of Fame worthiness. (Tom Uhlman/AP)
But at least Junior, back in something resembling good health, and now with his 500th home run, seems to be once again on the road to Cooperstown.
It ought to be noted that what Griffey has going for him is not simply the 500 home runs, but the overall impact of his work.
Hitting 500 home runs was once an automatic door-opener for the Hall. Based on a highly unscientific survey of a devoted group of voters, it won't be that in the future, what with the inflation of power numbers. The voters will not, in the future, look at 500 home runs as a lock candidacy. Fred McGriff, should his comeback take him that far, would be an interesting case study. He could hit 500 home runs and not be regarded by the Hall of Fame electorate as an automatic in.
Griffey is a different case, a special case. No, let's make that a unique case. You can count seven out of eight seasons, starting in 1993, in which he was nothing less than a dominant player. If there was an argument regarding Griffey it was hardly a damaging debate. It was whether he or Barry Bonds was the best all-around player in baseball.
He was the package, in all phases of the game. In the late 1990s, if you wanted to project somebody who could break Henry Aaron's career home run record, Griffey was your man, by the numbers, intuitively, any way you liked.
But as Bonds rose to home run immortality and as Alex Rodriguez rose to prominence and staked his claim to the title of best all-around player, Junior mostly went to the disabled list.
Griffey played 111 games in 2001; then 70 games in 2002; then 53 games in 2003. It is a tribute to what he accomplished relatively early in his professional life, that we can even have a discussion about his Hall of Fame prospects, given the fact that three years in what could have been the prime of his career, were chewed up by injuries. The diminishing number of games he played in each successive season seemed to indicate that this once-brilliant career was coming slowly, but surely, to a painful conclusion.
But he has bounced back, if not to his previous form, at least to a form that makes him once again a formidable presence. What does he have to do next, to ensure a trip to Cooperstown? He probably has to merely keep playing and keep playing reasonably well, so that his career path does not seem to be a sort of unhappy before-and-after story. The voters don't have much experience with casting their ballots for somebody who didn't play much after age 30, no matter how good that candidate was before age 30.
Griffey has already met one test for the Hall. He has been a dominant player during a definable period of time. His dominant period, due to the injuries, wasn't as long as some others. But it was a rare and special thing while it lasted. (For the ultimate in this sort of successful Hall of Fame candidacy, see the career of Sandy Koufax. But his sort of dominance has not been seen since.)
What is needed here is probably not some sort of grand finale, although that would be terrific for Junior, not to mention the Cincinnati Reds. What is needed is simply good health and reasonable production, for enough years to change the retrospective view of Griffey's career to something other than, man, he was great, but then he couldn't play anymore.
It is good to see him back in action. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, people tend to forget how great he was, not all that long ago. There is still apparently something left for him in the game. Good for him and good for the game. And whatever else you want to say about Ken Griffey Jr., he never changed body types in mid-career.
Michael Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.