Baseball stories take their time, decades if need be. They fly across the country and back, exposing the true loyalties, vulnerabilities and virtues of real people. Baseball was reality television before Survivor, before Wild Kingdom, before television. Baseball is literature without the authors but not without the critics.
The story being told by baseball to Cincinnati today involves a protagonist for whom the nature of heroism has dramatically shifted in the last six years. Or so it appears. When the Reds brought Junior Griffey back to Cincinnati in 2000, he was going to be the hero to break all the home run records. Today, though, he's a hero, in large part because he refused. Or has he?
At age 30 in 2000, Griffey influenced his own trade to his hometown club, making it happen with a contract below his market value -- nine years at $116.5 million. He'd already hit 398 career homers, averaging 52 homers in the previous four years, and his challenge to Henry Aaron's career home run mark of 755 appeared the most serious of any active player. At 40 homers per year, he would have crossed the record at the end of 2008, his contract's final year. And he might have even helped the Reds win.
Now, almost two-thirds through the contract, we're starting to give up on this story. Griffey is 35, injuries took away his early thirties, he's 225 homers short of Aaron, Barry Bonds is almost there and it doesn't look like the Reds will be ready to win before The Kid's deal expires
The Griffey story in Cincinnati has been a heart breaker. It began with everyone expecting way too much and being way too crabby, so Griffey's 40-homer output in 2000 was largely seen as a letdown. Then, injuries basically took from him two seasons of the last four and, even when he played, he didn't homer with the peak efficiency of his late twenties.
This story now has put everyone through way too much and it's been way too sad too often and it appeared for the longest time that it could never end happily.
But here's a happy ending: Griffey continues rebuilding his career, the way he has gone about it in 2005, with 29 homers, 85 RBI and a .292 batting average through Aug. 21. He's back to being a force. He's six weeks from showing he can make it through a season without injury. This man is one of the greatest baseball players ever.
And he keeps hacking away at it, 40 homers per year through the end of his deal. And he does it here. At the end of his contract, he's 38 years old with about 660 career homers. And the Reds sign him again for three years, four years, whatever it takes to put him past Aaron.
And the debate begins. Who's the true home run king? Is it our guy, the clean one, Junior Griffey, the fellow who mostly kept his mouth shut except to a few confidants as injuries took some of his best years while steroids took over the game? Or is it Bonds, the fellow who grew to twice his size at age 35, who's been all but caught with steroids and whose passage of Aaron will be met with contempt?
Why give up on Junior now? He won't catch Aaron as easily as we once thought, but he still can do it. He lost a lot of time in the last few years, but he put himself so far ahead of the game in his twenties that we might say the last few years have made it interesting.
Aaron played 23 years remarkably free of injury, retiring at age 42 after 3,298 games. We once thought Griffey was going to surpass the home run king in 20 years, at age 38, having played fewer than 2,900 games. Maybe we were a little presumptuous. Maybe the baseball gods didn't like that, so they slowed our guy down a bit.
Let's keep Junior right here until he's 42. And let's pull hard for him, because the game really needs this man right now.
Along with the loud suspicions about Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, who all surpassed Griffey in a manner that isn't to be trusted, Rafael Palmeiro has been exposed as a steroid user and rumors that Roger Clemens is next are buzzing hard enough to peel the paint off the walls.
And if it turns out that Clemens is doing his great work at age 43 with help from steroids, even Boston Red Sox fans who hate him will worry for this game. And baseball will be saved only by the heroism of a player who is beyond suspicion.
As poorly as this season has developed for the Reds, Griffey's resurgence means so much more than one year for one ball club. In the years to come, granted good health, he'll be about the game itself.
Let's raise our glasses for Junior Griffey. Let's stop talking about trading him, and let's start talking about putting our guy over the top. Let's hope this player who brought such fresh joy to the game as The Kid can stay upright against the beatings of recent years and restore the game's credibility as an elder statesman and a true home run champion. And let's make it happen with the Reds.
Maybe that wouldn't be the best baseball decision. Maybe the Reds could spend his salary on a couple guys and squeeze out a little extra production for the money. But it's doubtful. About half of Griffey's $12.5 million annually is deferred, so keeping him probably is the best bang for the buck if he maintains this year's levels.
And he might even lead the Reds to victory some time. Maybe the Reds will give us one of those seasons. As has often been noted for 100 years or more, baseball is weird. And the story is long. A long way from over.