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Weekly Pepper - Week 11

by Gregory Pratt, BaseballEvolution.com
June 16, 2008

Other Weekly Peppers:

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Gregory Pratt had a good week last week, spending four of seven nights out with close friends and the others catching up at his place. It was a pleasant seven days.

Fighting Words -- Congratulations are in order for Ken Griffey Jr. after he has joined the 600 Homerun Club, and it is my pleasure to give Griffey recognition in this space: Congratulations! But some of the prose coming out of the nation's sportswriters this week is ridiculous. In an article entitled "Would Griffey consider being dealt to surprising Rays?" Jon Heyman gushes, "He's such a natural and still so good you almost wonder if he can homer on call." Except Griffey is most definitely not "still so good you almost wonder if he can homer on call" and any assertion to that effect is absurd. Look, I love Griffey too, but it's important to understand that he is not his 1989 Upper Deck card and he is not his 1993 stat-line and he is not his 1997 MVP Award and he is not Jamie Moyer's stirrups, either. He is a guy who runs as if he's wearing cement shoes, whose bat might as well weigh a hundred ounces for his inability to catch up to major league fastballs, and whose body is the biggest injury guarantee in baseball now that Mark Prior is out again. If the Rays trade for Griffey to mentor the younger players, that's fine -- that's their prerogative -- and it isn't an awful idea, but they had better not give up any good prospects for him because he isn't worth a good prospect. In fact, I think Griffey ought to give serious consideration to retirement after this season, and only return if he can be sure that next year will be more like 2007 than 2008. That is up to him, however.

I was thinking about Heyman's words as I worked on this column, and I've been trying to explain them to myself because they caught me totally off guard. I mean, Griffey certainly deserves all the respect in the world for what he has been able to do with his career, for how he's done it, but some of these guys in the press (most notably Heyman) are going nuts. I think sportswriters are trying to make up for their refusal to call a steroid a steroid in the 1990s, early 2000s and even today by notching up their rhetoric for Griffey's milestone, and that is why Heyman and those like him are fawning over Griffey at this moment. After reading articles entitled "An untainted milestone" and others with praise of him as "a natural," I don't know what other conclusion there is for me to make. I just don't believe that Jon Heyman honestly watches Griffey bat right now and thinks to himself, "Gosh, I'll bet he can homer on command if he really wants to," because if he does, he should probably lose his job for not being able to recognize quality bat speed, or lack thereof. Now don't misunderstand me, dear reader: I am not upset with Griffey for the fact that he is nearing the end of his career -- in fact, I'm devoting my History of the Week to the man. I'm not criticizing Griffey for the fact that sportswriters are all over him this week. What I am criticizing is the media for making him out to be something that he isn't all because they want to atone for their past sins of omission. We can respect and honor Griffey without lying about his abilities at this stage of his career. Sort of how we can respect any given President of the United States as a man who has served as President of the United States, but not confuse them for George Washington when they're clearly more like Jimmy Carter or Warren Harding.

I Guess I'm Old-Fashioned -- Alright, so I came at you from an arm-angle you haven't seen before in that last section with my reference to "Jamie Moyer's stirrups." I was just thinking: Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone wore stirrups like Jamie Moyer and, sometimes, Reed Johnson? One of the more amusing things I've seen this season came in Cleveland when Paul Byrd was pitching to Orlando Cabrera and went for his double-windup, only to have Cabrera contemptuously call time on him. When Cabrera went back into the box, Byrd did the double-windup again to wild applause. I was certainly pleased by the display.

Intersections -- Since I mentioned Joe Torre in my article about managers, let me ask this: am I the only one who really enjoys his State Farm commercial? It's not as good as "Chicks Dig the Longball" but it's pretty good.

Courage -- In John Feinstein's Living on the Black, which I have reviewed, there are quotes from Bobby Cox about how selfless and competitive "The Big Three" were in the 1990s. He talks about how Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz would pitch with their other arms if it meant giving their team a chance to win. John Smoltz took this almost literally and threw for Atlanta until he literally couldn't lift his arm above his head, and he had season, maybe career-ending surgery this week. I suspect that his career is over, but even if it isn't, he deserves all the credit in the world for literally giving every bit of himself that he could possibly give to the game of baseball. My admiration of the man has risen greatly over the last year, and it's got me thinking about other "brave" pitchers. At the most recent Sox game I attended, I picked up an 8x10 of Freddy Garcia because it was in my price range and because he is one of my favorite pitchers of all-time. I remember being hard on him through the 2006 season, wondering what happened to his fastball.  Once everyone insisted that he was not hiding an injury, I criticized him for his laziness, his pot-smoking, his weight, and questioned whether or not he was off the juice. Then that September, he put up a brave and admirable performance as the rest of the White Sox tanked down the stretch, single-handedly keeping their playoff hopes alive.  A a few months later, it was revealed that he was pitching on guts alone and had serious problems with his labrum. I've never been sorrier to have questioned someone's desire*, and I'll never forget Garcia for what he gave to the White Sox: the clinching game of the World Series and many other crucial wins. I suspect that San Francisco Giant fans have similar feelings toward Robb Nenn, and Cub fans ought to appreciate Kerry Wood for similar reasons.

Through the Vineyard -- I've been teased in the forums of Baseball Evolution for saying that I used to "practice" getting hit by pitches when I was in high school, and I've gotten similar grief elsewhere. I just figure that there's no reason not to take one in the ribs or thighs if it's coming your way; so long as the ball is not headed for your elbow or your head or your knee, there's no reason not to take it. I was happy to see Fernando Vina explaining that he used to practice getting hit by pitches, too, and made a successful career out of it. It worked pretty well for Craig Biggio as well. To me, this is made funnier by the fact that I was the kind of pitcher who had no qualms about brushing someone off the plate.

Plague of Locusts -- Chipper Jones was struck in the face by a ball that came off his own bat during batting practice on Friday, and his batting average is "down" to a "paltry" .402. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution joked this week, with Jair Jurrjens twisting his ankle at Wrigley Field and Tom Glavine going onto the disabled list until at least July and the aforementioned Jones/Smoltz injuries, that the Braves will soon face a plague of locusts. How much more bad fortune can a team endure?

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright --I haven't mentioned it here before, but I had been concerned for Justin Verlander this season, as he had been awful for several starts. He's been really good in the last few weeks, and I am happy for him. I hate to see ace pitchers have off-years, and so it's good to see him recover. Now I'm just waiting for Roy Oswalt to get it together on a consistent basis.

What Do You Mean William Blake? -- Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Bull Durham, and ESPN had a good collection of articles and interviews about it here. It is my favorite baseball movie, and I think it always will be.

History of the Week -- I'm not sure any phrase was uttered more often this week in baseball than "What if?" As in: "What if Ken Griffey Jr. hadn't lost so much of his career and ability to injury? What if he were the homerun king, and not Barry Bonds? What would baseball look like then? What sort of numbers would Griffey had ended up with then?" I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I have always been fascinated by this report from Jeff Pearlman about Griffey and Bonds. Before I begin, let me say that I trust Jeff Pearlman and I think he's a quality journalist. I've always enjoyed his work. He was kind enough to do my college radio show last winter, and he's always been helpful when I have emailed him with some question or other. His books are very good books, especially his biography of Bonds, and he's written for the finest sports magazines in the nation. I don't know that this story is true, but I believe that it is because I trust my fellow journalists and nobody denies the story, though Griffey says he doesn't remember it and Bonds refused to talk about it. (As you can see at the link, in the sidebar.) Here's a brief introduction: Bonds and Griffey have been friends for a long time, and confide in each other as friends do. After the 1998 season, Bonds went over to Griffey's house for dinner and the conversation turned to McGwire, Sosa and steroids. That is where it becomes very interesting:

On an otherwise ordinary night, over an otherwise ordinary meal, Griffey, Bonds, a rep from an athletic apparel company and two other associates chatted informally about the upcoming season. With Griffey's framed memorabilia as a backdrop, and Mark McGwire's obliteration of the single-season home run record a fresh memory, Bonds spoke up as he never had before. He sounded neither angry nor agitated, simply frustrated. "You know what," he said. "I had a helluva season last year, and nobody gave a crap. Nobody. As much as I've complained about McGwire and Canseco and all of the bull with steroids, I'm tired of fighting it. I turn 35 this year. I've got three or four good seasons left, and I wanna get paid. I'm just gonna start using some hard-core stuff, and hopefully it won't hurt my body. Then I'll get out of the game and be done with it."

Silence.

According to others in the room, Griffey was uncertain how to react. At age 29, he was at the top of his game, fresh off a season in which he compiled 56 home runs and 146 RBIs. As the pressure to indulge in performance-enhancing drugs mounted, the man known as 'The Kid' stayed clean. Sure, he, too, could see the physical differences in many players, including some on his own team. But to him, baseball wasn't important enough to risk his health and reputation. "If I can't do it myself, then I'm not going to do it," Griffey says. "When I'm retired, I want them to at least be able to say, 'There's no question in our minds that he did it the right way.' I have kids. I don't want them to think their dad's a cheater." Nevertheless, Griffey understood how Bonds felt. For most of the past decade, they had been the sport's two top players. Now, from their point of view, men with significantly less talent were abusing drugs to reach their level. Where was the fairness? The integrity? Griffey didn't agree with Bonds' position, but he certainly empathized.

Bonds' frustration had peaked on Aug. 23 of the previous season. That was the day he crushed a knuckleball from Marlins lefthander Kirt Ojala into the bleachers of Miami's Pro Player Stadium, becoming the first man in major league history to compile 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases.

On the scoreboard, "400/400" flashed in bright yellow letters, and most of the 36,701 fans rose in appreciation. Outside the stadium, however, few people cared. Bonds' achievement found its way into every sports section across America -- but on the second, third or fourth page.

For Bonds himself, the ultimate statistics scavenger, reaching 400/400 was momentous. He had gone beyond his father, Bobby Bonds. He had gone beyond his godfather, Willie Mays. He had gone beyond Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. In the sort of aw-shucks false modesty he put on from time to time, Bonds told the small number of assembled reporters that he was nothing compared to McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who were in the midst of their epic home run race. "I have nine writers standing here," he said. "McGwire had 200 writers back when he had 30 home runs. What they're doing is huge, phenomenal. Two guys might break the record. I mean, what's the chance of that ever happening again?"

Though Bonds delivered the sentiment with a broad smile, he was in fact feeling unappreciated, grumpy and terribly jealous. Just one day earlier, after the Associated Press reported that a bottle of androstenedione had been found in McGwire's locker, Bonds scoffed. He was well aware McGwire had ingested more than vegetables and vitamin C tablets to become the size of The Thing. "I use that stuff too," Bonds told teammates. "The difference is Mac's doing stuff I wouldn't think of." The belief that McGwire was cheating infuriated Bonds. [Pratt note: Andro was legal at this point.]

 But despite his protestations that he wanted only to be left alone, Bonds cared deeply about his status. He was already a three-time MVP, widely considered one of the greatest players ever. In his mind, he was the best. Here was a guy who, as a freshman at Junipero Serra High School in suburban San Francisco two decades earlier, had turned to a classmate and declared, "I'm gonna be a superstar." A guy who, as a 21-year-old spring training invitee with the Pirates in 1986, told manager Jim Leyland, "Dude, you're gonna need me around here."

The article goes on to describe the steps Bonds took in his transformation, but that isn't important. This is about Griffey and Bonds making different choices in their careers, and in a different article Pearlman demonstrates the significance of this Spring Training meeting perfectly: "With what we know now, that day should go down as a landmark. It was the day when Barry Bonds decided to cheat and break all the records, and Ken Griffey Jr. decided to be honest and fade. It was the day when Barry Bonds decided he was bigger than the game, and Ken Griffey Jr. decided the game was bigger than him. It was the day Barry Bonds committed himself to greed. It was the day Ken Griffey Jr. committed himself to happiness." If the story is true, and Griffey is and always has been clean, then that meeting and the history it spawned ought to be Griffey's enduring legacy. Not just a great player, but a great man.

*Consider this a Footnote History of the Week: When I realized what Freddy had done for the White Sox in his condition, I felt a little like Casey Stengel must've felt when he told Warren Spahn "Young man, you have no guts" after Spahn refused to hit a batter, and then watched him go off to War and return with a Purple Heart.



Gregory Pratt is a political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His political commentary can be found at the Office of the Independent Blogger, and he can be reached at gregory@baseballevolution.com.

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