Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ouch! Junior Injured, Again

One of the sadder developments of Major League Baseball in the 2000s is how the ascent of Ken Griffey Jr. to the ranks of the true greats has slowed to worse than a crawl.

Once the presumptive heir to Henry Aaron's home-run record, Griffey - "Junior," "The Kid" - was the player once thought the most likely to carry the game into this century on the magnificent twin forces of his talent and his personality.

Yet as we approach 2007, Griffey is in danger of once again receding to the backwaters of baseball's consciousness by yet another confounding injury.

Memories of Griffey's on-field brilliance as well as those of his luminous personality are now being bulldozed under by one numbing physical calamity after another, the latest a broken left hand suffered at his home Friday.

As if The Kid needed another reminder that he is no longer The Man.

Was he ever once, though.

Junior was Ryan Howard, David Wright and Jose Reyes rolled into one.

He could out-Bonds Barry, outbash Big Mac, outslug - and outsmile - Slammin' Sammy Sosa.

But the teen sensation turned 20-something all-star marvel is now an old 37.

A very old 37.

And that 37-year-old with a wounded body has now drifted so far off baseball's primary radar, some wouldn't be blamed for thinking Junior had already retired and was working on his Hall of Fame eligibility.

That might be a mercy at this point. Especially after the news broke Friday that fate had kicked Junior in the teeth again.

The Cincinnati Reds reported that the one-time perennial all-star will have his broken hand in a hard cast for three weeks. Only after that can he start another in a long line of inexorable rehabilitations.

At this point, Griffey couldn't be faulted if he felt his career is in a hard cast from which he will never escape.

How could he not after landing on the disabled list eight times since 2001?

Yes, he enjoyed something of a revival just two years ago, winning the award no player ever really wants - comeback player of the year - thanks to a 35-homer campaign.

Last season marked a return to a crueler reality. The Reds were robbed of Junior's bat down the stretch, when Griffey suffered a dislocated toe trying to make a leaping catch of a Bonds home run on Sept. 5.

Griffey appeared in only two games after the toe injury - limiting him to a total of 109 games - his fade from the pennant race preceding that of the snakebitten Reds.

Fans don't want to remember Ken Griffey Jr. this way, a broken shadow of his former self, running into walls in an attempt to escape disabled-list all-star status.

And I've known Junior too long for that to be my lasting image; I've known him since he was a precocious teen hanging out with his all-star father.

I saw life in that face then, as well as a mix of mischief and physical makeup that suggested the approach of something both fun and fantastic.

I remember watching in wonder as Junior tweaked his famous dad as only he could when comparing respective days on the diamond.

"How was your day, Dad? I had a pretty good day, too," Junior would inform Senior, usually after Senior had just done some pretty impressive things playing left field for the New York Yankees.

That now seems so long ago, just like when Junior enjoyed some pretty good days with the Seattle Mariners, those prime-time nights he won home-run contests.

Junior still possesses the face of that teen who strutted without apology into the Yankee Stadium clubhouse of the mid-1980s.

Last summer, though, the eyes betrayed him as he hobbled around the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on an old man's legs.

He knew his durability, speed and another run of pretty good days had been robbed by too many tears, sprains, breaks.

These injuries have cost the Reds millions of dollars, but the loss to baseball is immeasurable.

Though often guarded in private, Griffey instinctively understood and accepted his public role. And he used a boundless puppy-dog energy to sell the game, as at home on a Wheaties box as in the batter's box when marketing the game.

The result: He proved to be the perfect - and most welcome - counter balance to sourpusses like Bonds and Albert Belle, and dour faces like Mark McGwire's.

Then came the era in which 50 home runs a year became mere footnotes, as did the man who has 563 home runs, now "pedestrian" and well short of the 600 Club that became the exclusive haunt of the nouveau-Herculean slugger.

Now injuries continue to force Junior's retreat. These days, the only headlines he seems capable of garnering involve calamity.

Fragile Star

p>Ken Griffey Jr. has been on the disabled list eight times since joining the Reds in 2000. He's also missed significant playing time at the end of the last two seasons without going on the DL. Griffey has played 699 games in seven seasons with the Reds. Here are his year-by-year totals:

2000 - 145 games

2001 - 111

2002 - 70

2003 - 53

2004 - 83

2005 - 128

2006 - 109