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August 13 2000: Why Don’t I Like Junior?

Seattle played the Yankees recently, and beat the Bombers pretty bad. I, like a lot of people in baseball, was thinking, gee, this team actually seems better this year, despite the loss of marquee star Ken Griffey, Jr. What’s up with that?
It was this time last year that I was sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium for the first time since the 1980s, watching Ricky Ledee beat Griffey and the Mariners with an inside the park home run. Griffey slammed hard into the centerfield wall but couldn’t come up with the ball, and Ledee turned on the jets. My how things have changed in a year.

My initial feelings for Ledee were, wow, this kid can really play! In a lot of the games I watched or listened to at the end of last season, he really seemed to show tremendous talent and hustle. That weekend, I remember hearing a guy –a real classic New York Yankees Fan, in faded hat, gray team t-shirt, beer gut and sideburns in need of a trim– in a New Jersey 7-Eleven store say he thought Ledee was the next Don Mattingly.

Lots of people in the Yankees organization had the same positive first impression, I guess, because they stuck with him for so long. In Spring Training this year, Ledee was one of the only ones who didn’t look half-asleep out there. But the impression didn’t last. His up and down inconsistency eventually bothered Joe Torre, and it bothered me. I got tired of saying to myself “Come on Ricky, get it together!” Flashes of brilliance, but he never burned like a star.

Of course, Ledee is now gone from the Bronx, and we wish him well. I hear he hit a grand slam the other night in Texas (where he’s now playing, after a very brief stint with the Indians). My feelings for him are still positive, but he never quite won my heart.

At the time of that game last August, I really liked Junior Griffey, too. I’d watched the Home Run Derby from Coors Field on tv at some point, and I was kind of taken by his boyish charm, and his prodigious ball-smacking ability. I liked MacGwire, sure. But I had a really positive impression of Junior, one I was still carrying with me when I got to the Stadium that day.

Now, Yankee fans can be fickle in some ways. Often, we’re gracious and respectful to the star players on opposing teams. Players like Cal Ripken have received their ovations at Yankee Stadium. But there are some players that, as a collective whole, Yankee fans can’t stand.

Apparently, Junior’s one of them. I wasn’t on the baseball planet in 1995, when Seattle beat the Yanks in their first postseason appearance in forever, but a lot of other people in the stands that day were, and they bore a grudge against Griffey. The boos were intense.

I had been hoping to see batting practice that day, to watch Junior launch balls into the bleachers, but it being an afternoon game the day after a night game, I guess they had decided to take a day off. And I realized, the first time Griffey came to the plate, that when the game counted, I didn’t want to see him blast the ball. I wanted to see him strike out, or pop up.

It was a feeling of conflict for me, because here I was liking him as a player and as a person I had a good impression of, and yet, disliking him as an opponent. The crowd definitely swayed my feelings in that direction. We didn’t want to let Griffey beat us. In a lot of ways, it was the Yankees versus Griffey, it seemed, not versus the Mariners, but against Junior himself.

I’ve still got the scorecard of that game, which reveals it to be a “typical” winning Yankee game of the Torre era. Mariano Rivera got the save, Pettitte the win, by a score of 11-5. (Stanton and Nelson also pitched in.) Bernie Williams hit a home run and also scored on Ledee’s inside the parker.

And Griffey went O for 5 with one strikeout. He failed to make the play on Ledee’s ball which led to the first inside the park home run in Yankee Stadium since 1990. And there was one more play he should have made in centerfield — I’m not sure exactly which one of the 12 Yankee hits it was — which cemented my feeling that that day, the Yankees had beaten not only Seattle (for the eighth straight time!) but Griffey himself.

I suppose that was all it took for me to decide maybe Griffey wasn’t so great after all, that maybe I really didn’t like him that much.

It seems unfair, doesn’t it? He’s undoubtedly one of the best players in baseball in this decade, but between my rediscovered Yankee loyalty (yes, I admit, the peer pressure really did affect me) and a lousy outing for him that day, he lost me as a fan. At least for a while.

I kind of started to like him during the off season, when he took less money to go to Cincinnati, so he could be with his family, etc. Seems big-hearted and noble. But there was a lot of other press at the time that made him out to be a whiner, and I was a bit put off by some of the reports that made him seem really immature and childish. Like the one about how he wouldn’t play for the Yankees now since he got scolded as a child (when his Dad was with the Yanks) and wasn’t allowed to go on the field during batting practice. (I think to myself, am I still holding any grudges I formed when I was eight years old? I sure hope not.) Still, I thought maybe the whole “Griffey Goes to Cincinnati” story would be an inspirational, historic one.

But then, a few weeks into the season, there was a whole to-do about how he couldn’t get his number, since the Reds had retired it a few months earlier. Junior was in a slump and the reports were that he had a tantrum in the clubhouse, demanded his number back, and that his father (who’s a coach with the team) also demanded that a clubhouse guy make up a uniform with the retired number. Geez, Louise!

This isn’t fair either. These media reports are never the whole story, and are obviously meant to show him in a bad light. But there remains the fact, he wasn’t hitting.

Like Ledee wasn’t hitting this year. Hmm.

Am I so fickle a fan that when a guy is doing well, I’m a supporter, but when he slumps, he’s yesterday’s news? Is it disappointment, the pre-cursor to heartbreak, which I’m trying to save myself from?

No, I don’t think that’s it. If anything, I’ve become a bigger fan of Chuck Knoblauch and David Cone this year than I ever was before, despite –or perhaps as a result of– their struggles. Of course I feel let down by their failures, but I stick by them. I’m inspired by their struggles.

And perhaps that’s it. I was not inspired by Ledee’s or Junior’s struggles this year. As a fan, it just got harder and harder to root for them. In Griffey’s case, I already had picked up the Yankee fan grudge against him, and then on top of it, he not only wasn’t living up to the nobleness of his story, he was degrading it with his behavior. With Ledee, on the other hand, well, I still really wanted him to make it. But with Shane Spencer also having a hard-luck story, and seeming to play so well in the field while Ledee just looked lost sometimes… I just couldn’t keep my hopes up for Ledee. It was easier to root for Spencer. (Well, and there’s a heartbreak struggle story for you–with Shane out for the year with the torn knee mere days after Ricky departed the Bronx.)

Ultimately, I suppose I shouldn’t feel bad about starting to like a player because he does well, though. After all, it’s not their job or their role in society or anything to be saints or my best friends — it’s their job to be the best ballplayers they can be. And if that is the first, most important criterion, then at first blush John Rocker and Carl Everett deserve at least the benefit of the doubt from fans.

But we want them to be heroes, don’t we? If Boston, or the Braves, wins it all this year, the nation will want to embrace the players as heroes. But even the most fanatical of us about the game of baseball still want our heroes to be nice guys, role models–LIKEABLE. We want them to be both, superstars in the field AND great people. And both Rocker and Everett have shown themselves to be, well, not the kind of guy I’d want to have over to dinner. So should I respect them as players, as athletes, but not very much as human beings…?

Do I respect Junior as a human being? You know, I think I’m going to reserve judgement on that one. The media loves to pick on him, so the likelihood of my impression of him being skewed are high. In fact, it’s 100% likely that I will never, ever get to know what Ken Griffey Junior (or probably any other pro ball player) is like as a human being. All I’ll ever know is the public persona scraped together by the media and the player’s own efforts to speak out.

I think, as a fan, I just have to go with my heart, my instincts. Junior could still win me back. Leading the Reds to a championship run? Becoming a clubhouse leader? Setting a good example? A few well-placed articles in the media? In the future I could probably be convinced to at least say “good for you, Junior!” –kind of like what I do now for Ricky Ledee. But for the moment, it’s boo-hiss.

Except when he’s facing Rocker.

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