This week, the Seattle Mariners retired the number 24 worn by their star outfielder and newly-minted Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees held a news conference to announce the retirement of Alex Rodriguez. Both were former first overall picks, both were all-stars, both were impact players. However, that is where the similarities end.
Griffey didn’t get to play a game in the World Series let alone win a championship. But his heart and passion for baseball was enough to get him a spot in Cooperstown. Despite the injuries he was able to deliver clutch home runs and make outstanding plays in the outfield. Junior, as he was often referred to in his early playing days, was Superman well before the arrival of Kevin Pillar. Most importantly, he played it the right way.
Griffey was never controversial, always took the high road, and didn’t make excuses. There would be those who point to his trade out of Seattle to the Cincinnati Reds, a team where his father, Ken Griffey, Sr., was a star, as where the younger Griffey began his decline. Frankly, Griffey wasn’t surrounded with the same the level of talent that he had in Seattle. There was no Randy Johnson, or an Edgar Martinez, or an Alex Rodriguez in Cincinnati. The Reds were a team that went from being a contender to a pretender by the time Griffey arrived.
Griffey may have had some issues off the field but I would bet it was nothing compared to that of his former teammate in Seattle, Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, as he was known throughout his playing career, also put great numbers and he was able to be part of the Yankees’ World Series championship run in 2009. Rodriguez didn’t become a controversial figure until he signed with the Texas Rangers after the 2000 season. But unlike the bombastic Barry Bonds who got on anyone who dared to question him, Rodriguez wasn’t very outspoken and kept his emotions to himself. It wasn’t until he got to New York and began playing for the Yankees in 2004 that he really began to push back at his critics.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the allegations of his involvement in a Miami clinic that distributed performance enhancing drugs. Rodriguez was never caught, but every investigation traced the trail back to Rodriguez. Normally, one would see A-Rod as someone who cheated by taking PEDs. But Rodriguez, like disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, was the ring leader, one who purposefully gave the orders and controlled what was going on even to the point where he demanded others take the fall in order to keep him out of the spotlight. And like Armstrong, Rodriguez was not able to sweep away the mounting evidence against him. That to me is more damning than any athlete getting caught with a positive drug test.
There is more to being a great athlete than just being free of drugs. Attitude also plays a part. Griffey was a professional throughout his playing career and he never took his position as the face of the game for granted. Rodriguez, in his battles with Major League Baseball and the media, went from a potential Hall of Famer to a man who is now a shell of himself. Two players with outstanding baseball careers. However, only one ended on a happy note.