When Ken Griffey Jr. called it a career earlier this month, the decision was not a surprise. Unfortunately, within hours of his announcement, the news was eclipsed by Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game, turning the conversation from The Kid’s retirement to Jim Joyce and instant replay.
It is not difficult to forget what a great player Griffey was. At his peak in Seattle, he was the best center fielder since Willie Mays. Sadly, injuries limited him to only three full seasons after the age of 29. Though his years in Cincinnati included landmark home runs, one of the haunting images of his time there is the 2001 spring training game when Griffey slipped rounding third base, tore his lower left hamstring, and crumbled to the ground. Any reflection on Junior’s career inevitably leaves us wondering what might have been, had he remained healthy. But what we did see was special in itself. A lifetime TAv of .300, with a slash line of .284/.370/.538. Six hundred thirty home runs, good for fifth on the all-time list. Top-notch defense in center and more than 74 wins above replacement for his career.
Junior probably also holds one other, lesser-known distinction, though it’s impossible to know with any certainty. But it’s quite likely that Griffey left more money on the table than any other player in the game’s history—and nevertheless earned less in raw salary totals than only two players from his era—Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson. (Griffey, Bonds, and Johnson all deferred significant amounts of money throughout their careers, reducing the present value of their totals.)
Link to Bonds
On the surface, Griffey and Bonds could not be more different. Griffey is remembered for his long, smooth swing and his smile. Bonds is known for his short, quick swing and a smirk. Griffey was celebrated. Bonds was tolerated. Griffey once seemed destined to break baseball’s most hallowed records. But he did not, and many fans throughout the country revere him anyway. Bonds did break many of those records, and outside of San Francisco, he is largely resented for it.
But the two also have much in common. Sons of All-Star players, they both grew up in major-league clubhouses and played in parts of 22 seasons. Given the chance to choose where to play, each eventually chose to follow in his father's footsteps. Griffey returned to Cincinnati and adopted No. 30, the one his father wore with the Big Red Machine of the ‘70s. Bonds returned to San Francisco and—after briefly considering wearing Mays' No. 24—donned No. 25, the one his father wore with the Giants in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Moreover, they rank as the top two highest-paid position players among those turning pro before 1990. Drafted from Arizona State by Pittsburgh in 1985, Bonds earned more than $188 million in his career. Griffey was drafted by Seattle from Cincinnati's Moeller High School and earned more than $170 million, although each deferred substantial amounts of salary at varying interest rates, reducing the present value of their earnings.
Griffey—represented by family friend and Cincinnati attorney Brian Goldberg—never took the Mariners to an arbitration hearing and played 11 seasons with the club that drafted him. Bonds was represented by two of the highest-profile agents in the industry, Dennis Gilbert and Scott Boras. Bonds went to arbitration with the Pirates twice—losing each time—and left Pittsburgh at the first opportunity after the 1992 season. (He also surprised the Giants by accepting the club's offer of arbitration after the 2001 season.)
After playoff runs in 1995 and 1997, the Mariners faced two difficult contract problems in 1999. Two of their stars—Griffey and shortstop Alex Rodriguez—were on track to become free agents after the 2000 season. Faced with a similar situation with Johnson in 1998, Seattle had resorted to shipping the left-hander to Houston at the trade deadline that year. But when Seattle reportedly offered Griffey an eight-year deal worth $138 million in July of 1999, Junior demurred. Though he and Goldberg did not expressly reject the deal, they did not offer a counter-proposal, either.
After the ’99 season ended, the Mariners broached the subject again. Griffey—now armed with the right to block a trade as a player with 10 years in the majors, including five years with the same club—let it be known he preferred to be traded to one of four teams: the Braves, Reds, Astros, or Mets. Each of the clubs played closer to his Orlando home and trained in Florida, which appealed to Griffey, who gave the Mariners and GM Pat Gillick the right to expand the market by at least talking with clubs not on Griffey’s short list.
Griffey’s four-team market shrank quickly. Atlanta was unwilling to give up players in a trade and sign Junior long-term. Houston backed away, citing payroll concerns. After settling on a trade with the Mets for pitcher Octavio Dotel, outfielder Roger Cedeno, and a third player, only to have Griffey reject the deal, Gillick was left with one option: Cincinnati. After several proposals and counter-offers, Gillick and Reds GM Jim Bowden agreed to focus their efforts on the players in the trade, with the respective club presidents handling the financial negotiations, which remained a sticking point. Cincinnati’s ownership was poised to issue a public statement withdrawing from the trade talks. With the deal nearly dead, Seattle president Chuck Armstrong called Goldberg and gave Griffey’s agent permission to negotiate a new contract with the Reds—overlooking the minor detail that only the commissioner had the authority to allow a player or his agent to negotiate with another club.
Gillick and Bowden finally agreed on a trade, with the Reds acquiring Griffey in exchange for outfielder Mike Cameron, right-hander starter Brett Tomko, infielder Antonio Perez, and right-hander reliever Jake Meyer. Griffey was guaranteed $116.5 million over nine years, with a club option for a 10thseason. The financial roadblock was removed when Goldberg agreed to defer $57 million—nearly half of the contract’s total—at 4 percent interest, to be paid between 2009-24. The deferral reduced the present-day value of the deal to about $90 million.
Given the chance to start the bidding, shop the market, and become baseball’s first $200 million player, Griffey took significantly less to follow his heart and play in Cincinnati. Boras reacted to Junior’s new contract by saying the Reds had gotten a "Rolls-Royce" at a "Volkswagen price." Just 10 months later, Rodriguez left Seattle, too, when Boras negotiated a record $252 million deal with Texas on his behalf. A-Rod had the obvious advantage of being drafted in 1993, but he will easily outpace both Griffey and Bonds in terms of lifetime earnings, despite agreeing to defer significant money in his own deals. Rodriguez is guaranteed $439 million through 2017, with the chance to earn an additional $30 million based on his career home run total.
From 1989-99, Griffey had provided Seattle with 60.2 wins above replacement at a cost of $52.533 million, or $872,641 per win. From 2000-08, he gave the Reds 16.5 wins above replacement at a deferred-adjusted cost of about $90 million, $5.45 million per win.
Cameron spent four productive seasons in Seattle, posting a slash line of .256/.350/.448 while winning two Gold Gloves. From 2000-03, Cameron posted a WARP of 22.1 while earning $17.225 million, or $779,411 per win.
Tomko made 12 starts in two seasons with the Mariners, striking out 81 in 127 innings with a WARP of minus–0.9. He spent most of the 2001 season pitching in Triple-A, then was dealt to San Diego.
After the 2002 season, Seattle shipped Perez and the rights to manager Lou Piniella to Tampa Bay for Randy Winn, who provided the Mariners with 8.6 wins above replacement from 2003-05. Perez made the majors with the Rays in 2003 before being dealt to Los Angeles, where he spent parts of two seasons as a backup infielder with the Dodgers. But he is best known as the player the Dodgers packaged with Milton Bradley to acquire Andre Ethier from Oakland in December, 2005.
Meyer never reached the majors and last was seen pitching in 2006 for San Diego—the Surf Dawgs of the independent Golden Baseball League.