Watching the Mariners crawl their way toward respectability like the first fishes onto the world's beaches, I never would have believed that Ken Griffey Jr. might ever not be the best player in baseball, much less that he would end up being considered junior to his dad. It's happening, though.
Ken Griffey Sr. got a much later start to his career, but in his 19 seasons he hit for a .296/.359/.431 line in pretty regular work from 1975-1987. Over his career you get +30 pts of AVG, +30 pts of OBP, +35 pts of SLG. Senior was an average fielder with a couple of bad seasons. He played in two World Series, hitting well in one, badly in another. He was only in the top 10 for average or on-base percentage three times apiece. He was a three-time All-Star, but never an MVP. He ended up playing in 2,097 games, piled up 2,143 hits, 364 doubles, 152 homers… he's not a Hall of Famer (unless Joe Morgan manages to get that new wing built for every player on the Big Red Machine), but all in all, Senior had a nice little career. Junior's dad has that mystique of being a proven winner who can wear two rings as proof of his value.
By contrast, Junior had a great start to a career. From his second year at age 19 to a season lost to injury in 1995, Ken Griffey Jr. was an amazing player, a rare talent, a star. He made the All-Star team every year from 1990 to 2000, and he won an MVP in 1997. Not that that the AL MVP award means much, since Juan Gonzalez won it the year before and the year after, neither of which did anything for the award's stature. If anything, the last several years in AL MVP balloting have pretty clearly established that many of the voters were on controlled substances that impaired their judgment.
Something went wrong, though. Griffey's disdain for conditioning caught up to him as he fought minor and nagging injuries, and his attitude in Seattle went from good-natured fan favorite to petty jealousy. Griffey would actually count the signs fans hung in the Kingdome and complain that Alex Rodriguez had more than he did. Eventually he asked the Mariners to trade him to Cincinnati, where he could be close to the family he'd moved to Florida. The Mariners obliged, utterly botching a process that became a public and bitter divorce rife with accusations and counters. When he was finally sent packing to the Reds, the press and the team unloaded both barrels in his back. What came across was that Ken Griffey Jr.'s a sensitive guy, and the Mariners did a good job of keeping him content and happy, and his tantrums out of the newspapers, and helping craft a city's opinion of their player ("Griffey wants to have more sunflower seeds? That guy can buy a sunflower seed factory! I tell you, players these days…"). Honing the carving knives they'd use on Alex Rodriguez a year later, columnists broke out their buried stories, like the one about how Griffey had personally called the stadium staff to get the roof on Safeco closed before games because he thought the ball carried better that way.
Griffey went into Cincinnati wounded, not in great health, and signed a long-term deal, and his relationship with the fans there immediately went to hell. Griffey told weird stories about death threats against him and his family, including a bizarre interview in ESPN Magazine where we learn the FBI may have been screening Griffey's emails, tracing them back to the same mall where his family was ("the call's coming from within the house!"). He doesn't smile anymore, and seems to be carrying a great weight on him. He's been greatly hampered by injuries his last two seasons, and at 32 he seems more and more like a player in severe physical and mental decline, unwilling to make any effort to prevent getting injured.
This dark cloud that follows him around has overshadowed a lot. Too many people think of Griffey as an already-wasted talent in the same category as Darryl Strawberry. That's about as ridiculous a comparison as you'll ever read. Would Griffey's amazingly productive years mean more somehow if he were less talented, if he were a scrawny white guy who gave it his all every day, instead of Ken Griffey, Jr., the star who admitted that he didn't try as hard to field flies when the game was out of hand, or if the play didn't matter? If Griffey's depressed, does that somehow make him less valuable than a hyperactive gerbil like Rex Hudler?
All of that said, keep in mind that if Griffey said "enough" at the end of the season, and retired to leave the Reds' outfield to Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn, and Willy Mo Pena, he'd have played six fewer seasons and still made the career marks of Senior:
H 2B 3B HR RBI Senior 2143 364 77 152 859 Junior 1791+ 362+ 35+ 460+ 1335+ (Junior's stats include 2002)
And what about rate stats, or era, or…
Park adjusted, career to date, through last year:
Without knowing what Junior's EQA for this season will end up as, but eyeballing it I took this lost season as a ~.270 EQA, which would only take that career EQA down to .319.
It's interesting that in terms of league-relative performance, they're close until you get to the power. It seems weird to me that Griffey Junior, who holds a lot of disdain for serious conditioning, makes his dad, who played in a time when players were much more ignorant of the value of working out, look like such a piker. The difference between Junior and Senior is like the gap in raw stats between this year's Lance Berkman and this year's Derek Jeter.
And yet… Ken Griffey Senior was on two teams that won the World Series, in 1975 and 1976. Junior hasn't played past the ALCS with Seattle. If there's any reason for him to hang around and keep playing, to try and find the joy and start working on training and proper stretching to prevent (say) pulling his hamstring all the time, that should be it. He's a good Hall of Fame member now, his brightest years still amazing to look over (1993, at the age of 22: .309/.408/.617, 6th in OBP, 2nd in SLG). He plays for a team headed into a new stadium with the best and brightest young outfield in all of baseball (and Willy Mo Pena).
It's unfortunate that players are looked at in these terms: that Griffey's now defined as a temperamental, fragile player, and that's more prominent than being the best in baseball for many years, or that he's not as good as Derek Jeter because Jeter's been lucky enough to be on the Yankees while Griffey's toiled on lesser teams with poorer fortunes in the post-season.