This story originally appeared here in July of 2010 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, it has vanished. I’ve revived it here, and I hope you enjoy it, and excuse the references to Ryan Braun. We didn’t know he was dirty at the time.
He lounged alone in the clubhouse, idly clutching his trademark black lacquered Louisville Slugger, eyes glancing from the golf highlights flickering on the nearby flat screen, to his iPhone, and back to the golf.
A longtime veteran, highly decorated and with a place in Cooperstown already safely secured, the man seemed weary and perhaps a little bored. He lamented the lack of time he had to hone his own golf game, and spoke glowingly of the family he missed. He talked about his three children, and specifically about his desire to buy a Winnebago and travel with his daughter – an eighth grader – to her many youth basketball tournaments.
After 22 seasons in the big leagues, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and 630 home runs, George Kenneth Griffey Jr. appeared to be ready to go. This scene occurred a month before Griffey would abruptly bring an end to his Hall of Fame career, but even then he seemed ready to walk off into the sunset, content with the indelible mark he had left on the game.
Griffey was what you could call a bucket-list player. Every time he took the field there was a chance he would do something amazing, whether at the plate or in the field. He was the type of transcendent talent that every baseball fan should make the time to see. A player you would brag about to your children, saying “I remember that time when Griffey …”
But on that day in early May, Griffey was ready to pass the torch on to the next generation of players. It’s a generation as deep as it is talented. A generation that has been – and hopefully will remain – mostly unscathed by the steroid era, a time in which Griffey starred yet was never tarnished by. Don’t worry fans, just as you bragged about Griffey, there are plenty of young players your children will be able to brag about to their offspring.
“There are a lot of guys now,” Griffey said. “If we spend all this time talking about what guys did 15 years ago, then you miss out on what these players are doing now. There are a lot of great young player right now, and it would be sad if we didn’t notice how good they are.
“Baseball today is in a lot better situation than a few years ago.”
Sticking to players under the age of 30, Griffey touted players like Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and Brewers sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
When asked if there were any pitchers worth seeing, Griffey feigned disgust. “Pitchers!” he snorted, rolling his eyes. But those same eyes lit up a moment later, and two words popped from his lips: “The Freak,” he blurted, referring to shaggy-haired San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum. “He’s undersized and maybe 160 pounds soaking wet. But he’s not afraid to come right at you, and he knows how to pitch. He’s just one of those guys who is fun to watch.”
Conspicuously absent from Griffey’s list was St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols, a first baseman widely considered to be baseball’s best player, but who at age 30, did not qualify under Griffey’s self-imposed age limit.
Ask just about anyone in baseball, though, and they’ll tell you that Pujols is a must-see talent.
“What’s impressive for me with (Pujols) is that he’s got the whole package,” said Twins designated hitter Jim Thome. “He hits for power and for average, he drives in runs, he runs the bases well, has made himself into a great first baseman, and doesn’t strike out.
“Being a guy that strikes out, and who has hit home runs,” said Thome, referring to his 2,300-plus whiffs and 569 career home runs, “you look at a guy like Pujols and go ‘wow, he doesn’t strike out.’ Over the long course of a season, you’d think a guy with that much power would strike out. He doesn’t, and that’s impressive.”
Rays stars Longoria and B.J. Upton also mentioned Pujols, as well as Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, as must-see players.
“He (Pujols) and A-Rod will be on the cusp of breaking a lot of offensive records,” Longoria said. “All of these guys are players who can have a tremendous impact on a game all by themselves. They can change the course of a game with one big play.”
“Me being a hitter, I like watching guys hit, and these guys are all great at it. I think overall (the No. 1 guy to see is) A-Rod. It just always looks like he’s going to hit it, and it always looks like he’s going to hit it hard. He’s just fun to watch.”
Upton, despite being a speedy outfielder and dazzling base runner, made it clear that he enjoyed watching home run hitters most of all. After all, the old commercial didn’t say “chicks dig the stolen base.”
But several players did mention Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, marveling not only at his on-field success, but his amazing level of focus and preparation.
“He’s got something in mind that he’s going to do, and he’ll do it,” said Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins. “That’s what makes him great.”
“You could talk about Ichiro,” said Twins catcher Joe Mauer, 27, himself a must-see player as perhaps the best catcher of his generation. “He’s been doing it a lot longer than people realize. He was doing it for 10 years over in Japan.”
Thome compared Ichiro to Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, with amazing bat control to seemingly place hits wherever they want. “They’re that good. It’s like they’re magicians the way they go about it.”
Another magician has the attention of his colleagues, this one for his mound wizardry: Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay.
“He’s one of those guys who every start will give his team a chance to win,” said Longoria, expressing relief that the former Blue Jays ace had switched to the National League in the offseason. “He’s got four ‘plus’ pitches, and at any time in the game, he can throw any of them for a strike. Even if one of them isn’t working, he still has three. (Red Sox left-hander Jon) Lester is another guy who has developed into one of the best in the league.”
One thing that seemed common to all the players mentioned was that they had earned respect from their peers not just for their talent, but also for how they handled themselves as professionals. Flashy prima donnas were absent from their lists.
“They go about it the right way,” said Mauer, a clean-cut kid who carries himself like a regular guy despite already having three batting titles and an MVP award on his resume. “They’re not the ‘look at me’ type of guys. They play the game hard and they play the game the right way. It’s not about the flash or things like that, it’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”
“It’s how he comes to play every day,” said Figgins, who expressed admiration for unheralded players like Juan Pierre and Garrett Anderson. “With all these guys, that’s what they do.”
They also happen to be great baseball players. The kind of players you’ll want to be able to say you saw in person, to be able to point out to your son or daughter and say “See him? He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
So get your tickets and head out to the park. Take your kids to see the current and future greats of the game. As Griffey says, it would be a shame if you didn’t.