Ken Griffey Jr. is the Most Important Player in Baseball. Here’s Why.

At 40-years-old, Ken Griffey Jr. is primed for the most important season of his career.

Ken Griffey Jr. is no longer “the Kid”. He won’t be climbing walls and stealing would-be home runs or depositing 40+ souvenirs into the outfield stands in 2010. Junior will huff and puff trying to score from second on a single, struggle to catch up with above-average fastballs and will likely spend more time on the bench than he does on the field. Yet, despite all the shortcomings of his 40-year-old body, Ken Griffey Jr. has never meant more to the Seattle Mariners or the sport of baseball than he will in 2010.

The Mariners enter the season as a threat to win the AL West and a dark horse (though that term is forever soiled by the latest Nickleback album) to make a deep postseason run. The roster has been completely overhauled by new GM Jack Zduriencik and the additions of Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley give Seattle an even more talented roster than the one that went 85-77 last year. However, no offseason move was more important to the Mariners and their fans than bringing back Griffey for the 2010 season.

Junior completely transformed the Mariners last year, turning a dugout that looked like a crypt into somewhere more fun than an episode of MXC. For the first time in years Seattle players looked like they were having fun in 2009 (heck even Ichiro smiled, and he was diagnosed with a rare condition that makes it extremely painful to show any emotion) and it’s impossible to overstate how important chemistry was to the Mariners’ success last season.

Ken Griffey Jr. makes me want to be a better man.

Griffey will once again be counted on as the unquestioned leader of the Mariners in 2010, and will have his work cut out for him with the addition of the mercurial Bradley, a talented but troubled player who needs to perform at a high level if Seattle is to succeed in a competitive AL West. If the Mariners do manage to win their division (because the Wild Card will come out of the AL East), Junior is one of just a handful of players on the team with any prior postseason experience and the only remaining link to the Mariners’ magical 1995 season.

Griffey is part player, part coach and part class clown—and Seattle needs him to fulfill all three roles if the team hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Junior is integral to the success or failure of the Mariners in 2010, but he is even more important as a symbol of hope for the still tarnished sport of baseball.

Though Major League Baseball would like to continue to sweep the issue of steroids under the carpet, Mark McGwire’s return to the game has once again brought the taboo topic to the forefront of fans’ minds. Nearly every prolific home run hitter from the last two decades (Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, etc.) has been linked in some way to steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs…but not Ken Griffey Jr.

He stands above the fray as a man who played the game of baseball the right way, and by not aging gracefully, Griffey in fact aged gracefully. Junior’s head didn’t grow while he was in his 30’s and he peaked when he was 28 or 29, not 38 or 39 (cough Barry Bonds cough). Ken Griffey Jr. is the lone source of light in the darkness that envelops the steroids era and has shown other players and the young kids that look up to him that success can be found without the help of a needle. Griffey took the responsibility of being a role model seriously, and if there is anything that baseball can salvage from the past twenty years, it’s thanks to Junior.

Hopefully baseball fans give Griffey the farewell he deserves this season. He’s done more for the game than we may ever know.

It’s a Pretty Darn Good Time To Be a Mariners’ Fan: Seattle Signs Felix Hernandez to Five-Year Deal.

There's dancing in the streets of Seattle--Felix isn't going anywhere soon.

No seriously, I haven’t been this excited to follow the Seattle Mariners since the team traded Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb. Ken Rosenthal broke the news late last night that Seattle had reached a long-term agreement with King Felix and it appears the deal is in the neighborhood of five years and $78 million dollars. Hernandez was eligible for free agency in 2011, and coming off a tremendous 2009 season that saw him finish second in the Cy Young Award balloting, was set to get a record-breaking deal if he tested the free-agent waters.

The contract is an outright steal considering that it’s less money than the Red Sox paid to bring John Lackey aboard for the same length of time. Who would you rather have on your pitching staff for the next five years, an aging Lackey or a constantly improving Hernandez? Considering that he is still only 23-years-old, the Mariners are going to get five seasons of Felix in his prime for slightly more per year than they were paying Carlos Silva (please don’t leave any more tear filled voicemails Carlos, we’re not taking you back). Even if the Mariners are unable to resign Cliff Lee after the season, they’ve got the best young pitcher in baseball locked up through 2014, something they can undoubtedly use to lure top free-agents to Seattle (Lebron James at first base in 2011?). This move assures that the Mariners will be contenders in the AL West not just next season, but for years to come with Felix anchoring the pitching staff.

Is it too soon to name Jack Zduriencik the GM of the century? Chone Figgins, Cliff Lee, Ken Griffey Jr., Milton Bradley and now a long-term deal with the most exciting young arm in baseball? Is there anything this guy can’t do?

I’ve got a feeling (woohoo!) that 2010 is going to be a good season; that 2010 is a going to be a good season; that 2010 is a going to be a good, good season!

Let the party start, King Felix isn’t going anywhere.

Cardinals’ Fans First Public Reaction to Mark McGwire…A Standing Ovation?

Congratulations Cardinals fans! Your hypocrisy knows no ends.

Mark McGwire made his first public appearance in St. Louis since admitting the shocking truth that he used steroids for over 10 years in a news conference early Sunday morning. The conference was held in a narrow hallway (at least it was narrow in comparison to McGwire) and lasted just over six minutes, most of which McGwire spent dodging questions like Neo dodged bullets. Apparently since Big Mac talked about the past once he doesn’t ever have to do it again. There was no chance for reporters to ask McGwire about the myriad holes in his story, though he was kind enough to warn kids not to use steroids (unless they help with health problems of course). And how, you may ask, did Cardinals fans respond to their beleaguered slugger? With cheers and a standing ovation… 

Not to go all Steven A. Smith on you, but quite frankly that’s preposterous! I hate to go all Mike and Mike on you, but c’mon man! And finally, I really can’t stand to go all MSN Messenger on you, but WTF Cardinal fans? Mark McGwire lies to you for years and then goes on national television and lies again—and you give him a standing ovation? I might expect this kind of thing from Yankees fans, who have continually shown themselves to be completely delusional, but I thought St. Louis held it athletes to a higher standard. The level of hypocrisy among sports fans is downright shocking and they’ll catch up to politicians soon if they keep up this kind of behavior. Fans are willing to crucify Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and everyone else from the steroid era, yet when McGwire says he’s “really sorry” Cardinal followers treat him like nothing ever happened? I realize that McGwire admitted what he did (sort of) but that doesn’t mean he should get a free pass and be welcomed back with open arms. McGwire broke the law, cheated the game and lied about it until it was convenient for him to come out with the “truth”. Some people deserve second chances but Big Mac isn’t one of them, at least not until he is ready to come clean about what he really did all those years. 

Mark McGwire was arrogant enough to think that baseball fans would believe whatever he had to say about the past. Apparently he was right.

Big Mac, Little Balls: Mark McGwire’s Steroids Confession is Too Little, Too Late for Once Revered Slugger.

(AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File)

Yesterday’s news that Mark McGwire used steroids and human growth hormone on and off for 10 years shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (especially not Tony Larussa and Bud Selig). It was painfully obvious that the man was a liar. Baseball players don’t hit 70 homeruns in a season through hard work and God-given ability, they just don’t.

When he told a congressional committee that he “wasn’t here to talk about the past”, McGwire really told America that he had used steroids to set the all-time single season homerun record, but didn’t want to be held accountable for his actions. The hulking beast of a man was nothing more than a coward and a cheat, and McGwire hoped that disappearing into the shadows would allow him to eventually restore his broken image. Well, after five years and four Hall-of-Fame ballots it was clear that silence had done nothing but further tarnish his reputation, so he decided on another course of action.

When Mark McGwire agreed to become the hitting coach for St. Louis he realized that he would eventually have to talk about the past, and he decided to do so on his own terms with a written release to the AP and a carefully staged interview with Bob Costas. McGwire was able to say what he wanted to say (while glossing over details like what kind of steroids he took) and used the media platform to tout his past exploits and pave a smooth return to the sport. McGwire talked at length about what he had done and why he turned to steroids, but what did he really say when he wasn’t choked up with tears? Let’s take a closer look at some of the major points of the interview and press release:

1.) “I was given a gift to hit home runs…the only reason I took steroids was for health purposes.”: Throughout the interview McGwire continued to reiterate the point that “the man upstairs” had granted him the ability to hit homeruns, and in a sense, that’s true. McGwire was always a good homerun hitter, including a record-setting 49 in his rookie season, but he  makes a point of saying that he could have hit 70 homeruns without the help of PED’s. Does he even believe what he’s saying? No, steroids won’t help your eye hand coordination, but they sure as heck are going to make a baseball travel farther. How many of his warning track outs turned into homeruns because of steroids? Normal human beings don’t hit 70 homeruns in a season no matter how talented they are. McGwire knew full well that steroids did more than just keep him healthy, yet refused to acknowledge this important fact. I guess I can’t blame him, it was a pretty “loosey-goosey” era.

2.) “I’ve never been asked point-blank, ‘Have you ever taken steroids?'”: McGwire wants us to believe in the interview that no one in his life; not his wife, kids, parents or manager (LaRussa) had any knowledge of his steroid use. Really? Look, I’ll readily admit that the America public is generally gullible, but he expects us to believe that no one in his family ever asked him about steroids? His wife never once talked to him about steroids when he was asked to speak in front of a congressional committee? His son never brought up steroids when McGwire was labeled a cheat and liar by the media? He said plenty of farfetched things in his interview, but this might be the most unbelievable of all. News flash Mark, “coming clean” does not involve continuing to lie—your arrogance is dumbfounding.

3.) “All I tell you is, I’m sorry and it’s been one of the toughest days of my life and I totally regret everything I’ve done.”: Is McGwire sorry that he did steroids or is he just sorry he got caught? It’s not like he accidentally did steroids once and then magically cleaned up his act (looking at you Andy Pettite). Look, people make mistakes, but when they make the same one for 10 years straight they’re way past regret. Did he really have 10 years of “health issues” that forced him to take steroids? Was the increase in strength and batspeed just a nasty side-effect? The only reason McGwire is “sorry” is because the Cardinals told him to and his publicist decided it was the best way for Big Mac to repair his reputation. McGwire is not sorry for what he did, he’s sorry because he’ll never be able to get into the Hall-of-Fame because of it. True repentance involves no ulterior motive.

Mark McGwire finally came out on Monday after years of solitude and told America he was sorry for ever using steroids and that he wished he had never played in the steroid era. Well Mark, I for one don’t forgive you. You didn’t tell the truth five years ago when you had the chance and you aren’t telling the truth now. Baseball fans are not stupid or ignorant; don’t treat them like they are. Tell the truth, apologize and you be will forgiven. Keep on lying, and you will be forever branded a cheater and all of your accomplishments will be marked with an asterisk.

Baseball fans and the entire sport deserve a real apology for what you did Mark. Now go put your shirt on, and give us a call when you’re ready talk.

The Lasting Legacy of Randy Johnson

There will be no debate for voters when Randy Johnson's name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Unlike most sportswriters and columnists who feel the need to write about news the day or the day after it happens (boring), I like to stand above the fray and let the facts work themselves out before putting my thoughts to words. That way, I have the time to properly research the subject in question and I don’t let my emotions get the best of me. So after I heard that Randy Johnson was retiring from baseball, I spent most of the week pouring over his stats and crying until I was so dehydrated that my body could no longer produce tears. It was at the point that I was beginning to hallucinate from dehydration that I finally knew I was ready to put Johnson’s career in perspective, so here it goes:   

Randy Johnson is one of the three greatest left-handed pitchers all-time, along with Warren Spahn and Denny Neagle Lefty Grove. He was the most consistently dominant pitcher in an era ruled by hitters and is easily the best pitcher in the history of the Mariners franchise.  Though he finished second on the career strikeout list to Nolan Ryan, you could make a case that the Big Unit was a superior pitcher to the Ryan Express (Randy had a higher winning percentage, better adjusted ERA, better WHIP, better strikeout-to-walk ratio and killed more birds in his career than Ryan). A quick look at his career numbers; 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA, 100 complete games, 37 shutouts, 4,875 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP; reveals just how incredible Johnson’s career truly was. Statistically there is no doubt that the Big Unit is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, but numbers alone don’t do justice to how intimidating Johnson was, and how much opposing batters hated facing him in his prime. He put the fear of God in hitters with his high-90’s heat and made even the best players look silly (just ask John Kruk). Perhaps more important to society than any of the awards he won or no-hitters he pitched, Randy Johnson proved once and for all to the world that tall, ugly, mustachioed people can do great things, and for that he deserves our heartfelt thanks—and maybe a free haircut.

The Man. The Myth. The Mullet.

One particular four-year stretch of Johnson’s career shows just how otherworldly the Big Unit was. From 1999 through 2002, Johnson posted a 81-27 record with ERA’s of 2.48, 2.64, 2.49 and 2.32 and 1,117 total strikeouts. Randy won the Cy Young Award all four years and led the Diamondbacks to a World Series in just their fourth year in existence by winning three games in the Fall Classic (the first pitcher to do that since Mickey Lolich in 1968). Now, I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau at my disposal like ESPN, but I can reasonably assume that Johnson’s 1999-2002 seasons were one of the best stretches by a pitcher in the history of baseball, especially considering the offensive records being set at the time (even 100% steroid free Luis Gonzalez hit 57 homeruns in 2001). Randy wasn’t just good, he was utterly ridiculous.

As a Mariners’ fan I was lucky enough to see Johnson go from a dangerously wild young pitcher to the ace of Seattle’s staff. Randy, along with Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr, was a major factor in turning around a moribund Mariners franchise and will likely best be remembered for closing the door on the Angels to clinch the AL West title for Seattle in 1995. Depending on what happens with Edgar over the next few years, Randy might be the first Mariner to enter the Hall-of-Fame (followed shortly afterwards by Junior) and will certainly be remembered as one of Seattle’s biggest stars in a golden age for sports in the Emerald City. 

Though the Big Unit may be gone from baseball, he won’t soon be forgotten. Because as I once read on a baseball card advertisement: great players never fade…they become classics.

Bud’s Top Ten Players of 2010 (Part II)

It will be a break or make season in 2010 for Jake Peavy and the White Sox.

I hadn’t planned on releasing the identities of my top five players for 2010 until later in the week, but after an overwhelming number of emails begging me to pick up my dusty keyboard and write again, I really had no choice. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s letting my reader(s) down. So without further ado, here are the top five players I’ll be watching this coming season:  

5.) Jake Peavy/Alex Rios: Both of these players will feel intense pressure to perform in 2010 after failing to live up to expectations last season due to injuries (Peavy) or inconsistency (Rios). Chicago GM Kenny Williams has so much invested in these two players that if the White Sox struggle to compete in the AL Central this year, both his job and that of manager Ozzie Guillen could be in serious jeopardy. Peavy never really got a shot to prove himself last season after being acquired in an unexpected deal with the San Diego Padres, but since he will be receiving around $11 million in 2010, the 28-year-old right hander will be under the microscope as he tries to transition from the NL to the AL, and from a spacious ballpark to a bandbox in Chicago (Career Home ERA: 2.82 vs Career Road ERA: 3.79). Rios played much more like Alexis than Alex after being claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays, hitting only .199 for the White Sox in 146 ABs. He’s also due a sizable chunk of change over the next few seasons and Chicago needs him to improve drastically in 2010 or the team will be out of contention and cash for years to come. Besides, what would the baseball world be like without… Ozzie Guillen?    

Nearly invisible to the naked eye, Josh Johnson might have to switch leagues before anyone notices him.

4.) Josh Johnson: Who is Josh Johnson you say? Well, he’s not one of four quarterbacks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose first name is Josh, although he does make his living in the same state. He’s also not one of 20 people in your hometown with the name Josh Johnson, unless you happen to live in Jenks, Oklahoma. No, the real Josh Johnson is an emerging star pitcher for the Florida Marlins who has gone 22-6 over the past two seasons, including a 15-5 record, 3.23 ERA and 191 K’s in 2009. While Johnson has managed to fly under the radar his first five seasons in baseball, the 25-year-old flamethrower (who owned the third fastest average fastball in baseball last year) is ready to take America by storm, especially after the Marlins trade him to the Red Sox or Yankees. That’s right, just like every talented Marlin before him, Johnson is quickly becoming too expensive for Florida and is on his way to greener pastures (or at least more greenbacks). If the Marlins don’t sign him to a long-term deal before the season starts, expect Johnson to be making headlines for someone in the AL, and to finally receive the attention he deserves. 

 3.) Cliff Lee: Cliff Lee did everything he could to guide the Phillies to another World Series title in 2009, pitching like a true ace down the stretch run and throughout the playoffs. But as suddenly as he appeared in Philadelphia, he was gone. In the biggest deal of the offseason, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner was shipped to Seattle in a three-team trade that saw Roy Halladay (more on him later) head to Philadelphia. Understandably, Lee was both shocked and upset by the blockbuster deal, but he lands in an ideal situation with the Mariners, a team on the rise in the AL West. The 31-year-old lefty will be a free agent after the season, and between feeling slighted by the Phillies and pitching for a new contract, Lee should have all the motivation he needs to be on top of his game in 2010. If Seattle can reach the playoffs (a distinct possibility in a weak division), the one-two combination of Felix Hernandez and Lee could prove lethal in a short series. Look for Lee to challenge for the 2010 AL Cy Young award, collect a $100 million dollar contract after the season and change his middle name to something other than “Phifer”.    

You see, he's not a machine! At least, not fully.

2.) Albert Pujols: Albert Pujols is so good he’s boring. Heck, the guy makes Tim Duncan look like Bill Murray, but that hasn’t stopped him from etching his name in history has one of the greatest right-handed hitters to ever play the game of baseball. Pujols made a serious run at the Triple Crown last year and after off-season elbow surgery and with the strong possibility of Matt Holliday returning to St. Louis, he should be even better in 2010.  With the current home run king (Barry Bonds) and the heir apparent (Alex Rodriguez) both bigger juicers than Jack LaLane, baseball is counting on Pujols to led the sport out of the steroid era and into a golden age of prosperity, or something like that.  

1.) Roy Halladay: After 2010, there will be no debate as to who is the best pitcher in all of baseball; Roy Halladay will be number one with a bullet. Halladay has consistently shown himself to be a top-tier starter despite pitching in the most difficult division in baseball, the AL East, and now finds himself in the National League where he won’t even have to face the NL East’s best offense (it’s his own team, the Phillies). In 2009, the four teams that Halladay faced in the AL East combined to score 3,331 runs in 2009—the four teams in the NL East that he will face in 2010 scored only 2,888 runs last year. The talent gap between the two leagues is wider than Christina Ricci’s forehead the Suez Canal, and Halladay has an opportunity to be historically great in 2010. “Doc” will challenge for career highs across the board, lead the Phillies to another World Series and post the majors first sub-2.00 ERA since Roger Clemens in 2005. Shamwow!

Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 (Part 1)

Aroldis Chapman is set to become a household name in 2010.

As a dual member of baseball’s brain trust and the sportswriting community, I am often approached by strangers on sidewalks or in stores who ask questions like: Why do you use so many commas in your writing? What are your thoughts on Cliff Floyd’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy? Did you ever take any courses on grammar or the English language? Why do people think Dane Cook is funny? And of course, which ten players are you most looking forward to watching in 2010? Well, I can provide little insight on most of their queries (Floyd did hit 34 HR’s 2005 for what it’s worth), so here is a look at Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 in some particular order:  

10.) Aroldis Chapman: Genetically engineered by Cuban scientists (think Ivan Drago or Yao Ming) to become the greatest left-handed pitcher of the 21st century and beyond, the 21-year-old Chapman might not throw a pitch in the majors next season, but the hype surrounding him is reaching New Moon levels. As a lefty who consistently throws in the high-90’s, Chapman could be a long-term impact arm for whatever team (Blue Jays, A’s, Angels, Red Sox or Yankees) ponies up the cash for him. How Chapman fairs in the minors in 2010 will go a long way in determining whether he’s worth the $20-25 million he’s likely to get (which he will of course mail back to Castro to support the resistance) or if he’s just another overpriced bust.  

9.) Alex Rodriguez: With Kate Hudson by his side in 2009, A-Rod captured his first World Series title and performed like a king in the postseason despite a nagging hip injury–but now she’s gone. While his body might be fully healthy in time for 2010 his heart will likely still be on the mend, and many baseball pundits wonder if he will be able to perform at last year’s high level without the flaxen-haired feline by his side. He’s on pace to reach 600 HR’s next season and could make a legitimate push for his fourth MVP with an absolutely stacked Yankees lineup, but can Alex do it with a heavy heart? I just don’t know. 

You've Gotta Love This Guy!

8.) Ken Griffey Jr:  My Seattle Mariners bias aside, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest all around players in the history of baseball and should receive a fond farewell everywhere the M’s play this year, ala Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001. This is the last time fans will be able to see the sweetest swing in baseball and the smile so big and bright that it brought joy to millions around the world. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Not if you are from the Pacific Northwest it isn’t, the “Kid” will always have a special place in our hearts. Hopefully the Mariners can send Junior out on a high note…perhaps with a trip to their first World Series ever?  

7.) Joe Mauer: Coming off the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher last year, Joe Mauer is poised for even bigger things in 2010 (like dating Scarlett Johansson, curing polio and signing a billion dollar contract—seriously, pay him whatever he wants Minnesota). Mauer captured the AL MVP award last year despite missing a month of the season and the sky is the limit for Minnesota’s 26-year-old savior as the Twins move into their brand spankin’ new stadium. With Justin Morneau protecting him in the lineup and having all of this offseason to recover from nagging injuries, will Mauer make another run at hitting .400 in 2010? If he can stay healthy and continue to hit home runs in bunches, Mauer needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Albert Pujols and Adam Everett as one of the best hitters in baseball. Yeah, he’s that good.  

Will 2010 be Felix's last season in Seattle?

6.) Felix Hernandez: Though it seems like he’s been around longer than Methuselah, Felix Hernandez won’t turn 24 until April and has already established himself as one of the top right-handed pitchers in baseball. Hernandez narrowly missed out on capturing the Cy Young award last year (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K’s) and will have even more incentive to perform in 2010 with free agency looming. If the Mariners aren’t able to sign King Felix to a long-term contract sometime soon the team may be forced to move him at the trade deadline in order to recoup their losses. Can you imagine the bidding war for Felix between the Yankees and Red Sox? I think New York would throw in the Statue of Liberty if it brought Hernandez to the Big Apple. Please don’t go Felix, please! 

Coming Soon: Players 5 through 1!