Ken Griffey and Armando Galarraga: Forever Linked

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Ken Griffey and Armando Galarraga: Forever Linked
J. Meric/Getty Images

Baseball has always had a funny way of uniting its players under a common theme, no matter how similar or distinct they are, throughout its illustrious timeline .  

The 1970 season saw two of the game’s most prolific power hitters, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, record their 3,000th hits.

In 2007, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, two of the most highly regarded players who spent their entire careers with hometown ball clubs, were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together.

And, just last year, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, teammates for five seasons and co-contributors to the 2005 White Sox World Series title, hit their career 300th home runs in back-to-back at-bats (a Major League Baseball first). 

On Wednesday, two more players, not very similar at first glance, were seamed together through a twist of fate.

Ken Griffey, Jr., one of the most prominent baseball figures from this generation, announced his retirement after hundreds of home runs, high-flying catches, and outstanding highlights.

That same evening, Armando Galarraga , a Detroit Tigers pitcher with barely two years of Major League experience, nearly threw a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians.

The common thread? Two terrific stories, one spanning 22 years, the other a mere one hour and 44 minutes, finished with very disappointing endings.

As most followers know, Griffey's career started with a burst, almost as impressive as the ones he used to track down every fly ball zipping through Seattle’s Kingdome .

During his first stint with the Mariners, Ken amassed numbers and accolades in 11 seasons that most players would take in 20. He recorded 398 home runs, ten Gold Gloves, a Most Valuable Player Award, and an induction into MLB’s All-Century Team—all before the age of 30. 

The statistics don't begin to do justice for what Griffey meant to Seattle baseball, and to the sport as a whole.

His backwards-cap style, silky-smooth swing, and classic ear-to-ear grin were always welcome sights, whether during a Mariners game, as part of the Home Run Derby (which he won three times), or on the Wheaties cereal box.

And Griffey is often credited for saving baseball in Seattle. By most accounts, his contributions to the 1995 playoff run ultimately influenced the construction of Safeco Field, which established the Mariners as a permanent fixture in the state of Washington.   

As the second half of Griffey’s career commenced, however, his luster rapidly declined.

Ravaged by injuries throughout his tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, Griffey's hopes at eclipsing Aaron (and later Barry Bonds) as the all-time home run record holder were decimated.

Although he had a few decent seasons, Griffey’s career failed to live up to expectations after the 2000 season.

He was traded to the White Sox in 2008, spending half a year there before returning to Seattle for a 2009 swan song with the Mariners. 

Griffey, as he'd done in several previous years, tried to suppress the wrath of Father Time this season. Ken signed another one-year contract with Seattle, only to learn he had had enough.

Galarraga started off just as strong in his tilt against the Indians. In fact, he never skipped a beat through eight and two-thirds innings, retiring 26 straight batters on only 82 pitches. However, the 85th pitch, on a 1-1 count to Tribe shortstop Jason Donald, will be remembered forever.

Donald hit a ground ball to the hole between first and second. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded it cleanly and fed the ball to Galarraga , who was running to cover the bag.

Galarraga received the ball, touched first, and was ready to celebrate the 21st perfect game in MLB history—and the third this season.

Literally in mid-hop, Galarraga , along with the entire Tigers dugout and home crowd, were stunned to see first base umpire Jim Joyce signal “safe”. As countless replays and even Joyce indicated afterwards, the call was wrong.

Nevertheless, Galarraga was not rewarded for his perfect outing. Sports radio hosts, ESPN analysts, and the like debated endlessly about implementing instant replay and called for a reversal of the botched call.

But it was all to no avail.

Two incredible beginnings and two crushing endings.

Two players who did not deserve the hands they were dealt.

Griffey was tormented by constant trips to the disabled list. Galarraga was torched by a bad call from an otherwise well-respected umpire, who would probably make the correct ruling 99 times out of 100.

If there is a silver lining to this otherwise dreary cloud, it is this: both players demonstrated absolute class and deference.

Griffey stands out as someone who is widely believed to have succeeded while staying clean of performance-enhancing drug use over the last two decades. While his fellow sluggers (Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, etc.) are repeatedly scrutinized for their alleged acts of cheating, Griffey has earned the general consensus that his high level of play was the result of pure innate ability.

Similarly, Galarraga has since been praised continuously for how he handled the incident. Rather than display much-warranted frustration, he kept his composure, not only to retire Trevor Crowe for the last out of the ballgame, but also to openly accept Joyce’s apology.

“Nobody is perfect,” he said of the umpire’s mistake. Could there be a more appropriate, bittersweet response to such a situation?

The following day, Galarraga handed the next game’s lineup card to a teary-eyed Joyce, showing that all was forgiven and it was time to move on.  

And, indeed, it is time to move on, for both Galarraga and Griffey.

The separate epilogues are left to be written—Griffey’s indisputable trip to Cooperstown and the future of instant replay as a result of Galarraga’s misfortune.

But, for now, the stories have come to a close. 

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