During their primes Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. were the two greatest hitters of their era.
Both second-generation ballplayers, having famous fathers who had enjoyed their own successful careers, Bonds and Griffey were lifelong acquaintances that had similar career paths and comparable numbers through their primes.
While their paths to Major League Baseball were similar, their legacies would wind up very different.
Barry Bonds debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 and went on to finish sixth in Rookie of the Year voting at the age of 21. He would play seven seasons for the Pirates, totaling 176 career home runs, batting .275 and winning two MVP awards, before signing as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants in 1993.
From 1993-2007, Bonds would rewrite the history books while wearing a San Francisco Giants uniform, playing for the team his father had. Bonds would go on to win six more MVP awards during that span and amass an unbelievable 586 additional home runs, including a single-season record 73 home runs in 2001. By the time Barry would finish playing his final major-league game in 2007, he would own the career record for home runs with 762.
Ken Griffey, Jr. had his own share of early success. Griffey debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 1989 at the age of 19 and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. In 11 seasons with the Mariners, Griffey would receive MVP votes in nine seasons, winning the 1997 MVP award.
Griffey would hit 398 career home runs in his first stint with the Mariners while batting .299 over the 11-year span. The Seattle Mariners truly had the most iconic player of his generation during his prime.
In 2000, at the age of 30, Griffey requested and was granted a trade to Cincinnati in order to play closer to his home in Florida. Griffey’s tenure with the Reds was marred with injuries and was nowhere close to the elite level of play he enjoyed while a member of the Mariners. While playing for Cincinnati, Griffey would enjoy several key milestones: Home runs number 400, 500 and 600 would all come while wearing the same Reds uniform his father wore.
In 2008 the Reds traded Griffey to the Chicago White Sox for the remainder of the season. In 2009, Junior would re-sign with the Seattle Mariners to bring his career full circle and eventually retire with the team that gave him his start. Griffey retired in the middle of last season with 630 career home runs, 132 behind his longtime friend, Barry Bonds.
It was long before their careers wound down, though, that Bonds and Griffey found themselves heading in different directions.
Following the conclusion of the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 that captured the attention of the country, Bonds and Griffey reportedly met in Florida at Griffey’s house. The two had a discussion that would see them make very different decisions that will ultimately affect how both are remembered.
In his book Love Me, Hate Me, Jeff Pearlman tells a story in which Bonds met with Griffey and confided in his longtime friend over dinner that he was about to start taking some “hard-core stuff.” Bonds was jealous of the attention that McGwire and Sosa received, feeling that he was the superior athlete and ballplayer and was not receiving his due recognition. While Bonds chose to elevate his game by cheating, Griffey chose to stay clean.
Regardless of whether or not the conversation happened, the decision by Bonds to use steroids, and Griffey to remain clean, alters the outcomes of two great careers.
Both players are now out of the game; only memories of their accomplishments remain. Bonds was shunned by all 30 teams following the 2007 season, and Griffey retired in the middle of the 2010 season quietly and without any fanfare—a sad ending to the careers of two of baseball’s greatest players.
In neither case was it the end to their baseball stories though.
Barry Bonds will be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame following the 2012 season. Griffey will be eligible after 2015. Would you care to wager a guess as to which player is enshrined first?
As spring training 2011 winds down and today’s major leaguers prepare for the regular season, the current role that each player holds tells the tale.
Griffey is a special instructor in Mariners spring training and a special assistant to the front office. Griffey is still embraced within the game of baseball.
Bonds, shunned by San Francisco Giants ownership, is sitting in a federal courtroom listening to testimony as a federal grand jury decides if he perjured himself in stating that he never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs.
Details of Bonds’ steroid use will undoubtedly emerge and stick in the minds of the fans and baseball writers who will eventually decide Bonds’ fate in baseball immortality. In reality, though, no additional details are really necessary. Bonds was convicted in the court of public opinion long ago.
As a result, 762 is not the same as 755; 73 is not as important as 61. Hank Aaron is still the king, and Roger Maris is still the man to beat for the single-season mark.
The memory of Barry Bonds is not the all-around athlete that won MVP awards in the early 1990s for the Pirates or the player the Giants signed that helped them to the playoffs in 1997. That slender athlete that could hit for average and power, play Gold Glove defense and was a constant threat on the basepaths is long forgotten, replaced by the mutation that emerged as a result of his dealings with BALCO.
The memory of Ken Griffey, Jr., on the other hand, is still that fun-loving, backwards-hat-wearing ballplayer that made the game look easy. Yes, we will remember that Griffey was injured more often than not as his career wound down, but there is not a hint of any wrongdoing. Had Griffey had better luck and remained healthy, he could have stood ahead of Bonds in the record books. It will be Griffey that enjoys induction into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, while Bonds waits.
While 630 stands just below Willie Mays in fifth on the all-time home run list, at least to me, it stands above 762.
Brandon McClintock covers Major League Baseball for BleacherReport.com. You can follow Brandon on twitter @BMcClintock_BR.