A burning question for baseball fans

By John Romano
Updated: June 5, 2010

FLORIDA — They were both sons of big-league ballplayers, seemingly brought into the world to play this game.

One arrived in the National League in 1986 and soon won the first of his seven most valuable player Awards.

The other arrived in the American League in 1989, and soon began a streak of 11 consecutive All-Star appearances.

At one time or another, in the two decades that followed, each was considered the elite ballplayer of his generation. And now that both have walked away?

One owns the most prestigious record in the game. The other saw his career fall short of expectation.

Yet I still wonder: Is it Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. who is living with the greater regret? Bonds has all of the numbers but little of the glory. Griffey has lesser statistics but a reputation for integrity.

The difference, in real-life terms, could be summed up this way:

Griffey, the guy who has a lower batting average and fewer home runs than Aubrey Huff for the past eight seasons, could walk in any stadium in Major League Baseball today and hear an ovation worthy of a legend.

And Bonds, who hit more home runs than any player who ever lived, rarely ventures far from San Francisco because half the world considers his career to be a sham.

Still, it is not unreasonable to wonder if each envies what the other has.

For throughout most of the 1990s it was widely assumed Griffey had the best chance of replacing Henry Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run king. Griffey was younger. Griffey had shown more power. Griffey had the right temperament.

By the time the 2000 season ended, Bonds had 494 career homers and Griffey had 438.

But what we assumed was the bigger issue was that Bonds was 36 and Griffey was still a month shy of 31.

Using a career assessments chart developed by groundbreaking statistician Bill James, at that point Bonds was on pace to finish his career with 627 home runs.

Statistically speaking, he had zero percent chance of reaching 762.

Using that same formula, Griffey was projected to finish his career with 742 home runs. He had a 44 percent chance of reaching 762.

Yet, we all know what happened. Or we assume we know what happened.

Bonds began taking performance-enhancing drugs and started hitting home runs at a pace never seen before. Certainly not by a player in his late 30s.

He broke Aaron’s record and finished with 762 home runs.

Griffey, who never has been accused of using steroids, started to fade. Injuries began to multiply. For the last half-dozen seasons of his career, he was barely an average player and finished with 630 home runs.

So who made the right decision?

Obviously, the correct answer — the morally responsible answer — is Griffey. He left the game with fewer home runs but more dignity.

But, if we’re being honest, wouldn’t you at least wonder what might have been if you are Griffey? Wouldn’t you grapple with the rationalization that — as Mark McGwire claimed — the performance-enhancing drugs were only meant to keep your body intact?

And what of Bonds? He was never as outgoing as Griffey. He was never going to be the most popular man in the room. But even he has to regret what has become of his reputation. As surly as Bonds could be, he still desperately sought validation. He wanted it from Aaron. He wanted it from Bud Selig. And he wanted it from fans.

Yet he has none of it today. He has the home run standard, and he has his admirers in San Francisco. Beyond that, he has a life that must be lived in the pages of a record book. The irony is his career was Hall of Fame worthy before he was linked to steroids, but now his candidacy could be in doubt.

So, again, who lives with the greater regret?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Griffey has his moments of doubt. I wouldn’t be shocked if he feels he was the only clean player in an era of cheaters, and his career suffered accordingly because of it.

But as sacred as numbers are in baseball, they are still no substitute for honor. Now that his career is complete, Griffey can wake up every morning knowing he has no reason to contemplate shame.

Two great ballplayers whose careers began a few years apart but eventually traveled in different directions.

One has baseball’s greatest record. The other has our respect.