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Green: Ken Griffey Jr.'s grace earns place in Hall

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Some of the images from the old ballpark cannot be spoiled. They remain clear nearly a quarter-century later, long after the grandstands of Tiger Stadium have been crumbled by the wrecker’s iron ball and while the people fight to preserve a precious landmark.

This happened on a day in the 1990s. The batter drilled a line drive toward right center field, a double for sure. For sure — to all but the center fielder, for he darted hard to his left. And somehow he reached the ball as his body raced hell-bent for the unforgiving outfield wall. Then just before he would smash himself into the wall, he extended his leg and jammed it forward. He careened backward after his foot struck the wall, still caressing the baseball in his glove.

It was as fine a catch as I have ever seen in all the baseball games that remain archived in my mind.

And so I have placed Ken Griffey Jr.’s name on my ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He belongs. He belongs in Cooperstown with other guys who were similar ballplayers and for whom I voted through the years — Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.

Ken Griffey Jr. was that style of ballplayer.

That day his quick joust left saved him from a terrible crash, no doubt.

Splendid embrace

And there other vignettes of this ballplayer during his career with the Mariners and the Reds.

Boston was celebrating Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game.

The Red Sox arranged a ceremony to honor their great hitter. They painted Ted’s No. 9 in center field in Fenway Park. Then Major League Baseball commanded the All-Stars from the American and National Leagues to line up at parade rest on the infield from first base to third.

An honor guard for the greatest hitter of the last 60 years of the 20th Century — twice called to duty in wartime as a Marine Corps aviator.

Then a Red Sox attendant rolled Williams in a wheelchair from beneath the center field bleachers onto the field. The Boston fans cheered and shrieked.

The guys in the Fenway pressbox stood and broke protocol with earnest applause. Including this Detroit ancient, who once had inhabited that same Fenway center field bleachers grandstand to watch Ted.

Ted was pushed to the pitcher’s mound. And for the first time, perhaps ever in Fenway, he removed his cap and waved it to his fans.

The players honor guard had been ordered to stand in place through the celebration.

But then — suddenly — one of the All-Stars broke ranks and ran to Ted to shake his hand.

It was a sign of respect — one ballplayer to another, for a now handicapped ancient, who had once dominated the sport.

Ken Griffey Jr. ran in alone to shake Williams’ hand and embrace him.

It was, to me, a classic scenario at an event designed to honor the best pure batsman since Ty Cobb nearly 75 years earlier.

Griffey was the leader.

All the other All-Stars, 60 or so of the best players in the Major Leagues, left their places.

They created a mob scene around Ted Williams — hugging him, shaking his hand, whispering their respects.

Solitary shot

Ken Griffey Jr.'s 630 home runs ranks No. 6 among career leaders.

One other imperishable image:

Griffey was playing for the Reds in Comerica Park one Saturday night, perhaps eight years or so ago.

The Tigers had the unfortunate Joel Zumaya in the game in relief with his 100 mile per hour-plus fastball before it perished. Griffey had a smooth, fluid left-handed batting stroke, standing upright at the plate.

Zumaya challenged Griffey with a sizzling pitch of 100 mph.

Griffey took his normal swing and sent the baseball toward right center. Gravity never brought down the baseball. It stopped only when it arrived halfway up Comerica’s right field bleachers.

It was one of Griffey’s later home runs of the 630 he hit in his 22 seasons. He is No. 6 on the baseball’s all-time home-run list — clean without doubt — in the era of No. 1 Barry Bonds.

And, yes, I also did tick off Bonds’ name as one of my maximum 10 candidates.

Bonds, of course, will not get in because there are too many moralists among the 575 or so members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, given the responsibility of voting annually for election to Cooperstown.

I regard it as a privilege to cast a Hall of Fame ballot, a high honor. I try to vote as diligently and faithfully as I can.

My ballot included Bonds along with Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell — the suspects in the steroids scandal. They played and set most of their records before former commissioner Bud Selig’s belated efforts to enforce his campaign to eliminate users of performance enhancers in baseball.

To me, what those guys did on the ballfield remain in the records. And those record-holders belong in Cooperstown. Tarnished a bit, as Babe Ruth and Cobb were.

I also ticked Alan Trammell’s name on my ballot for the 10th and last time. Alan won’t get in, but he’ll be moved to the veteran’s selections committee for future consideration.

Mike Piazza likely will make it this time, he was so close last year. For the record I also voted Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines and Gary Sheffield.

There was no spot for write-ins. Thus, I could not write in the name of Pete Rose, who performed with great spirit and competence and whom I believe belongs despite some of his wayward adventures with gambling.

Selig and Rod Manfred, the rookie commissioner, see no such justification.

But then again Selig and his henchmen were the muck mucks who tried to prevent Ken Griffey Jr. — and his athlete colleagues — for embracing Ted Williams that evening 16 years ago in Boston.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.