In media-mad New York, the awesome young slugger Darryl Strawberry helped the Mets win a World Series in 1986 and first looked to be Willie, Mickey and the Duke rolled into one. Then he went home to L.A. This spring, he wound up in drug rehab two days after the season opener. In San Francisco, Giants first-baseman Will Clark seemed for a spell the next Great One, but that humorless scowl and his departure for remote Texas didn't help. Jose Canseco? For every home run he hit, he seemed to get a speeding ticket, and despite what the groupies tell you, a real baseball god doesn't wind up at Madonna's apartment at three in the morning. How about Frank Thomas, the White Sox' huge first baseman? Maybe, but the Big Hurt broods, and until the Sox win a World Series, which might be a while, he's likely to remain best known on Chi-Town's South Side.
That brings us, of course, to Griffey's only legitimate rival for the crown. Like Junior, Barry Bonds is a second-generation major-leaguer, with all the advantages and expectations that brings with it. The National League's 1993 home-run leader with 46 and its RBI king (123), he's been that league's Most Valuable Player three times, and this season the San Francisco Giants probably will go as far as Bonds can carry them. But this young star also has proven as mouthy and mercenary as a young star can get, so whenever he whiffs in Philly or San Diego or his old park in Pittsburgh, no one sheds a tear. Bonds is the real thing on the field but can be sheer ego otherwise. Besides, as Marge Schott will tell you, only fruits wear earrings.
So baseball's dreams of renewed glory ride with Griffey--as long as a players' strike doesn't scuttle his season come July. If the game is to yield up the Great American Hero, why not Griffey? He plays with skill and pride, and he fulfills the blunt American demand for sheer power--he's the kind of dominant slugger the mass audience shouts for. He also plays with great joy, comes from a famous baseball family and smiles so brilliantly that he reminds old fans of their youth and kids of what might be.
On the other hand, Griffey plays in Seattle, a city known better for its grunge icons and broiled salmon than its prowess on the diamond: Last year the Mariners finished above .500 for only the second time in their history, and while some predicted vast improvement in 1994, poor pitching now has the club mired at 20-28. Despite the long reach of ESPN and USA Today, Griffey might toil in splendid obscurity until his team gets into the playoffs.
There's something else, too. The ancient thing. Although most baseball fans won't admit it, too many Americans (and three or four major-league owners) still like their baseball heroes to have white faces. Racism is our real tragedy, not the balance of trade with the Japanese, and even if Ken Griffey Jr. hits ninety home runs this year, there will be those who sneer. Don't believe it? Ask Henry Aaron. On the eve of breaking Ruth's career home-run record twenty years ago, he got death threats laced with redneck venom. Think things have changed?
In any event, the glory of Griffey is that he doesn't think much about becoming baseball's new symbol, or America's Player, or the guy who surpasses Maris. For him, if not for us, it's enough to be great.