The latest wisdom among baseball pundits, most of whom have not swung a bat since Little League, holds that soon the game must produce the most appealing athlete in the country in order to regain its high perch as the national pastime, to restore the mythic dimension that faded away when .230 hitters with bad attitudes began making a million bucks a year.

The pitching coach advises his faltering starter, "Babe Ruth is dead! Throw strikes!"

Well, yes, Babe Ruth is dead. And no one seems to know where Joe DiMaggio has gone. While their descendants jaked it in the outfield or took spring training at Betty Ford, basketball players quickly supplanted baseball's stars as the most admired figures in U.S. sports. Michael Jordan grinned from the morning Wheaties box while leading his club to three straight NBA championships. Every kid in America brayed for Magic Johnson sneakers. Larry Bird inspired sudden confidence in gangly farm boys who feared they'd spend the rest of their lives repairing tractors. Meanwhile, Charles Barkley pulled off a daring stunt: He became a role model while fervently denying any responsibility for the role-model role. Oh, that Chas. What a card.

But a glance at these dominant hoopsters' names tells you something, of course. Bird retired with aches and pains. Magic became the nation's most famous HIV patient and shortest-term NBA coach. Sir Charles is carefully checking out his sore back before committing to another season of hell. Jordan, the biggest star of all, has leaped off his pedestal (for now) to wave at curveballs in the minor leagues. Suddenly there's a star vacuum on the hardwood, and that's why the pundits now see a unique opportunity for baseball to recapture the American soul.

Enter Ken Griffey Jr.
Although some people had never heard of him before last week, baseball junkies know the scintillating young center-fielder of the Seattle Mariners as the best player in the American League, perhaps in the entire game. Just 24, he's already in his sixth big-league season, a .300 hitter with power to spare and defensive skills so spectacular that he lights up the dank gloom of the Kingdome with flying catches against the wall. Last July the four-time All Star tied a major-league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games, then went on to set seasonal franchise records with 359 total bases, 86 extra-base hits, 45 homers, 113 runs scored and a .617 slugging average.

As it turns out, that was child's play. This year Junior is going after Roger Maris. And that's what could crown him as the most beloved athlete in American sports--the Muhammad Ali of his time, the Babe Ruth of the Nineties--and restore the game of baseball to its former glory.

Or so the pundits say.
The outward signs of a Griffey coronation couldn't be brighter. In thirty at-bats last week, the maturing slugger hit seven home runs, bringing his total for the year to 21. On May 23! Before June 1! Juiced baseball or no juiced baseball, this was a feat for the ages. Since 25-year-old Mickey Mantle stroked twenty homers in April and May en route to his 52-home-run season of 1956, no one had come close to such a power start. Einsteins in saloons everywhere immediately began projecting Griffey's home-run total for the year. Sixty? Seventy? Seventy-five? As of Monday morning, his total was 22. He was hitting .337 and had batted in 48 runs in 1994.

Now, even casual baseball fans--those who couldn't care less about the exquisite timing of the 3-6-3 double play or the seamlessness of a no-hitter--have become instant Ken Griffey Jr. experts. Ours is a home-run culture, not a two-singles-and-a-perfect-sac-bunt culture, so the genius slurping Bud Lite on the next barstool will be happy to tell you that Maris's season record of 61 home runs, set in 1961, is toast. And that before he's done, Griffey will become the greatest slugger of all time.

That could be. But it's Junior's other qualities, combined with his unimpeachable skills, that qualify him for the highest praise in the game. Told a few seasons back that he was the next Willie Mays, he smiled shyly and said his name was Ken Griffey Jr. Informed last season that, by his 24th birthday, he had hit 132 home runs, whereas all-time leader Henry Aaron had only 110 at that age, Junior replied that he was still Junior. Reminded last week that he had the Ruth and Maris records clearly in his sights, he said something about trying for good, solid at-bats. And helping his team. After hitting number 21 last week he said, quite sincerely, that what really mattered to him was matching his father's career home-run total of 152.

Clearly, the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Griffey's father, Ken Sr., the great Cincinnati Red of yore, has schooled his son not only in protecting the plate when behind in the count but in guarding the self when assaulted by nonsense. The kid is canny beyond his years. By contrast, half a dozen other baseball stars emerged in recent years, each seemingly equipped to take on the superstar mantle the pundits are now talking about. But none of them rose to the occasion.

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.


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