If you tuned in late, as I did, it was almost unendurable. A funereal "live feed" from Seattle, overlaid with the words KEN GRIFFEY JR. PRESS CONFERENCE. The Mariners' general manager, Pat Gillick, described Griffey's recent days as "agonizing." The shaken Mariners chairman, Howard Lincoln, said gravely of Griffey, "This is a man who has made a very courageous decision." The centerfielder himself was absent--understandable, under the excruciating circumstances.
The source of Griffey's agony—and the reason for what appeared to be his imminent retirement—went unsaid for several sobering moments. I knew only that Griffey had delivered, as the AP would report, "devastating news," and had issued a statement expressing his desire to spend "more time with my wife and young children." Was it cancer? Kidney disease? At long last came the answer: Junior had requested a trade.
Seeing the grim realities of war firsthand taught Hemingway that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage...were obscene." But Papa, don't preach; you never had to cover a '90s celebrity, in whose upside-down world every act is increasingly portrayed—by his peers, by the press, even by spurned front-office personnel—as an act of valor. In recent years we have ennobled sobriety. (When some C-list actor announces that it's his 47th day without a drink, on a talk show, he gets a standing O.) We have dignified dim-wittedness. (Darryl Strawberry refers to his recent coke-and-hooker bust as "the situation that happened to me," and no one mentions that he happened to the situation.) Among athletes, the absence of a criminal record passes for a Schweitzer-like magnanimity.
So, while it may seem obvious to you that demanding a trade is hardly "very courageous," or that spurning $140 million only to get it elsewhere is something short of "agony," or that a man can both play baseball in Seattle and spend time with his family if his family chooses to live in Seattle, it is clearly not obvious to everyone. Thus the responsible journalist is compelled to ask Messrs. Gillick, Lincoln and Griffey the question Frasier once put to Cliff on Cheers. Gentlemen, "What color is the sky in your world?"
Here on Earth (sky color: blue) you need a decoder ring to understand what the Neptunians who walk among us are really saying in their televised news conferences. It is clear, for instance, that the desire to Spend More Time with My Family (SMTWMF) has become an all-purpose preemptive strike against
criticism for any trade demand, free-agency filing or prolonged Vegas craps-table bender. While no one should question Griffey's sincerity in wanting to SMTWMF, there is no law requiring that his primary residence be the Florida enclave of Isleworth—the elite athlete's tax haven, the American Monte Carlo. Living in Orlando is a decision "he had to make for his family" only if his
children are Huey, Dewey and Louie.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Griffey's choosing to live in Florida. But doing so is neither courageous nor agonizing, except in certain parts of Miami. It's simply what ballplayers do. Griffey isn't emulating Patrick Henry, he's emulating Butch Henry. To employ the language of heroism to describe his decision, so as to confuse the citizens of Washington State, who just built a $517 million ballpark with public funds...well, Papa, that's obscene.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO