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Junior gets another shot at October

Imagine the grief baseball might have been spared had Ken Griffey Jr. always had his health.

Odds are it would have been Griffey, not the physically distorted Barry Bonds, chasing, catching and surpassing Hank Aaron as the all-time home run king. Doubtless the achievement would have been cause for celebration instead of warily viewed by suspicious eyes, as was the case with Bonds.

If Junior plays unhampered, the face of the career home run champion could have been splashed with a smile instead of Bonds' perpetual scowl. Commissioner Bud Selig might even have managed a good night's sleep.

Griffey, 38, was baseball's elite positional talent throughout the 1990s, an embarrassment of riches. He hit for average, hit for power and covered center field with an exhilarating grace reminiscent of Willie Mays, who coincidentally is the godfather of Bonds. It seemed that no less than once a week baseball's highlights featured Griffey scaling a wall to mute someone else's thunder.

Through their first 10 seasons Griffey homered 340 times, Bonds 292. Griffey went deep 56 times in consecutive seasons, his ninth and 10th. Bonds hit 50 or more once, in 2001, the year he pulled 73 out of a hat (or was it a vial?) to eclipse the single-season record that Mark McGwire, fueled by Andro and perhaps other performance enhancers, had swiped from Roger Maris. Yet throughout this decade the headlines have belonged to Bonds, anonymity to Griffey.

Junior appeared destined to slip into retirement without an encore until the Chicago White Sox acquired him at the trade deadline, rescuing him from a Cincinnati franchise mired in mediocrity.

Coincidentally, Griffey's return to the postseason for the first time since 1997 corresponds with Bonds having been pushed into exile. Interesting how that worked out.

But age and a litany of injuries have deprived Griffey of his former self. He tore a hamstring in 2001, his second season with the Reds, and was subsequently felled by a torn patella tendon, a dislocated shoulder and toe, and ankle problems. He played in less than 85 games a season in 2002 through 2004. How many home runs more than 611 might he have if not for all those at-bats lost to the disabled list? What kind of numbers might he have produced without the cumulative effect of the ceaseless ailments?

The Sox acquired him as much for his presence as his lingering talents while remaining hopeful that a shot at the postseason would invigorate him. That hope played out in an unexpected way in the American League Central tiebreaker game against Minnesota, when Griffey threw out Michael Cuddyer at the plate from center field, keeping scoreless a game the White Sox would win, 1-0.

"[General Manager] Kenny Williams and Ozzie and [White Sox Chairman Jerry] Reinsdorf have given me a chance. I can't thank them enough," Griffey said after that game. "The hardest part was getting [to the playoffs]. Now it's just a matter of us going out there and doing what we've been doing."

Griffey had the look of an anxious hitter as Chicago dropped the playoff opener, 6-4, to Tampa Bay on Thursday afternoon. He was hitless in four at-bats, striking out twice while fishing for balls out of the zone. It was a far cry from October 1995, when he homered five times in 23 postseason at-bats. But at least he was once again getting in some October swings on his way to Cooperstown.

"This is one of the main reasons you play," Griffey said. "You always think about hitting that home run to win the World Series, the Joe Carter walk-off shot. I still have that dream."

That dream is no longer as reasonable as it once was. But at least Junior's back in the postseason, the only place when it can come true.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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