Baseball conspiracies aren’t exactly a new concept. Late into Jose Canseco’s career, as he was just one healthy season away from 500 career home runs and a then guaranteed trip to the Hall of Fame, Jose couldn’t find a job to save his life. The White Sox, a loser organization if there ever was one, released him. The Yankees signed him, just to bench him. The Montreal Expos, who were so bad they don’t even exist anymore, released him during Spring training. His last ditch effort with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he offered to play for free, ended in Jabba the Hut Tommy Lasorda calling Jose fat in the media. It was clear that MLB put a bounty out on Canseco’s career due to the information he had on dozens of beloved superstars. MLB needed a scapegoat and they found the least likeable baseball player, perhaps in the entire history of the game, in Canseco.
The same thing happened to MLB’s *Home Run King, Barry Bonds, and he wound up suing for collusion when he suddenly found himself out of work. Bonds and Canseco didn’t invent performance enhancing drugs nor were they the game’s first and/or only cheaters but they were despised and Bud Selig knew they would garner little to no sympathy. Canseco and Bonds both had time left but were pushed out of the game and as it stands today, will likely never be enshrined in Cooperstown. There were other players who cheated, multiple times even, but all was forgiven because their popularity alone brought fans into the stadiums. There were even great ball players with monstrous physiques that were putting up ungodly numbers but again, MLB officials turned a blind eye, due to popularity and ticket sales.
One such player was Ken Griffey Jr.
By the start of the 1997 season, “The Kid” was the biggest star in baseball, hands down. By age 26, Griffey Jr. was the American League’s premier slugger and a 7-time All-Star. Around this time, people started to take note that his home run totals were starting to pile up and thus began the Hank Aaron Chase, which at this point in his career, was almost a guarantee, if only he could remain healthy for another decade and a half. Griffey Jr., like Canseco, McGwire, and Bonds, packed on quite a bit of mass and seemingly went from a 25-home run type player to a 45-50 home run slugger seemingly overnight.
While Junior made the big leagues at age 19, there was a prospect named Jose Cruz Jr., who struggled to make the show. Jose was much smaller than Griffey Jr. in height and weight. He also suffered from a bit of a hole in his swing which ultimately became his downfall in the latter part of his career. However, none of that mattered as he was called up in 1997 to join the Mariners, who were contenders for the AL West. While Cruz Jr. was expected to develop into a 5-tool player with time, what Seattle got was the shot in the arm they desperately needed as Cruz Jr. managed to outplay Griffey Jr. in the 49 games he suited up with the Mariners.
Not only did Cruz Jr. out homer his much more famous Junior teammate, who would end up as the 1997 MVP with 56 home runs, he was clearly and perhaps surprisingly way more popular with the fans in Seattle. The Mariners had a line-up of Griffey Jr., Edgard Martinez, Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez, and Jose Cruz Jr., who in a month and a half, was on pace for 40+ home runs and Rookie of the Year honors.
Unfortunately, what happened July 31st was a travesty. Somehow, the team’s greatest asset of the 1997 season up to that point, Cruz Jr., was traded for relief pitchers, Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Not surprisingly, Cruz Jr.’s trade to Canada upset his meteoric momentum and his bat ultimately cooled off as he finished the year with just 26 home runs and 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting. In time, Cruz Jr. put up some big numbers for Toronto, including a 30-30 season, but sadly, he was never the same player and never played a full season again after the age of 30.
My question is why would the Mariners, who were desperate for a playoff run, trade their hottest player? Not only was Cruz Jr. their best player through 49 games but being in his rookie season, he was also their least expensive one to hang on to. Jay Buhner was old and incidentally, 1997 would go on to be his last great season. Edgar Martinez had a few good seasons left but he too was easily replaceable at DH. Why trade away what was basically looking like a younger, cheaper Ken Griffey Jr, for two unheralded relief pitchers?
I don’t pretend to be a Ken Griffey Jr. fan and in my only interaction with him with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008, I was shocked to see how unfriendly and unhappy he appeared to be publicly. I remember watching him jog to his team bus after a game (long before the Autograph Hound craze) and ignore children and young fans. I mean, not even a glance our way. Meanwhile, 85% of his team went on to sign and pose for photos for 15-20 minutes for the opposing team’s fans. I had always heard the narrative pushed down my throat that “The Kid” loved the game, played it the “right” way, and most of all, loved his fans. That hot Florida day in 2008, made me question those media generated statements.
Just like Canseco, Griffey Jr.’s body began to break down in the later stage of his career. I would imagine he was miserable knowing that he was baseball’s chosen one but would fall very short of Aaron’s home run crown. Thanks to the 1994 baseball strike, he even missed out on the single season home run record and got to watch it fall to Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and later, Barry Bonds. Ken Griffey Jr. was a legendary baseball player that reached great numbers and accomplished much in his career but he never truly lived up to expectations. That day in 2008 made me wonder what he was really like back in 1997, at the top of his game with some younger, let’s face it, better-looking kid, suddenly getting all the attention and admiration from the Seattle fans.
My conspiracy theory is that with Griffey Jr. being on top of the baseball world, certainly did not appreciate the fans turning on him for a younger Junior with seemingly the same power and pushed for the organization to ship Cruz Jr. at the trade deadline. Please give me ANY OTHER POSSIBLE explanation to trade away your hottest player (not to mention the American League’s) to Canada for nearly nothing in return? The Griffey Jr. I encountered was a malcontent and nothing at all what baseball had sold us all throughout the 90s.
One thing is clear, on paper, Ken Griffey Jr. had his career year in 1997, winning the MVP, a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and a trip to the All Star Game, while leading the league in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. After 1997, he was never that dominant again and by 2001, injuries began to plague Junior’s career. Would he have been that great in 1997 had it not been for Cruz Jr. being shipped away? We will never know. We also will never know how being traded in his first season after finding so much success at the plate, mentally affected Jose Cruz Jr., who also never seemed to reach his true potential after one of the hottest starts in baseball.
In 2012, I reached out to Jose Cruz Jr. and presented him with this exact narrative. His response? “Interesting…”. He then followed up with a tweet saying he gave his all to baseball and was proud to have never appeared on any steroid lists. I don’t expect someone still involved with the game to come out and tell his side because as we all know, what goes on the locker room, stays in the locker room. I still couldn’t believe he responded as he did and certainly didn’t deny my statements and even brought up performance enhancing drugs.
In the end, I will always feel disappointment for what Jose Cruz Jr. could have been whenever I run into his early year baseball cards. This was a kid being compared to Hank Aaron who ended up, at the end of his career, fighting for his life on an MLB roster before hanging up his cleats at the young age of 34. Meanwhile, Griffey Jr., while falling short in many record books, made it into the Hall of Fame, almost unanimously, with 99.32% of the votes and is as beloved today, maybe even more so, than he was during his playing days when he was staring down a record he could never truly catch up to.