Out of Bounds

Ken Griffey, Jr., who once patrolled center field for 10 years with the Seattle Mariners, decided last week to go back to the place where he started his Hall of Fame career.

Griffey's decision to return to Seattle was mostly a sentimental one. He turned down an opportunity to play close to home with the Atlanta Braves for the Mariners' one year, $2 million deal.

The once perennial center field all-star made a name for himself in Seattle, winning 10 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, seven Silver Slugger awards and an American League Most Valuable Player award in 1997 - the year he hit 56 home runs with 147 RBIs.

Griffey is already the Mariners' all-time leader in home runs with 398 and slugging percentage with .569. Griffey is behind only Edgar Martinez in games played with 1,535. He is also in the top two in Seattle history in hits, RBIs, extra-base hits, at-bats, doubles, runs and total bases.

Although "The Kid" is far from the 1987 top pick he once was, Seattle management, fans and teammates alike are ecstatic to see him back. Griffey will most likely play in left field or as designated hitter for the Mariners, relinquishing his normal center field duties to either Franklin Gutierrez or Endy Chavez. Griffey will be switching back to the number 24, which he gave up while with the Cincinnati Reds.

Griffey's numbers have been in steady decline since the trade in February of 2000 that sent him to Cincinnati. If not for a series of injuries that plagued him, Griffey was on track to be one of the greatest players ever.

This raises the question - especially in light of the latest saga concerning Alex Rodriguez and his admitted steroid use - where will Griffey rank among baseball's elite?

When the dust finally settles around the rubble that is the steroid era, Griffey will emerge as one of the few great, steroid-free players.

Unlike many of his contemporaries such as Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, Griffey has never tested positive for steroids.

Unlike Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, he has never gone in front of Congress and refused to "talk about the past" or forgotten how to speak English.

And unlike Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, or Roger Clemens, he has never been mentioned in the same breath as performance enhancers, let alone been charged with perjury.

In some ways, Griffey remains the one ray of hope shining through the dark cloud over major league baseball. His 611 home runs place him 5th all-time behind only Willie Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and of course, Bonds (762).

In addition, his 1997 MVP season in which he hit 56 home runs may end up being one of the closest steroid-free performances to Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961.

Whatever the case, Ken Griffey, Jr. has been a pleasure to watch, especially in Seattle, and in the end it only seems fitting that he will finish his career wearing the hat that will inevitably adorn his plaque in Cooperstown.

In