Few situations in sports can be as tricky to navigate as the final years of a great player's career. Fans don't want to see a legend fade away -- that reminds us too much of our own mortality and lost youth. At the same time, ballclubs don't want to keep paying an exorbitant salary to a big name who doesn't produce the gaudy numbers anymore.
Thankfully, Ken Griffey Jr. isn't quite at that point yet. Though he hasn't been healthy for a full season for nearly a decade, The Kid can still play. He's a force in any lineup he's in (22 home runs, .964 OPS) and appears rejuvenated by not having to deal with the day-to-day rigors of playing center field.
More important, he's still a name, a living legend who serves as pretty much the only reason to watch the otherwise sad bunch of losers known as the Cincinnati Reds. The last time this club had a winning season was 2000, when manager Jack McKeon wasn't even a septuagenarian yet. They contended in 2006, finishing only 3.5 games behind the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. But other than that, the Griffey Era hasn't lived up to the expectations that were created with that 1999 trade from Seattle.
With Griffey healthy this late in the season and the club squarely in last place, there has been talk of a possible trade. Better to get rid of him and the rest of his massive contract -- which runs through 2008 with a $16.5 million option for '09 ($4 million buyout) -- while they have a chance, right? Get out while the getting is good?
That would be a mistake.
Trading away Griffey wouldn't net the Herschel Walker-like bounty in return that the Reds need to get back into contention, not unless the Angels want to give up their entire bullpen for him. Trading the underappreciated Adam Dunn, which has been the hot rumor all summer, would make some sense if they can get enough in return, especially with so many young sluggers in the farm system (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs) and the emergence of Josh Hamilton. Combined with a decent rotation that includes Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo (who has pitched better than his 2-9 record), and the young Homer Bailey (who needs to learn he can't blow his fastball by everybody in the majors), the right deal could make a real difference for this team in the weak NL Central.
But dealing Griffey is another matter altogether, because there's more involved than simply making a good baseball trade. Griffey, for better or worse, has become the identity of this franchise. As bad as things have been for the Reds, at least they still have that -- an identity. You want to know what life is like for a losing team without an identity? Ask the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will testify to the fact that losing is bad enough, but irrelevance is even worse.