Ken Griffey Jr. already has one of the greatest “What if?” careers in history (an absurd question to ask about an inner-circle Hall of Famer with the seventh-most homers all-time, but here we are).
What if he stayed healthy? Could he have beaten Barry Bonds to Hank Aaron’s record? Could he have broken Roger Maris’ record instead of Mark McGwire?
But there’s one more tantalizing hypothetical that could have completely changed the face of baseball at the start of the 21st century: What if Griffey played for the Mets?
It’s almost impossible to fathom -- arguably the game’s biggest pop culture icon since Babe Ruth playing in the No. 1 media market at the start of the new millennium, and batting in the same lineup as Mike Piazza, too -- but it was very nearly our reality. Before Griffey was traded to the Reds in 2000 for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko and Antonio Perez, the Mets and Mariners had agreed to the framework of a deal for the superstar.
This was how it was structured:
Mariners get: Octavio Dotel, Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno
Mets get: Ken Griffey Jr.
The deal soon fell through, because Junior used his 10-and-5 rights to veto the trade.
Let’s hop in our time machine, though, and like the great explorers Bill and Ted, take a look at the six ways the baseball world changes if Griffey said yes.
1. The Mets never reach the 2000 World Series
It’s undeniable that Griffey would have been a massive upgrade at the plate for New York over center fielder Jay Payton. In his first season with the Reds, Griffey stayed healthy and bashed 40 home runs -- his fifth consecutive year reaching the mark. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be enough in October.
Because now the Mets don’t have the pieces to acquire the Astros’ Mike Hampton. While Griffey would have made up for Hampton’s pitching in the regular season (15-10, 3.14 ERA), the lefty decimated St. Louis in the NLCS, throwing 16 scoreless innings en route to winning series MVP honors. Without him, the Mets can’t get past the Cardinals -- who we’ll get to in a moment.
2. The D-backs acquire Mike Hampton (and don’t get Curt Schilling)
Owner Jerry Colangelo was never afraid of being aggressive with this D-backs team. The expansion club needed only one season before reaching the postseason in 1999, thanks in part to signing Randy Johnson and Steve Finley and trading for Luis Gonzalez.
In the real world, the D-backs were quiet heading into the 2000 season, but pushed in their chips to acquire Curt Schilling in June while chasing the NL Wild Card spot. The move wasn’t enough to get them to the postseason in that year, but it paid off handsomely in 2001, when Johnson and Schilling transformed into a mythical two-headed monster to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.
In our alternate universe, though, the D-backs see Hampton's relatively low price prior to the 2000 season and can’t help but acquire the left-hander entering the last year of his contract. Hampton helps the D-backs improve on their 85-win real-world performance, but with only one Wild Card available at the time, it’s not enough to make up the nine-game gap between themselves and the Mets.
Sadly for Arizona fans, Hampton still likes the schools in Colorado and leaves for their NL West rivals after the season. That means the D-backs do not go to World Series in 2001, so there’s no Gonzalez dropping in a blooper against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees win the World Series.
3. D-backs get David Wright
There is one bright spot for Arizona in all this: Now, when Hampton signs with Colorado, it’s Arizona and not New York that gets the comp pick. While there’s no guarantee that the D-backs would have selected Wright with the 38th overall pick, we’ll be charitable and give it to them. It also helps to make up for their first-round selection of Jason Bulger, who only pitched 10 innings in a D-backs uniform.
This impacts plenty of Arizona’s future personnel decisions. With Wright installed at the hot corner, the team doesn’t sign Troy Glaus in 2005, or have him available to trade to Toronto for fan-favorite Orlando Hudson the next season.
Arizona still reaches the NLCS in 2007, with Wright starting at third and then-rookie Mark Reynolds installed at second base, but it’s not enough to top the Rockies.
4. The Cardinals win the 2000 World Series
Don’t worry, Mets fans: Even though the Queens nine don’t reach the World Series, at least the Yankees don’t get another championship in this reality -- because the Cardinals now have Curt Schilling in their rotation to pair with Darryl Kile and Andy Benes.
How does St. Louis end up with Schilling? There were reports that the Cardinals had offered J.D. Drew and Matt Morris to the Phillies, but Arizona was able to top their offer. With the D-backs out of the bidding, St. Louis gets their man.
5. J.D. Drew finally joins the Phillies
We’re swapping multiple World Series winners in this reality, and somehow this could be the biggest change. Drew was famously drafted second overall by Philadelphia in 1997, but declined to sign before being drafted by the Cardinals the next season. Phillies fans -- famously not much for letting bygones be bygones -- heckled him mercilessly every time he came to the city.
Well, in our alternate reality, Drew joins Philadelphia. I can’t even imagine what his first weekend in a Phillies uniform would sound like.
6. Mariners never set the record for most wins in a season
Sadly, things just end up worse for the Mariners. By trading Griffey to the Mets, the team doesn’t have the powerful and speedy Cameron in center field. That may not seem like a huge deal, but Cameron was the third-most valuable M’s player by bWAR when the team won an MLB-record 116 games in 2001. While the team would still be very good, it wouldn’t be record-breakers without Cameron in the lineup.
Perhaps to add insult to injury, with both Dotel and Benitez at the back of the bullpen, the team likely doesn’t sign cult hero Kazuhiro Sasaki. While that wouldn’t make a huge difference in the standings, it would forever alter the experience for Mariners fans -- likely for the worse.
Oh yeah, and perhaps worst of all: No matter if he was in Seattle, Cincinnati or New York, Griffey never gets that World Series ring. Some things never change.