Red-Letter Day Their ardor undampened by a downpour, the good burghers of Cincinnati opened their hearts and wallets for the return of hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr.

April 09, 2000

The homecoming king wants no part of any crown. He is, he droned
last week, "a regular guy." Ken Griffey Jr. insisted on that
Monday evening as he pulled on his Ken Griffey Jr. limited
edition denim jacket to match his Ken Griffey Jr. limited
edition denim jeans to go with his specially produced Nike
sneakers (not available in stores).

He insisted on that after half the city of Cincinnati seemed to
be wearing something with GRIFFEY stitched or silk-screened on
it, turning the downtown into a faux family reunion. He insisted
on that after the Reds had to hire 400 stadium workers--nearly
doubling their workforce of last year--to accommodate the
approximately one million more people who suddenly want to watch
the Reds because of him. He insisted on that after Cincinnati
sold $1 million luxury boxes like popcorn boxes just because of
him.

A regular guy? Sure, as son, father, husband, brother and
generic warm-blooded mammal, he certainly qualifies. But it took
only a blink of this baseball season--five innings of a
rain-shortened Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers--to see
the enormousness of Griffey, homegrown baseball icon, to his
town and his team. So irregular is Griffey in that context that
he joined Bernoulli, La Nina and greenhouse gases as being
worthy of designation as a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Behold The Griffey Effect.

"The Griffey impact has been overwhelming," says Reds chief
operating officer John Allen. "We've been overwhelmed by the
outpouring of the city. The people wanted him, and they've put
their money where their mouths are."

Think what St. Louis would be like if Mark McGwire had been born
there. Allen has had to add 10 additional phone lines at Cinergy
Field to keep up with fans calling for tickets. He has hired two
extra people for his marketing department and another for his
merchandising department. On the morning of March 28 he put up
for sale the 61 luxury boxes to be built in Cincinnati's new
ballpark, for which no shovel has yet to dent dirt and which
isn't scheduled to open until 2003. By the end of the day all
but 11 of them were sold--and Allen expects those that remain to
be snapped up by the end of this month. The boxes, with annual
rents ranging from $50,000 to $120,000, were offered with five-,
seven- and 10-year leases. "I thought the 10-year ones would be
the hardest to sell, and they were the first to go," Allen says,
referring to the boxes that demanded a $1 million up-front
commitment.

Everyone seemed to want to jump on the Reds bandwagon, which
rolled down Fifth Street on Monday morning behind Belgian draft
horses. The dray, known as the Tally-Ho Wagon, carted the 1919
Reds to Redland Field for their home opener. It has been part of
Cincinnati's Opening Day parade ever since. So many entrants
wanted in on this year's march that organizers had to start it
one hour earlier than usual.

The procession included marching bands, politicians, a
six-foot-high papier-mache version of Griffey, 15-foot-tall
inflatable bananas, a pair of dromedaries and, though not an
authorized marcher, a man playing folk guitar and wearing
nothing but boots, a cowboy hat and a pair of briefs that were,
of course, red.

Most of the town opted for more traditional Reds garb, causing
pregame lines of 20 or more people snaking to the cash registers
at souvenir shops. People snapped up replica Griffey game
jerseys ($100), replica Griffey batting-practice jerseys ($80),
Griffey T-shirts ($23 and $20), Griffey baseballs ($11), Griffey
framed pictures ($10), Griffey socks ($8) and Griffey pennants
($5). Reds tickets have been hot sellers ever since Feb. 10,
when Cincinnati traded four bit parts for the All-Century
outfielder and then signed him to a nine-year, $116.5 million
contract. Opening Day against the Brewers, your cliche cupcake
homecoming opponent, had sold out in 3 1/2 hours even before the
Griffey trade, drawing a regular-season record 55,596 to Cinergy
Field.

"We're running 700,000 to 800,000 ahead of where we were a year
ago," Allen says of the Reds' ticket sales. Cincinnati drew two
million fans last year. An additional 800,000 tickets sold--at
an average of $12 apiece, according to Allen--translates into
$9.6 million for the Reds. That means Griffey, who deferred all
but $7 million of his $12.5 million salary this year, more than
pays for himself in ticket sales alone. The effect will be
muffled next season because Cincinnati will lose 14,000 seats at
Cinergy Field because of construction on the new ballpark, to be
built next door. "If you're looking to put a number on what
Junior means to the city, it's probably in excess of $10
million," Allen says.

Griffey also has created an incalculable feeling of optimism for
those who believe in fairy tales. He batted on Monday at Cinergy
Field, formerly known as Riverfront Stadium, for the first time
since he was an eight-year-old playing in the Reds' annual
father-son game. His father, the elder Ken Griffey, wore number
30 as an outfielder with Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the
1970s and is now the team's bench coach. The senior Griffey's
eyes welled with tears on Monday when the crowd welcomed his son
home with a robust standing ovation.

If this is supposed to be a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, though,
don't expect Griffey to provide the softly diffused lighting and
tinkling piano accompaniment. To play along with the story line
would be to step outside his invisible fence of being a regular
guy. Asked last week to recall his favorite childhood memories
of Opening Day, he said, "We got out of school early." Anything
else? "We got out of school early," he said again. He then
emphatically rejected a request from a Reds official to meet
briefly with the media at a workout on Sunday in Cincinnati.
(More than 300 media representatives, a postseason-sized
gathering, attended Monday's game.) "Everybody says I took a pay
cut, right?" Griffey said. "Well, less money means I should have
to talk to the media less."

Ken Jr., with his mother, Birdie, and father at his side, did
take questions from the media after what was an anticlimactic
Opening Day game. Junior popped up in the first inning and, two
innings later, grounded out into the teeth of Milwaukee's
overshifted defensive alignment before rain ended a 3-3 game in
the top of the sixth.

Still detached and unemotional for public consumption, the
regular guy did trip up once--but not until the very last of
Monday's postgame questions. What, someone wondered, was the
best part of homecoming day? Griffey drew silent for a few
seconds before answering with a sincerity that had to be
touching even to the most deadline-worn of scribes. "I got to
put on the same uniform my dad did and the same number," the son
replied in a soft voice. It was the most irregular moment of the
whole day.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMONWELCOME HOME As he took the field Griffey exulted with fellow Cincinnatian Barry Larkin.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)