Junior Achievement As Ken Griffey Jr. prepares to return, the upstart Reds, with a trio of young outfielders, are holding their own

May 19, 2002

It was three hours before last Friday's game at Cinergy Field, and
the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse was slowly emptying. Players
headed for the field to stretch and begin batting practice, while
a scrum of media types clustered around Ken Griffey Jr.'s locker.
Dressed in street clothes, Griffey gathered his things and made
it clear that the questioning would have to end soon because he
too was headed out the door. A teammate ambled by, his path
blocked by the crowd, and tossed a barb at Griffey. It was
righthander Jose Rijo, the Methuselah of the Reds' clubhouse, who
is back in the rotation after a six-year absence from the major
leagues while he rehabbed his ravaged pitching elbow. "Don't tell
me you're announcing your retirement today," Rijo said.

"All I want is five years off like you had," Griffey shot back,
flashing the megawatt grin that was once his trademark. In fact,
the 32-year-old centerfielder probably feels as if he's already
matched the well-rested Rijo in downtime. The reporters weren't
asking him about his swing or the fact that the Reds were in
first place in the National League Central. Instead they inquired
about the injured right knee that had kept him on the disabled
list since April 8 and about how soon he might return. The
patellar tendon he tore while rounding third base against the
Montreal Expos was nearly healed, he said, and he might be able
to play the following weekend in St. Louis.

The plan is for Griffey to return to the lineup full time instead
of easing back in as a pinch hitter or spot starter. There's no
reason to rush him, because Cincinnati is not the same team that
blanched when he went down six games into the season. The 11-time
All-Star is in the unaccustomed position of needing a lineup more
than it needs him. At week's end the Reds, who had been picked by
most observers to be at or near the bottom of their division,
were 21-15, 2 1/2 games up on the equally surprising second-place
Pittsburgh Pirates. In Griffey's absence a kiddie-corps
outfield--Austin Kearns, 22, in right; Juan Encarnacion, 26, in
center; and Adam Dunn, 22, in left--has been the most productive
in the league (chart, page 49). The Reds have also developed a
harmonious clubhouse atmosphere.

"We have one of the best bullpens in the league, we have depth,
we have the enthusiasm of a lot of young guys, and we have the
best team chemistry I've seen here," says general manager Jim
Bowden. "When Junior returns, he'll make us even better."

Not according to some Cincinnati fans. Last week TV station WKRC
created the latest tempest in the stormy 29 months since
Griffey's trade from the Seattle Mariners to his hometown team
(box, page 48). The station conducted a call-in poll in which 74%
of the 800 voters said that Griffey, and not one of his
replacements, should be the one to sit when he comes off the DL.
Dunn received 12% of the vote, and Encarnacion and Kearns 7%
each. Griffey lashed out at the respondents: "I came here to play
baseball. I took less money. I didn't whine or anything. And this
is the thanks I get?" Though he made conciliatory statements a
few days later, he had fueled the fire.

As the incident played out, Griffey's teammates rallied around
him. While he hasn't accompanied the team on the road and usually
doesn't sit in the dugout during home games, he has been integral
to the team's bonding. Last week he had Kearns and Dunn, along
with veteran shortstop Barry Larkin, over for dinner. "I was
like, Man, I'm going to Ken Griffey's house," Kearns says. "There
aren't many guys in the superstar category who would invite a
21-year-old guy over to his place. It shows you what kind of
person he is." On April 30, when Kearns was hit in the face with
a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Giovanni Carrara,
Griffey called the rookie to make sure he was O.K.

The thought that Griffey might not reclaim his starting spot is
laughable, but the fact that the question even comes up indicates
just how well the team has been playing without him, particularly
in the outfield. Encarnacion, acquired from the Detroit Tigers in
an off-season trade for outfielder Dmitri Young, shifted from
right to center after Griffey was injured and has performed the
way the Tigers had expected when he was one of their top
prospects three years ago. Encarnacion's lack of discipline at
the plate frustrated Detroit, and even this season he had 30
strikeouts in 145 at bats through Sunday. But he also had a .290
average, a team-leading nine homers, 25 RBIs and seven stolen
bases.

After a slow start Dunn has picked up where he left off as a
rookie last season, when he bashed 19 home runs in 66 games; at
week's end he had eight dingers and led the team with 28 RBIs. At
6'6" and 240 pounds, the former Texas quarterback has also added
swagger to the lineup. On May 8, when Kearns was knocked down by
Milwaukee Brewers righthander Brian Mallette, Dunn, who was on
deck, took several steps toward the mound to protest before
Kearns had even dusted himself off.

The biggest splash, though, has been made by Kearns--it's his
emergence that has made Griffey's return to the lineup more of a
brainteaser for manager Bob Boone than anyone thought it would
be. Kearns was summoned from Double A Chattanooga on April 17
because first baseman Sean Casey needed a few days off after
being hit in the head by a pitch. It was to be merely a chance
for the organization's top prospect (Kearns was a first-round
pick in 1998) to get his feet wet in the big leagues before
returning to the farm. "If you saw him in spring training taking
BP with Encarnacion and [reserve outfielder Ruben] Mateo, you
might have thought he wasn't ready," says Boone. "Those guys were
whacking balls all over the place. Austin was just working on his
stroke."

He seems to have perfected it, batting .385 and knocking in 11
runs in his first 21 games while leading NL rookies with four
homers and a .512 on-base percentage. "He's the most professional
hitter I've got," says Boone. "He hits the fastball, he hits the
breaking ball, and he has a good at bat every time up. There's
nothing he has to work on."

Which is why the Reds now have no intention of shipping him back
to the minors when Griffey returns. Who sits? Boone isn't saying
what his plan is, but it will probably involve using Griffey in
center every day with Kearns, Dunn and Encarnacion sharing duties
in left and right. Dunn will also get at bats by occasionally
spelling Casey at first. "I'm a firm believer that you can have
five players play four positions and get everyone enough at
bats," says Bowden.

However the lineup is jiggered, the rest of the Reds eagerly
anticipate Griffey's return. "I've never gotten to see him when
he's fully healthy," says Casey. "He can only make our lineup
better." Despite the criticism leveled at Griffey over the winter
by former teammates Young and second baseman Pokey Reese, now
with the Pirates--both said that Griffey was not a leader and was
a divisive presence in the clubhouse--his current teammates say
he'll be more than welcome in the locker room as well as in the
lineup. Many of them can't understand why a player who hit 62
home runs over the past two seasons, despite missing 68 games
because of injury, gets such a bad rap.

His teammates concede that Griffey does enjoy perks that other
players don't: Most players wouldn't be allowed to disappear from
the clubhouse hours before a game when the team is at home, even
if they were on the DL; Lonnie Soloff, one of the trainers who
usually travels with the team, stays behind in Cincinnati to work
with Griffey when he's hurt; and even when he's healthy,
Griffey's commitment to pregame stretching is often half-hearted
at best. "It's like driving on your own to spring training
games," says Casey, speaking of the privileged few who are
allowed to forsake the team bus. "Some players can, some can't.
He's Ken Griffey Jr. He's earned it."

It's also true that Griffey isn't a classic clubhouse leader in
the manner of, say, outfielder Greg Vaughn, whose vocal presence
helped will Cincinnati to 96 wins in 1999. "Everybody brings
something different to the table," says Bowden. "We didn't hire
Junior to be a motivator, to be an extra coach. If people have
the expectation that he was going to be everything, that's asking
too much." That may be another difference between the team
Griffey left and the one he returns to. These players have proved
they can win without him; he shouldn't feel obliged to carry them
when he returns.

After the Reds beat the Chicago Cubs 5-4 on Opening Day, Casey
launched into an awkward dance--he calls it his White Man Running
Man dance--while Kool and the Gang's Celebration blared in the
clubhouse. It quickly caught on as a postvictory ritual, and now
all the Reds celebrate by gathering in a circle and bumping and
grinding to the song. Griffey has missed a lot of dancing: The
Reds won 18 times in their first 30 games without him. It will be
interesting to see what happens when he gets out on the floor.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA COVER INSET KEN GRIFFEY JR. OUT AT HOME? COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (GRIFFEY) Opportunity knocks While Griffey (opposite) tested his healing knee, rookie Kearns continued his offensive onslaught. COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS RED ROVERS The mammoth Dunn (44) has a gridiron swagger, while Encarnacion (right) has speedily fulfilled his Detroit promise.

Doing Fine Without Him

From April 8--when Ken Griffey Jr. went on the disabled
list--through Sunday, the Reds' surprising outfield ranked at or
near the top in offensive production in the National League. Here
are the top five NL outfields in the three major offensive
categories over that span.

BATTING AVG. HOME RUNS RBIS

Marlins .306 Reds 22 Reds 69
Reds .291 Diamondbacks 19 Marlins 60
Diamondbacks .290 Astros 18 Diamondbacks 59
Cubs .290 Braves 18 Braves 55
Cardinals .274 Cubs 17 Astros 53
Marlins 17

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

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)