Junior's Feeling Good

June 14, 2004
June 14, 2004

Table of Contents
June 14, 2004

Ronald Reagan 1911-2004
Photo Credits: Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated

Junior's Feeling Good

Free of injury (knock on wood), Ken Griffey Jr. powered toward 500 homers and boosted the surprising Reds to the top of the National League

The way Junior saw it, the Mayor owed him a watch. "A Rolex,"
Junior said, "and not a New York City Rolex, either. I want to
see the serial numbers." On a recent Friday night in Montreal,
Sean Casey, the earnest Cincinnati Reds first baseman with the
glad-handing chumminess of a small-town politician, had just
finished smacking a single, two doubles and a home run in five at
bats, boosting his batting average to .390. Ken Griffey Jr.,
Cincinnati's centerfielder and, for the preceding month, its
cleanup hitter behind Casey, reasoned that some of the credit
belonged to him. "Just trying to let him know I'm protecting him,
like the offensive line with the running back," said Griffey, who
that night had hit his 493rd career home run, tying Lou Gehrig
for 20th alltime. "I figured out how I'll get [the watch], too.
When we get home, I'll hold his car hostage. He always leaves his
keys out in the open." Once more, Griffey crowed in Casey's
direction, over the gaggle of reporters in a semicircle at the
Mayor's locker. "A Rolex." Replied Casey, "A Timex, maybe."

This is an article from the June 14, 2004 issue Original Layout

Griffey, 34, adores this badinage. Though he stands on the verge
of a milestone—after a pair of home runs on Sunday, he needed
only two more to become the 20th player to crack 500 for his
career—he thrills most to this role: the merry fraternity
brother. He lards the idle hours before ball games with jokes and
quips, clowning and trash-talking with his teammates. Having just
arrived at Olympic Stadium long before a Sunday matinee against
the Montreal Expos, stripped down to a T-shirt but still wearing
his dress slacks and shoes, he roams the clubhouse berating
Michael Vassallo, the Reds' assistant director of media
relations. "Vassallo? Where are the f-----' clips? Where are
those clips?" he demands in a loud voice, asking for the packet
of the previous day's newspaper coverage of the team, which he
actually has scant interest in reading. Approached by second
baseman D'Angelo Jimenez with a baseball to sign, Griffey groans.
"Again? Another one?"

"It's a team ball," a sheepish Jimenez says, pointing out the
other autographs on it. Griffey signs it, then throws it at
Jimenez's chest.

Griffey has had little chance to play this part since leaving the
Seattle Mariners four years ago. When he joined the Reds in
February 2000, after orchestrating a five-player trade to the
city in which he had grown up and then accepting a below-market
contract for $116.5 million over nine years, Griffey was the
game's most complete and popular player. An elegant and graceful
centerfielder, he had won a Gold Glove and was voted a starter in
the All-Star Game in each year of the 1990s; a lethal power
hitter with hands as fast as a whiplash, he hit 382 home runs
during the decade. By the heady arithmetic of projection, he was
to eclipse Hank Aaron's home run record of 755 shortly after
turning 40. Fitted quickly with the mantle of the best player in
the game, he grew to be gargantuan in stature.

"It was a circus," Casey says of Griffey's debut season with the
Reds. "I didn't know if it was baseball or Barnum & Bailey. From
the cameras on the first day of spring training, it never
stopped, all year long. We looked at him like, 'Whoa, that's Ken
Griffey Jr.,' and he looked at us and didn't know us. It was
uncomfortable on both sides."

The marriage, of course, soured quickly, as Griffey succumbed to
a series of freakish injuries--torn hamstrings and knee and ankle
tendons, a dislocated shoulder--and the Reds lurched below .500,
never a contender. Desperate to dump his contract, Cincinnati had
him traded to the San Diego Padres before the 2003 season for
third baseman Phil Nevin, but Nevin exercised his no-trade clause
and blocked the deal. Coming into this season, Griffey had
appeared in fewer than half of the Reds' games over the past
three years. It is hard to say which is more improbable now: that
the Reds, stripped down and sold for parts at last July's trade
deadline, were 34-22 and two games up in the National League
Central at week's end, or that Griffey, after seven months of
rehabilitation from shoulder and ankle surgeries, was at last
healthy. Though his .257 batting average and .359 on-base
percentage are mediocre, he continues to hit for power, and it
struck the ear as odd to hear Griffey liken himself, even in
jest, to an offensive lineman, a faceless worker bee. Casey
is the game's top hitter, at .377, and leftfielder Adam
Dunn co-owns the major league home run lead, with 17, allowing
Junior to share the spotlight. It seems he prefers this, too.

"Reporters always want to talk to Junior, no matter what," says
Dunn, an off-season workout partner and one of Griffey's closest
friends. "His attitude is, If our starting pitcher throws a
complete game and I go 1 for 4, why talk to me? Why not talk to
the winning pitcher? He's much more team-oriented than people
give him credit for." Griffey has always been somewhat unnerved
by his celebrity. "I'm not real comfortable with being singled
out," he says. "I'm really not comfortable doing interviews in a
group, in press conferences. One-on-one, I'm all right, but those
press conferences at the All-Star Game, I just don't.... I feel
better when I'm by myself.

"You play the game a certain way, and people think your
personality off the field should be just as electrifying,"
Griffey says. "That's not the case." Because of his wariness
Griffey sometimes appears aloof and guarded, even when he's not
at the ballpark. At home with his wife, Melissa, and children
Trey, 10, Taryn, 8, and Tevin, 2, he is quiet, even boring.
"Barry Larkin spent the night," Griffey says of the Reds'
shortstop, "and the next day he was telling people, 'Junior
didn't say a word all night.'"

In response to relentless scrutiny of his physical condition and
effort level, and armchair analysis of his mental readiness,
Griffey has developed an attitude not unlike paranoia. "I'm the
one that's got the bull's-eye on my back," he says, "and that's
cool. I'm used to it. As soon as somebody says something negative
about me, it snowballs [in the media]. I can't afford to let
myself slip once, because if I do, I'll hear about it. With other
people, it gets swept under the rug, but never with me." In
conversation Griffey speaks in rambling monologues, meandering
from topic to topic, but when the subject of his injury history
arises, he focuses sharply on specific information: As a result
of surgery to repair a dislocated right shoulder last summer, he
had six screws inserted, five titanium and one biodegradable.
After the operation his shoulder was so weak, he had difficulty
lifting a glass of water. And his ankle, in a boot and a sling
for a month after surgery mended a torn peroneal tendon, was so
unsteady that he had trouble walking.

He bristles at criticism by the media or by fans because he
believes that none of his injuries was preventable. "I'm in a
Catch-22," he says. "If I don't go after a ball, I'm lazy, I'm
not giving it 100 percent. If I do dive for the ball—which I
did, and blew out my shoulder—it's, Why did I play it so hard?
There's no happy medium."


"I'm the one that's got the bull's-eye on my back," Griffey Jr. says, "and that's cool. I'm used to it.


Even when Griffey discusses his family, an obvious source of
pride, he reveals his anxiety over how his fame affects those
close to him. In a youth football game last summer, Trey, a
running back, was targeted by shouting fans and coaches of the
opposing team. "They know who his daddy is," Griffey says, "and
they kept yelling, 'Hit him, hit number 3.'" After one play Trey
and an opponent began chirping at each other, and on the ensuing
snap Trey, the lead blocker, ran through the hole and delivered a
helmet-to-helmet hit. "Trey just crushed this kid," Griffey says.
"The kid starts crying, and they had to take him off the field. I
started laughing. After Trey came off the field, I gave him a
high five and told him, 'That was nice.' But the fans kept
yelling. Trey's starting to understand that people are going to
be jealous of who he is because of his dad."

Junior understands that from firsthand experience; he grew up in
the Big Red Machine's clubhouse alongside his father, an
outfielder with Cincinnati from 1973 to '81. He professes to
attach little significance to his 500th homer but allows that he
treasured tying his father, at 152, on May 22, 1994, in Seattle.
In Oakland for a series against the A's immediately afterward,
Griffey met his father at the Mariners' hotel, found him lying on
a bed and flipped him the ball. "We started laughing," Junior
smiles, "because it was a big deal. My dad wasn't a power hitter,
and I didn't think I'd be a power hitter because the person I
wanted to be like was him, and he was the one that taught me to
play the game. I came up as a number 2 hitter. My first year I
hit 16 homers, and I was like, Whoa, I'm rollin'!"

Ken Sr. always told his son that he would become bigger and
stronger, filling out his 6'3" frame. Even now, however, Junior
expresses reluctance as he situates himself among the game's
elite sluggers. "I didn't think I'd become a guy who hit the ball
out of the park," he says, "because I don't hit home runs like
McGwire, or Bonds, or Sosa. Theirs are high, and they're long,
typical home runs. Mine are little line drives that keep
carrying. I've hit some that get up in the air, but I don't hit
them like those guys do."

Still, Griffey lies within striking distance of that group and
belongs in the same discussion as other first-ballot, Hall of
Fame power hitters. Though Griffey declines to speculate on what
he might have accomplished had he stayed healthy in Cincinnati,
research suggests that his ailments cost him 280 hits and 70 home
runs. Adding those totals to his career aggregates sketches the
outline of a potential 3,000-hit, 700-home-run career, which
Aaron alone has achieved.

Although a healthy, productive Griffey would seem to be a
potential trade candidate (especially if the Reds, with a
mid-level payroll, want to shed the five years and $66.5 million
outstanding on his contract), that won't happen as long as the
club remains competitive. General manager Dan O'Brien says he has
neither offered Griffey to another team this season nor has
another team inquired about him. How long surprising Cincinnati
remains a contender is uncertain. Can Paul Wilson (7-0, 3.18 ERA)
win 20 games? Can Danny Graves (major-league-leading 26 saves)
save 60? By one back-of-the-envelope measure, Bill James's
Pythagorean theorem, which relates run differential to winning
percentage, the Reds have vastly overachieved. Cincinnati, which
had outscored its opponents 264-260, should have been a .507
club, not .607, where it stood at week's end. Another stat that
portends trouble: The Reds trailed their opponents badly in total
bases, 871-774.

If healthy, though, Griffey seems a safe bet to continue
producing. He has lost neither his bat speed nor his power
stroke; after averaging a home run every 14.7 at bats with
Seattle, his ratio in Cincinnati is one every 14.2. Says Mariners
DH Edgar Martinez, a teammate for 11 seasons in Seattle, "When he
gets on a roll like he's back to now, he can put up a lot of
numbers in a hurry. His swing and approach are just like they
used to be. I've watched some of his at bats lately, and it looks
like he's back to being Junior."

Despite what often looks like petulance or distance to the
outsider, despite puzzling and petty incidents like last month's
teapot tempest with the Marlins—Griffey appeared to glare at
Florida manager Jack McKeon in the dugout, after hitting a home
run following an intentional walk to Casey--Junior insists he is
content. "I'm always happy," he says. "You guys [in the media]
are not in my world. People think they know me, and they have no
clue. I still love the game, more than you think I do."