Thursday, June 3, 2010
Recalling Junior's time in Cincinnati
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Sometime between the day I accepted an offer from the late, great Cincinnati Post in January 2000 to move to town and become the paper's Reds beat writer, and the day about two weeks later when I actually showed up for my first day of work, the team made a blockbuster, five-player trade to acquire Ken Griffey Jr. from the Seattle Mariners. He would be coming back to the city where he had grown up, where his father had been a member of the Big Red Machine and where the kid known to so many simply as "Junior" surely would continue his uninterrupted march to immortality.
When I learned Wednesday that Junior was hanging it up after a 22-year career in the majors, I found myself wondering how he now looks at those 9½, often star-crossed seasons in Cincinnati. Although there were moments when it was anything but pleasant, I must admit I now look at the four seasons I spent covering him on a daily basis as a privilege, a rare opportunity to chronicle a man who, at least when he was in his prime, was unquestionably the greatest player of my generation -- even if, as it turned out, his best days were behind him before he ever got to Cincinnati.
Of all the things I witnessed -- I saw his 400th career home run, saw the last truly great season of his career and, yes, spent countless hours updating his various injuries, including his five disabled-list stints totaling 231 days just in the four years I was there -- the one thing I will remember the most is the complete transformation in his personality. He came to town as a sullen, moody and difficult athlete who belied his public image of a carefree, constantly smiling, backward-cap-wearing poster child for all that was great about the game. By the time I left town he had become a humble, pleasant and sometimes even engaging figure, a guy who so endeared himself to the media that a couple of years after I left, the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America actually bestowed him with its annual Good Guy Award.
I have much to say about my various experiences with Junior. But given that I was around him for only those four years -- a blip on the radar of a 22-year, Hall of Fame career and the life of a guy who is now in his 40s -- I also want to let in some voices who have known him far longer than I have.
Ken Griffey Jr. never quite lived up to the hype of his Hall of Fame-worthy career when he returned to his native Cincinnati in 2000.
"I remember Junior, from one year to the next when he came to spring training with his dad, it seemed like he had grown four or five inches and put on 30 pounds," said Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly, who was referring to the teenage Junior who used to come around when his father was Mattingly's teammate with the New York Yankees. "He was just 15 or 16 then. We didn't think much about him becoming a star player, but when you saw him chasing balls in the outfield, he could run it down like it was nothing, and he got to everything.
"And then one year, his dad started talking about how he was just crushing the ball. And we got to see it for ourselves a couple of years later, when he got up here."
Ken Levine, the co-host of Dodger Talk on the team's flagship radio affiliate, was broadcasting Mariners games in the early 1990s, when Griffey was busy taking the American League by storm with his acrobatic catches and lightning-quick swing.
"What sticks in my mind is just how effortless it was," Levine said. "In those days, our team was awful. He was basically a godsend. You could go on the radio and tell people to come to the Kingdome to see this guy. That was the only thing we had to promote. Boy, he was so good in those days. He could wait on the curveball better than anybody I have ever seen."
During the Cincinnati days, I always got the sense -- although Junior never came out and said it -- that he longed for Seattle, where so many special things had happened. He was a part of the long-dormant franchise's rise to contention. He and his father, Ken Griffey Sr., were actually teammates at the end of 1990 and the beginning of 1991, before "Senior" as he was known in Cincinnati, retired.
Junior was part of playoff teams in Seattle in 1995 and '97, but he was supposed to reach new heights in Cincinnati. The Reds had missed the postseason by the thinnest of margins in 1999, winning 96 games before losing a one-game playoff for the wild card to the New York Mets. They were coming back with basically the same team, plus Junior, minus the four guys they traded for Junior -- popular center fielder Mike Cameron, underachieving right-hander Brett Tomko and a couple of minor leaguers -- and minus clubhouse leader Greg Vaughn, who left via free agency.
I will never forget the circus-like news conference heralding Griffey's arrival in spring training that year, held outdoors at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla. Then-Reds general manager Jim Bowden sat with Griffey in chairs atop the first-base dugout and Bowden loudly, proudly proclaimed that "Baseball is back in Cincinnati."
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Alas, it wasn't to be. There are some who were around that team who insist to this day that injecting a superstar into a clubhouse that had been so cohesive the year before destroyed the chemistry. But that's a subjective claim that can never be proved or disproved. Still, for whatever reason, the Reds never got close to the playoffs again.
They had one winning season during Junior's time there. That was the first year, when they rallied to go 19-9 in September after there was no longer any hope of getting back into the race and finished 85-77. Junior hit 40 home runs and drove in 118 runs that year. He would never hit that many homers or have as many as 100 RBIs in a season again.
For whatever reason, Junior just never seemed comfortable playing in his hometown. He lived in Orlando, Fla., and had the financial wherewithal to go there not just for the winter, but whenever the Reds' schedule would allow. A Sunday afternoon game followed by a Monday off-day and a Tuesday night game? The private jet would be warmed up and ready to go as soon he could get to the airport.
Looking back now, I don't think it was that he didn't like Cincinnati. I think it was just that his family was in Orlando, and probably the most glowing compliment I can give Junior is that he was a family man before he was anything else. He gushed incessantly about "Trey," his young son, who was a budding athlete himself and whose nickname was a derivative of his actual name, Ken Griffey III. He also spoke often of his young daughter. And after he had been in Cincinnati for a few years, Griffey and his wife, who herself had been adopted as a child, adopted a child of their own, making them a family of five.
Junior struggled with his celebrity, speaking often of his inability to go anywhere in public without being besieged by autograph hounds, and he definitely had some personality quirks. I remember a handful of heated discussions between the two of us, and a few choice names he called me here and there, and I even remember losing my temper and telling him he was "insane" during one particular confrontation in spring training. But I also remember getting to know him on a human level and coming to respect and like him.
I remember how, like a lot of baseball writers, I would gain a lot of weight during the season, then lose it all during the winter when I had time to work out and eat right. When I would arrive in spring training, Junior was always the first guy to notice how slimmed down I was and would always make a point of complimenting me.
In the end, I will remember Junior as basically a good man with a good heart, a guy who always put his family first. After I left Cincinnati for the West Coast, whenever the Reds would come in to play the Dodgers or vice versa, I would always make a point to seek him out and say hello, and those were some of the more pleasant conversations we had over the years. And I remember being unhappy to hear he had been traded to the Chicago White Sox in the middle of the 2008 season, because that meant I would no longer see him much except on the nightly television highlights.
Now, sadly, no one will see him there anymore, either.
"He did things with a lot of flair," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He made it look easy. He came up basically around the same time Barry [Bonds] did, and he could do it all offensively and defensively, and he could steal bases. You really had one in each league with him and Barry. What little I knew of Junior, he was very respectful and very easy to like, and I thought he handled his notoriety very well."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.