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Griffey eyeing big return


Special to ESPN.com

Jan. 22

Ken Griffey Jr. heard about the trade early one morning when a friend called him from Cincinnati.

"He told me there was a item in the local paper that I had been traded to San Diego for (Phil) Nevin, but that Nevin had a no-trade (clause in his contract) and might not accept it," said Griffey. "There wasn't anything I could do about it. I couldn't legally stop it. But it was a bit of a shot out of the dark."

Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr. played in only 70 games last year and hit just eight home runs.

Since his 2002 season ended, a year in which he was sidelined due to knee surgery, which limited him to only 197 at-bats, Griffey had been working to get into the best shape of his career, intent on restoring his career to where it was when his ballyhooed trade home to Cincinnati was thought to be that franchise's finest moment since the breakup of The Big Red Machine.

Because of hamstring and knee injuries, Griffey had only 561 at-bats the past two seasons, and the onetime golden boy -- who led the All-Star balloting five times in six years, twice hit 56 homers and was the youngest player ever to reach the 350, 400 and 450 homer plateaus -- prepared for his comeback remembering how much he felt the public turned on him.

"My dad told me not to remember the negatives," says Junior, "only to remember those who called me when I was down."

Then, in the middle of the road to the comeback, came news of the trade, which was followed by the news that his manager, Bob Boone, had taken Nevin to lunch trying to talk him into accepting the trade.

Griffey got on a plane and flew from Orlando to Cincinnati for FanFest. "I had planned to do it anyway," he says, "but now I'm very glad I went. I was pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of the fans and their support. I told the fans and the media how I felt -- that I wanted to stay in Cincinnati, I wanted to come back to my hometown and have a big year and bring another pennant home. They were great. It made me a little more comfortable, because I got the feeling that the focus was no longer on me, but on someone else."

Like management.

Junior has never been comfortable in the unrelenting spotlight, and with all the attention brought upon him after the trade with Seattle he often felt like one of the Pandas at the National Zoo. He is most comfortable in private settings, like the clubhouse, or with his three children, about whom he'll talk for hours (he's especially proud that his son, Trey, who turned nine in January, is reading at a sixth-grade level while in the third grade). To make things worse, his homecoming wasn't enough to get the Sam's Mart payroll team into the playoffs.

Then to make things worst were the injuries. The hamstring bothered him most of his first (2000) season with the Reds, although he managed to play 145 games and hit 40 homers. Then came a torn hamstring in 2001. The knee injury in 2002. He kept trying to play, because he says, "I've always felt that if I could do either one of hit, run and throw I should be on the field, and if I'm on the field, I should bust my gut." Friends tried to convince him to shut it down, but, in the spotlight, he tried to play.

This winter's conditioning program has been with former Orlando Magic trainer Dave Oliver.

I just want to come back, perform and let what I do on the field speak for itself. ... Baseball is what I do, and it's what I love.
Ken Griffey Jr.

"It's all encompassing," says Junior, who was joined in the program by Reds teammates Barry Larkin and Danny Graves. On Jan. 13, Adam Dunn flew in, lived at Griffey's house and joined in the conditioning program, which has been passed on to the Reds staff and will continue through spring training.

"I just want to come back, perform and let what I do on the field speak for itself," Griffey says. "Both my serious injuries came rounding third base in Cincinnati. If I leave it on the field, I have no regrets. It's not like I got hurt riding a motorcycle or snowmobiling or driving a race car. If people really think that I wanted to stay home and collect my checks the last couple of years, they have no idea who I am.

"Baseball is what I do, and it's what I love," Griffey said. "I don't have outside business interests. It's a 24-hour job to me. People will see me walking down the street in the offseason mumbling to myself and think I'm crazy; I'm just going back over a situation during the season. I'll start thinking about a pitcher and a situation at home and I'll be standing in the middle of my living room taking imaginary swings as I visualize the pitcher and remember what I did wrong. Some people see me on the field and say I don't smile as much as I used to. In the clubhouse before a game, I'm probably the loudest guy. Once the game starts, I'm the most serious, because I appreciate how serious and tough this business is."

Griffey is 33, with potentially several excellent seasons in front of him. OK, his slugging percentage has gone from .646 to .611 to .576 to .556 to .533 to .426 in successive seasons, but he knows it.

He also knows he can come back, especially with Dunn and Austin Kearns around him in the outfield, and Sean Casey healthy at first base and Larkin coming off injuries to play shortstop.

"From there, I just want to play and win," Griffey said. "The rest of the stuff ... maybe it'll go away."

The rest of the stuff? Like the shots he took from ex-teammates Dmitri Young and Pokey Reese. (Junior says a dozen calls to Young went unreturned.) Like the shots the Reds do what he orders, which is why he's never even visited the new park, "so no one can say I had anything to do with anything there. Or the suggestion he was jealous of Dunn and Kearns, a rumor contrary to the fact that the two young players were Junior's travelling companions and Dunn became his housemate this winter.

"You know what I've learned?" says Junior. "When you're on top of the world, you find out who your enemies are. When you're down, you find out who are really your friends."

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