It’s almost 5 years ago now that the Reds traded away Ken Griffey Jr. I don’t know about everybody else, but to me it seems like a lifetime ago. A lifetime ago the Reds had one of the best ever to play the game wanting desperately to play in Cincinnati the way many players today desperately wants to play in Los Angeles or New York City. After slugging 398 home runs and tallying 1742 hits in Seattle before reaching the age of 30, Junior was coming home to double those numbers (at least), and lead the proud franchise his father represented for years back to the promised land. The MVP trophies were going to start piling up, and the World Series rings would be inevitable with the 96 win Reds of 1999 building around Junior. If all went according to plan, his HOF plaque would see him sporting the iconic Reds cap. It would be perfect.
Junior had already become iconic for his #24, fitting as I saw him the same way my father saw Willie Mays growing up: as both the best player and my favorite player. Living in Jersey, I rooted for the Yankees, but it was my mesh button-up Griffey jersey I wore proudly to school every week. I played Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on Super Nintendo, and collected countless Ken Griffey Jr cards.
Junior’s tenure with the Reds started off with the unpleasantness of Junior wanting his already iconic number #24 and Reds legend Tony Perez wanting his iconic to another generation #24 number retired. It’s not a big deal, but boy in retrospect, it was the perfect microcosm of Griffey and the Reds: Nothing just ever clicked. Both sides were never happy. And when you get right down to brass tacks, the whole thing seems snakebitten from the start. Jim Bowden crowed about the deal in a manner not seen before or after, seemingly trying to make himself the center of attention. Not even three years later, with a few leg injuries in between that limited him in 2001 and saw him most a majority of 2002, Bowden was fully prepared to send Griffey away for Phil Nevin. Phil. Freakin. Nevin. Perhaps the only more fitting nightmare scenario would have been Junior drinking too much of the brain & nerve tonic in real life.
And it didn’t get any better. He played in only 153 games in 2003 and 2004 combined. Junior being helped off the field, unable to put weight on his legs, become an annual visual each more painful than the next. There were constant arguments over who was to blame for the injuries. The shine on the hometown hero was gone, all that stood was the highest paid player on a lousy team with fans who thought he should try harder or have a better attitude. He continued to play centerfield long after it was clear the various hamstring and leg injuries had sapped his once legendary ability in the outfield. In 2005 he was healthy and productive, and put together his best season as a Red long after the faithful had given up hope on a team going nowhere. 2006 was a step back, 2007 saw Junior play in over 140 games for the Reds for just the second time, the first being in the year 2000. Truth be told, I know I watched it, but I hardly remember anything about him in the 2008 season. It seems kind of bizarre to think of him on the field with Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, with Dusty Baker in the dugout. One day Griffey and Adam Dunn were Reds just as they had been since the start of the decade, the next they weren’t, and that was that. His career ended two years later not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Everything that could have gone wrong with Ken Griffey Junior and the Reds, did. Bad ownership, bad front office, bad pitching, bad attitudes (if Danny Graves infamous quote about their being “no pressure to win” in Cincinnati was indeed the case). And unquestionably, bad luck. There were no MVP awards, no championships, and not even many cathartic victories.
But when you look back on it, even through the heartache and misery, we had a little bit of fun, didn’t we?