Staying on the field
Just before he left his Orlando home for the trek south to the Cincinnati Reds' spring training camp in Sarasota in February, Ken Griffey Jr.'s 10-year-old daughter Taryn called him aside to ask him a question.
"How many years have you been playing baseball, Daddy?" she asked.
"Eighteen," replied Griffey, "Why?"
"I don't know," she said, "except that you're old!"
Well, one supposes, at 36, he is old. By baseball standards anyway, and certainly by Junior standards. We have always thought of him as this modern-day version of Willie Mays, playing the game and patrolling center field with carefree abandon, epitomizing the joy of baseball. At least that's the way it was for the first 10 years in Seattle when he was playing it free and easy, routinely leading the league in homers while earning a place as the only current player to be named to the All-Century Team.
No less an authority than Hank Aaron himself predicted he would be the one to break the all-time home run record, but that was before Griffey came home to Cincinnati and seemingly began playing every season hurt. His legs have betrayed him these past five years and, as such, denied him the opportunity to make a run at Aaron that, instead, is being made by the cheater that is Barry Bonds.
In Junior's case, it is he who has been cheated, but as he was saying last night in the solitude of the Reds clubhouse before their 9-2 loss to the Mets, we should not feel sorry for him.
"I'm still having fun," he said. "Every season is fun. I know people (in Cincinnati) have been upset because they haven't been able to see me play as much and that's been frustrating for me, too, not to be able to play. But the game is still enjoyable."
And, one would think, even more enjoyable this year, with the surprising Reds in second place in the NL Central and in first place for the wild card. According to Jerry Narron, the Reds manager and onetime backup Yankee catcher to Thurman Munson, the Reds probably aren't quite sure what they are just yet, while he also acknowleded, "We can't afford any breakdowns in any area."
At the same time, Narron believes anything is possible, especially in this season of ultimate "Bud Selig parity" in the National League. "We've got a lot of guys here who never played .500 baseball," he said. "I don't think they understand how one pitch can make the difference of going home in October. But at the same time, I'd love to see these guys still be in it in September to see what it's like."
Either way, that figures to include Griffey, despite the ever-recurring trade rumors. He is owed approximately $25 million, including deferred money, on a contract that extends through next season with an option for '08. Because of that, the theory goes, the Reds would not be averse to moving him, even if they are in the thick of a pennant race. As a 10-5 man, Griffey has veto rights over any trade.
"No one has come to me and asked me about that," he said. "If they did, I'd have to consider all the circumstances. I'm not gonna hold anyone hostage. I understand the business end of baseball. If they said, 'We want to get younger here' and let me have the option to tell them where I'd want to go ... "
He didn't say where that might be, or even if that might be. But those who know him best, know how much spending quality time with his family means to him now, doubt seriously he would approve a deal to the White Sox - the team most often mentioned in trade discussions because of their need for a center fielder - since they train in Tucson. On the other hand, the Yankees, one of the few teams who could afford to pick up his contract, are only an hour away in Tampa in the spring.
"How are the Yankees doing?" Junior asked mischievously. "Is (Johnny) Damon enjoying himself over there?"
Even though he bristled at suggestions earlier this year that he no longer was a top flight center fielder and should consider moving to left or right, playing his dad's old left field position with the Yankees might hold some appeal to him if it meant attaining the one thing that has eluded him in his Hall of Fame career, the World Series. But all this is the stuff of Rotisserie pipedreams. The Yankees have had their full quota of injured outfielders this season and, desperate as they might be for another big bat, Junior's physical track record makes him too much of a risk, even for them.
So it must be assumed, he's in Cincinnati to stay. Content to grow old with this young and improved Reds team that Narron appears to have on the rise. The game is still fun for him and who's to say, come September, it might actually be more fun in Cincy than in the Bronx.