By JIM MOORE
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Twenty years have passed since Ken Griffey Jr. arrived in Seattle, and Monday afternoon he looked all of 17 again.
The first man to wear his cap backward is wearing it backward as he pitches batting practice to his three kids while his wife helps shag balls.
On a small field at the Cincinnati Reds' springtraining complex, a crowd of seven watches -- three photographers, two reporters, local resident Dick Vitale and Akeiba, Griffey's Rottweiler from the bed of his owner's jet black Ford F-150 pickup.
The oldest, Trey, 13, and Taryn, 11, are good athletes, and if Vitale were asked, 4-year-old Tevin looks like a diaper dandy.
Two decades ago Tevin's dad was "The Kid." Flying west as the first pick in the 1987 draft, the Cincinnati native knew nothing about Seattle, much less Bellingham, where his pro career would begin.
He didn't even know the Mariners existed until his junior year at Moeller High School, and here he was, about to own the team and the town.
For all that Edgar Martinez was to this franchise, Griffey was more, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever play the game. And most memorably, the man under the pig-pile at home plate in '95.
You could see that smile again Monday when he joked with teammates and played with his kids. But during an hour-long interview in the clubhouse, the smile was not as evident.
The subject: Griffey's first return to Seattle after being traded to the Reds following the '99 season. Cincinnati plays a three-game series at Safeco Field on June 22-24.
So, Ken, are you excited to go back? Are you looking forward to it? What kind of reception do you think you'll get? These questions yielded little, aside from a lack of emotion, which was notable in itself.
"I haven't really thought about it," Griffey said. "I have no idea what to expect. I'm trying to get through the spring and get on with the season. It's a long ways away. I've got to do some things before I get there."
Griffey is sitting on a trunk next to his locker, fooling around with a black bat, taking half-swings, giving short answers. He looks like he would rather be doing anything but this and to be honest, I would, too -- there must be a golf course or cocktail lounge right around the corner.
But then he began to open up. It was almost as if you could hear the creaking of a door that had been slammed shut for a long time. Or maybe this is just the way Griffey is, I don't know. From most accounts, he's hard to figure out.
Take a guess how many times he's been back to Seattle since he left? That's right, zip, zero, nada. His wife, Melissa, is from Gig Harbor.
"Not even for a family function?" he's asked.
"Nope," he says. "I haven't done anything in Seattle. The closest I've gotten is San Francisco."
"Miss anything in Seattle?" he's asked.
"Nah, other than seeing Jay (Buhner) and Edgar," he says.
Griffey did appreciate the fan support and those in the Mariners organization.
"The people there will always be close to me because they gave me an opportunity to play," he said.
It can't be just another series on the schedule, though Junior makes it sound like it is. I'd bet, deep down, gun to his head, it will mean a lot to him.
"Do you think you'll be cheered?" he's asked.
"I have no idea," he says.
Could you possibly boo him? A-Rod, yes. Randy Johnson, maybe. But Ken Griffey Jr., no matter why he left? The player who saved the franchise?
He was said to be unhappy with Safeco Field's dimensions, limiting his chance to be the all-time home run leader. He was said to want to play for a team that had spring-training facilities in Florida, near his offseason home in Orlando.
Whatever it was, new M's GM Pat Gillick realized he had to make a deal after a conversation with Griffey.
"Ken, I just got here," Gillick told him. "Our goal is to go to the World Series. Do you want to be a part of that?"
"No," Griffey said.
Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, said that comment should not be misinterpreted, that Griffey's goal is always to win a championship.
"It had nothing to do with the World Series, it had to do with Kenny physically, geographically being in Seattle," Goldberg said. "This was about him being miserable away from his family."
That reason trumped all others.
"Everybody in Seattle said, 'What do you have to leave for?' " Griffey said. "I wanted to be around my kids and see 'em grow up. Then they'd say, you could fly 'em in. But it's about being there, being a dad. If they need something, I want to be there.
"Then I'd hear, 'There must be something else.' No. I want to be a dad. It's my job to make sure they turn out OK."
If you want to talk about his kids, he'll talk all day and the smile reappears. Trey is a junior high football player who loves to hit.
"I call him my miniature Ray Lewis," Griffey said.
Taryn plays basketball. If baseball forces Griffey to miss one of her games or one of Trey's, he watches them on video, taped by a hired crew.
And preschooler Tevin?
"He might be the best athlete," Griffey said.
Tevin plays flag football and is so quick and shifty, he has yet to have his flag pulled.
Griffey's wife was adopted, and Tevin was, too. "He found us," is how Griffey puts it. "He acts like me all the time. He's got every bad habit."
When the interview goes back to baseball, like they always do, Griffey becomes less animated. Playing in his hometown has not gone as well as he'd hoped.
Six years and eight trips to the disabled list, each one further preventing Griffey from catching Hank Aaron and giving baseball a steroid-free home run king. He has hit 563 and could reach 600 this year, barring injury of course.
It's a running joke, and he's not laughing. The three most used words in Cincinnati headlines: "Griffey's hurt again."
That's why he was reluctant to initially reveal details of his most recent injury, a broken left hand suffered when he was rough housing with his kids on their family yacht in the Bahamas in December.
He says nothing bothers him, but so much does. Other than the last one, his injuries have happened on the field.
"How did I get hurt?" Griffey asks. "Trying to make a diving catch, taking an extra base, hitting the wall, all the things that people who win do. If I lollygagged, what would (people) say about it?"
There has been a price -- Griffey has nine screws in his body, six in his shoulder, three in his tailbone.
"When I put my hat down for good, I can always say I gave 100 percent," Griffey said. "There will not be a 'what if' in my speech."
One presumes the speech will take place in Cooperstown. Griffey has not decided which uniform he will enter the Hall of Fame in. Based on his comments, make the Mariners a slight favorite.
"I took some shots leaving Seattle the last year, and I took some shots the first year here," Griffey said.
He played 11 years in Seattle, six years and counting in Cincinnati. He admits that, even now, people know him more as a Mariner than a Red.
Critics in Cincinnati also give the M's an edge. When he separated his shoulder and was still down on the turf, Griffey heard someone in the stands ripping him for getting hurt.
Trey's classmates say things, too, and then there was the one guy on sports-talk radio last summer. Griffey found out on a Monday that his mom had colon cancer and on the next day that his dad had prostate cancer.
"I suppose he'll use that as an excuse now," the caller said.
Said Goldberg: "I wish he would render a lot of those people as irrelevant as I do."
Maybe they've forgotten that he doesn't drink, doesn't get in trouble, and they can't possibly know that he gives to many charities because Griffey doesn't want his benevolence publicized.
Griffey can't let go of these things, nor does it help to tell him that those people have to be in the minority, that a majority of Reds fans must love him. He doesn't believe that either. Even when you're Ken Griffey Jr. you're not necessarily a hometown hero.
He thinks more Reds fans cheer for him "because they've got a chance to see history" than because he's one of the players on their favorite team.
"My home's in Florida. I work in Cincinnati," Griffey said.
"But you grew up there," I said. "Cincinnati's your hometown."
"My home's in Florida. I work in Cincinnati," Griffey repeated. "That 19-year-old kid who's now 37 has a whole different opinion of people. I work in Cincinnati. That's it."
His newest home is being built near Orlando, and it's at least as big as the last one, which had 15,000 square feet. He doesn't think it's interesting that this one has a 10-car garage.
"A 10-car garage!?" I ask.
"The other one had 12," says Griffey, who owns eight cars, all of which are 450-horsepower-plus.
He loves Florida and says that Seattle's weather was a minor factor in his decision to leave. But it should be nice when he returns in June, 20 years to the month of his original signing.
Griffey can low-key it, downplay it, and say it's not a big deal, but his agent knows otherwise, saying: "I know for a fact he's very excited about going back."
Further proof -- it bothered him when he watched the Kingdome's implosion.
"I was thinking about all the good times I had in that stadium," he said.
The Mariners are planning a ceremony for Griffey, one that should feature the retiring of his number.
If they do or don't, there's a more important issue. The interview's over and his kids need a ride. It's time to be a dad again.