Hidden star: Ken Griffey Jr.
Reds superman happy just being one of the guys
By Scott Priestle / The Columbus Dispatch
CINCINNATI -- Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. met in February 2000, when Dunn was a 20-year-old class-A outfielder in his first big-league camp and Griffey was a megawatt star in his first camp with the Reds. Dunn knew enough about Griffey to expect he would be ignored.
Which is to say, he did not know enough about Griffey.
"There was all this hoopla, and me and him talked like I'd been in the league 10 years and known him a long time," Dunn recalled recently. "I've obviously never been around anybody else like that, but you hear a lot of things about people who are his caliber of player, and he definitely doesn't fit the mold."
Other Reds players talk about Griffey in similar fashion, even those who are young enough to have considered him a childhood hero. Two decades of baseball fame and fortune allow him to travel in privileged company, but the years have not dimmed his love of the clubhouse culture or his willingness to interact with players all through the roster.
Griffey's physique, too, remains largely unchanged. He is thicker through the chest at 38 than he was at 19, to be sure, but not in the muscle-magazine style of so many of his contemporaries. That's worth noting as he nears 600 career home runs, a milestone reached by only five players in league history, most recently by two players who are covered in a cloud of steroid suspicion: Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.
The smile and the swing that made Griffey famous as a young player with the Seattle Mariners remain his defining characteristics in the autumn of his career.
"You couldn't ask for anyone better," teammate Norris Hopper said.
Out of the spotlight:
Griffey is reluctant to talk about his 596 home runs, the approaching milestone or his legacy in the game. He is uncomfortable as the center of public attention.
Yet, when the tape recorders and cameras are turned off and the conversations are dominated by clubhouse banter, Griffey is eager to interject. He seems to thrive as the center of such attention.
"What do I do different than anybody else? Nothing," he said. "Just because I have a few hits and a few home runs doesn't make me anything I'm not. Maybe a little lucky, I guess."
With that, he flashed the smile that sold a thousand Nikes, that once made him -- in the words of teammate Brandon Phillips -- "the Michael Jordan of baseball." A smile seen most often these days during the jocular give-and-take with Dunn and other teammates.
"I tell my kids all the time, I'm a normal person, I just have an abnormal job," Griffey said.
Certainly, the homer-fueled hype that surrounded Bonds, Sosa and Mark McGwire in the past decade allowed Griffey some sense of normalcy. The second half of his career has unfolded with as much anonymity as possible considering the fame he garnered in the first half, when he was voted to the All-Century Team and five times was the leading vote-getter in the All-Star Game.
There has not been a national network, magazine or newspaper here to document Griffey's chase for 600 homers, though he is only four shy. Chad Johnson's running feud with the Bengals is a much more popular topic of conversation on the local airwaves.
A feat worth celebrating:
Of course, that could change as quickly as one of Griffey's line drives reaches the right-field bleachers. When the national audience catches on, it will return the spotlight to a player who thrived through the steroid era without even a whisper that his performance was chemically enhanced.
"You can't control what anyone else does. You can only control what you do," Dunn said. "His numbers were as good or better than all those guys who got caught. It just goes to show what kind of player he is."
Hopper is eagerly awaiting No. 600 and the interest it generates, the way he once awaited the release of a pair of Nike Griffey spikes. (He said he bought the newest version every year from Little League through high school.)
"It means a lot for baseball," Hopper said. "I'm just happy I'm going to be on the same team when he does it."