Griffey's days in Cincinnati may be numbered
By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
Ken Griffey Jr.
, playfully yelling moments earlier from his corner of the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, suddenly is talking in almost a whisper before a game last weekend in Atlanta.
It is flat and unemotional, reflecting no remorse or bitterness about a nine-year-old decision that dramatically altered his career.
"I wouldn't change anything," says Griffey, who was traded to the Reds on Feb. 10, 2000. "I had to leave Seattle when I did. I just had to. They know the real reason why I left."
More than eight years after departing Seattle, it might be time to leave again, perhaps returning to the Northwest.
"It's everybody's dream to go back where they started," the 38-year-old right fielder says. "Everybody who plays the game would love to go out the way they see fit."
Griffey, raised in Cincinnati and a direct descendant of the Big Red Machine, has 597 home runs, three shy of becoming the sixth player in history to hit 600. Three players — Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays — are in the Hall of Fame. The other two, Barry Bonds
and Sammy Sosa
, have been linked to illegal performance-enhancing drug use and will await their fate when eligible.
"You're talking about one of the greatest achievements in baseball history," says Atlanta Braves starter Tom Glavine
, who got his 300th win last season. "I have such a great appreciation for who (Griffey) is, what he's done, and that he's done it the right way."
If Griffey reaches the milestone during the Reds' three-game homestand that started Monday against the Chicago Cubs, instead of a citywide celebration, Griffey's 600th home run might result in little more than a farewell present.
"We're in a tough situation here," says Griffey, whose team improved to 13-20 with Monday's 5-3 win against the Cubs. "We either turn things around or they start getting rid of everybody around here.
"My situation is different only because I can tell them where I want to go. I want to be in position to win a championship. I'm not strong-arming anybody, but that's the way it is."
Griffey, who enters today hitting .229 with four home runs and 15 RBI, says he expects the Reds to approach him before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline seeking his approval for a trade.
He is eligible to hit the market as a free agent for the first time in his 20-year career after the season if the Reds don't pick up his $16 million option for 2009.
There have been no negotiations, much less any discussion. If the Reds, with one winning season in the last decade, aren't in contention, Griffey could be jettisoned for newer and younger faces.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty says it's too early to discuss plans of retooling the team.
The Mariners, who watched the love-fest between their fans and Griffey last year when he returned to Seattle for interleague play for the first time, say they want Griffey back.
"I think everybody in Seattle would like to see him retire in a Mariners uniform," Mariners President Chuck Armstrong says. "He was born a Mariner. And I'd like to see him finish up as a Mariner.
"I can't say much because he is property of the Cincinnati Reds, but he always will have a special place in my heart, and everyone here in Seattle."
'Who should we trade?'
Griffey broke into the major leagues in 1989 at 19 and spent the next decade putting the Mariners on the baseball map. He was selected for 10 consecutive years to the All-Star Game, won 10 Gold Gloves and was named the 1997 American League MVP. The Mariners, who reached the playoffs for the first time in 1995, were transformed from a laughingstock to one of baseball's premier franchises.
Griffey says he could still be in Seattle if not for a simple question.
When it became clear the Mariners were going to have difficulty re-signing both Griffey and Alex Rodriguez
, a team official approached Griffey and asked, "Who should we trade?"
"I refused to answer," says Griffey, who declined to name the official. "That was not my job. So they went and asked the next person.
"I got traded. He stayed one year. Then he left too."
Griffey never mentioned Rodriguez by name, but it was A-Rod who left a year later in December 2000, signing a record 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and then-GM Pat Gillick met with Rodriguez and agent Scott Boras after talking with Griffey and released a statement that Rodriguez "expressed his keen desire to play the 2000 season as a Mariner and explore his free agent options at the end of the season."
"Money had nothing to do with me" leaving, says Griffey, adding he was offered an eight-year, $138 million extension from the Mariners.
He wound up signing a nine-year, $116.5 million deal with Cincinnati, deferring $57.5 million in hope that the Reds would be able to build a championship club around him. It never happened.
Griffey helped lead the Reds to an 85-77 record in 2000, but it turned out to be their last winning season. Griffey has struggled with injuries, going on the disabled list eight times and missing 436 games since 2001. And the Reds, with attendance plummeting by a half-million since Griffey's first year, have gone through six managers, four general managers, two ownership groups and two ballparks.
"I know there's been frustration, but as much time as I've spent over the years with Kenny, never once have I heard him complain about the number of injuries he had," says Brian Goldberg, Griffey's agent. "Never once has he said, 'If I hadn't gotten hurt, I could have done this or done that.' "
Despite the injuries, Griffey leads active major leaguers in career homers, RBI, runs and total bases.
"To get to 600 home runs, and for him to have all of these accomplishments, are great," Ken Griffey Sr. says, "but I'd rather see him get a ring. … I've got three. I want to see him get at least one.
"That would mean more to him than anything else."
Going his own way
Even though Griffey has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, he still suffers the consequences.
The names of Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens
, two of the game's biggest stars, appeared in former senator George Mitchell's investigative report on performance-enhancing drugs. It's as if the public, Goldberg says, has been "desensitized because of all of the allegations out there."
"I remember when Pete (Rose) broke Ty Cobb's record, and there were all of these fireworks and celebration," Griffey says. "They stopped the game for 20 minutes. Cal (Ripken) broke the (consecutive games played) record and did a lap around the ballpark.
"These days, you tip your cap, and that's about it."
Griffey says he suspected widespread doping in the game but was never tempted to talk about it publicly. He knew he could look himself in the mirror each day, and he wasn't about to risk his principles, much less his health.
"They made their decisions, I made mine," Griffey says. "You can't worry about what people do and don't do. You have to do what's best for you.
"You can't just go around accusing people of things. You can see somebody buy it. You can see them put it in their car, transport it and see them put it on the table. But that doesn't mean he used it. You don't know unless you actually see a person do it."
The game itself, Griffey says, remains as beautiful as ever. It has afforded him all of the luxuries he ever could have dreamed and a close-knit family life he always wanted. He and his wife, Melissa, and their three children live in a 33,000-square-foot home in the Orlando area, with 11 acres of land, and a bowling alley in the basement. He rides go-karts, plays basketball and wrestles with the kids, Trey (14), Taryn (12) and Tevin (6).
Trey, 5-11½, has grown 7 inches and gained 50 pounds in the last year and shares all of his dad's characteristics. He prefers basketball and football to baseball, but Griffey — believing that one day Trey could be the third generation of the family to reach the big leagues — refuses to let him play football unless he plays baseball, too.
Taryn is the star of her AAU basketball team, averaging 24 points and leading the team in rebounds and assists, Griffey says. Tevin is a middle linebacker in football, a "mini-Ray Lewis," Griffey says. And everyone wears No. 3, just like dad.
Griffey has a photographer who videotapes all of the kids' sporting events and school functions and sends them to Griffey to watch after returning home from games at night. Griffey shares in the discipline, too, taking away Trey's cellphone when he does wrong. And if it continues, the go-kart will be shut down, followed by his Xbox.
"I wish the go-kart would go first," Trey says, "because it doesn't work anyway. No spark plugs."
Family man first
Griffey will talk to reporters all day about his kids, but when it comes to his career, he becomes withdrawn. He is aware of the magnitude of his 600th home run but shuns the publicity.
"I don't get wrapped up in it," he says, "and the kids certainly aren't. When it's there, it's there."
One day, the home runs will stop. He'll be home for good. He's just not sure when.
"It'll come down to one of two things," Griffey says. "One, you can't do it no more. Or two, people stop calling. That's it.
"I don't want it to be like when I grew up, where my dad went from team to team and by the time he made his last move we were already grown. I want to be there for my family."
Griffey then looks at Trey, breaks into a smile and puts him in a headlock, shouting, "It's on!"
The home run pursuit, along with a potential trade, can wait. It's time to prove he still is king of the family, Griffey laughs, realizing those days might be numbered, too.