Well, I thought I was done coming to Reds’ camp. It was kind of a running joke when I’d show up here every year. The Cincinnati writers, who don’t get many out-of-towners in camp, anticipated my annual appearance to do another Ken Griffey update. And Griffey himself would roll his eyes and say, “Not again.”
Last year, as soon as he spotted me , he called across the room “I ain’t doing it this year. I’m serious. No way.” And he kept his word, chatting with me but declining to sit down for an interview. When the Reds’ players went out on the field for their workout, I called my office and told them not to expect a Griffey story, that he had blown me off. But I decided to wait him out and take one more pass. I just had a hunch. When the workout ended, I entered the clubhouse, and sure enough, Junior motioned me over.
“What do you need?”: he said.
And I sat down for a delightful 20-minute interview in which he couldn’t have been more pleasant, resulting in this column.
That’s Junior for you. Life’s never dull. And here I am again in Reds camp (in Sarasota, Florida for the final year; they’re moving to Goodyear, Arizona next spring) to see what his old teammates think about his new Seattle life.
The veteran scribes like Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News, a Hall of Famer, notes that it’s a lot quieter around here without Griffey and his running mate, Adam Dunn. Junior’s big black steamer trunk that sat by his locker (both in spring training and in Cincinnati, even accompanying him on road trips) is gone. Chris Dickinson and Darryl Ward occupy the two lockers Griffey used to command.
But the Reds seem to have genuine fondness for Griffey, especially the younger players like Jay Bruce, the soon-to-be-superstar center fielder that Junior took under his wing, and Joey Votto, the rising first-base talent.
“Is he going to wear 24?” Bruce asked me when he found out I was from Seattle. “That’s awesome!”
Bruce also said, “I just want the guy to be happy. He’s dealt with a lot in his career, so for him to be where he wants to be is the most important thing. If that’s frickin’ Kansas City, it doesn’t matter. I’m glad he’s in a good spot. He deserves to go where he wants to go. He’s one of the few guys in the game that does. I’m really happy for him.”
As far as mentoring young players, “Ken takes that mentor role without even doing it, Bruce said. “Because people gravitate to him. People watch him. He’s kind of a living legend in the game. For any young guy — watch him, see what he does. It’s really, really crazy how he never has to say a word. He just kind of knows. He speaks with his actions.”
One interesting thing is that virtually every player I talked to mentioned, unsolicited, the fact that, in their belief, Griffey is a clean player. I think his stature in the game has been elevated with all the steroids revelations bringing down other superstars. He and Frank Thomas are among the really huge stars of the steroid era to stay above reproach.
“For me, the guy brings pureness to the game,” Bruce said. “He just did it. There was never any speculation about anything.”
“I think the things that are going on now (regarding Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and other steroids suspects) just solidifies how great he really was,” said outfielder Jerry Hairston. “I hope people appreciate how great a career he had.”
“People don’t realize how much effect age has, when you’re legitimately clean, and not taking anything to enhance what you do,” said reliever David Weathers, who at 39 is the same age as Griffey.
Added Weathers: “What he’s done is very incredible, because he’s done it the right way. Your body, naturally, as you get older, you can do less. As many walls he’s ran into, and ran up, and to do what he’s done, he’s had a true Hall of Fame career.There’s nothing you can look at (suspiciously). To me, in this day and age, I think more players appreciate that than the other. Believe it or not, players appreciate the natural side of this.”.
Reds’ manager Dusty Baker had a lot of interesting thoughts on Griffey. Here’s a summary of my interview with him. I go way, way back with Baker — I covered him as a player in his final season with Oakland, as a hitting coach with the Giants, and in his first several seasons as Giants’ manager. I have always found him to be one of the most insightful men in the game.
On how much he thinks Griffey has left: “I think it depends on how much he still likes to play. And I think he loves to play. That being said, I think it’s going to help him going back to Seattle. He’s a good person, and good people — he may not say it, but anybody, especially good people, need to feel the love.
Was that starting to be missing here? “A little bit. I was just here one year. But I could tell…Sometimes it’s time to go, before you say or do something that will ruin 20 years of great relationship. I was there myself, in San Francisco. It was time to go.
Did his knee hamper him last year? “You know something? He never complained about it. I walked in the training room one day and it about scared me to death. I saw all the scars he had. A big divot in his leg. This guy loves to play.
“It’s not about money. It’s about loving to play. When a guy gets older and he’s secure, everything reverts back to the beginning again. He might as well be in amateur ball at this point. Things go full circle. You’re playing, playing, playing, to get financially secure for yourself and your family. Once you get financially secure, you’re back to playing out of love. He’s not playing for records.
He had a divot in his leg? “They told me it was infected, and oozing, and they had to wrap it up every day with tape (apparently, from a hamstring surgery that didn’t heal properly). There’s a screw or something in his elbow. He said he had something else in his wrist. That’s from playing, playing hard. That’s what he does. He might be almost 40 years old, but he’s still Junior.”
On mentoring Bruce and Votto: “He was very good with them. He knew when to chide them and when to laugh at them.
On returning to Seattle: “You know you’re doing something right when you can go back home. There’s not many people that can go back to a prior relationship and be accepted and loved. I don’t care what kind of relationship it is.
“On the other hand, the hard part about going back there, are they going to expect the Junior that was there when he left? When he left there, he was the best player in baseball. At least in the American League. I think Barry would give him an argument.”
I’ve got plenty more observations about Griffey from Reds’ players that I’ll synthesize into a column for tomorrow’s newspaper.
(Photo by Associated Press)