Sunday, February 13, 2000

Junior picks the comforts of home

The Cincinnati Enquirer

(Kevin Belford illustration)
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        Home is where you go to feel comfortable. The pull to come home, that longing to be in a place where you feel comfortable in your skin, with your past, with your thoughts, with what comes out of your mouth, is primal and universal.

        You can venture out into the world to make a name for yourself. But you come home to be yourself.

        The comfort of home brought Ken Griffey Jr. back to town to play for the Cincinnati Reds. He took less money. He turned down the big media towns. He's returning to the city where he grew up so he can play for the home team.

        “I'm finally home,” the Reds' new center fielder declared Thursday night. “This is where I'm the happiest.”

        He was born in Donora, Pa., as was his father, Reds coach and former all-star outfielder, Ken Griffey Sr. (So was Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial, with whom Junior shares a Nov. 21 birthday.)

        Junior came to Cincinnati as a pre-schooler and spent his Wonder Bread years growing up here. He was a star athlete at Moeller High School before joining the Seattle Mariners, becoming a superstar and moving to a wealthy enclave in Orlando, Florida where he counts Tiger Woods as a friend and neighbor.

        Despite of his travels and his success out of town, Cincinnati is still home and never far from his mind.

        “When we talk on the phone,” said long-time friend and former Moeller classmate Rick Bennett, “we don't talk about his career or how many home runs he has. We talk about family and old times at home in Cincinnati.”

        Everyone's hometown is special. But Cincinnati, my hometown, offers degrees of comfort unknown in other places. She holds people in her arms, somehow, and you feel safe, grounded, comfortable. And in Cincinnati, celebrities, even stars of Ken Griffey Jr.'s magnitude, can live their lives in public without being smothered or stalked.

        At a Junior sighting, most people in Cincinnati will just wave and call out his name. They will leave him alone to pump his own gas or eat a cheese coney at the Skyline in Kenwood where he used to go with his high school teammates after Moeller baseball games. The town is too polite to cause anyone any discomfort.

        In Cincinnati, the pull of home is magnetic, majestic and mysterious.

        The city's comforting power holds generations of families to one hillside neighborhood or one valley community. Family members go to the same drugstore, auto mechanic, bakery, butcher shop and undertaker as their parents did and their parents before them. East side. West side. It makes no difference.

        The hold Cincinnati has on natives causes newlyweds to settle in homes two streets from their parents. It grabs out-of-towners like Oscar Robertson, Johnny Bench, Jim Scott and Marty Brennaman, allowing them to become Cincinnati institutions and causing them to put down roots and stay forever.

        And when a homegrown kid like Ken Griffey Jr. goes into the world and makes it big, he still dreams of coming home, coming back to Cincinnati, where he feels comfortable.

Junior and family at the Thursday news conference: mom Alberta, wife Melissa, dad Ken Sr., daughter Taryn and son Trey.
(AP photo)
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Low-key comfort
        Cincinnati is a baseball town. Everyday life here moves at the pace of the game, laid-back, deliberate, direct, honest as a fastball right down the middle.

        This pace creates a steady, comfortable climate for pursuing a career and raising families.

        Ken Griffey Sr. did both in Cincinnati. “I came here as a kid,” he said, holding the hand of his granddaughter, Taryn, Junior's 4-year-old daughter. They were stopped in a hallway off the Reds' offices at Cinergy Field just after the big press conference to welcome Junior back to town.

        “I grew up here,” Senior said. “I was a kid of 19 when the Reds drafted me. I raised a family in Cincinnati, raised Junior here. He'll find out he can raise his son, his daughter, his family here, too. Cincinnati has always been a great place to raise a family.”

        Alberta Griffey, Senior's wife, followed her husband down the hall with their grandson, Trey, Junior's 6-year-old son.

        “Cincinnati has everything the big city has without being a New York,” Alberta said. She picked up her husband's train of thought, explaining why Cincinnati is a great place to raise a family.

        “You've got theaters here,” she said. “You've got the parks, the schools. But you never feel threatened. It's safe to go out. To walk the streets. To feel comfortable.”

        Rick Bennett and Ken Jr. have been friends for 16 years, since they played baseball together at Moeller.

        “Ken does not like the limelight,” said Rick, the assistant to baseball operations for the Detroit Tigers. “He would not do well in New York or L.A., where every word and every move is watched. He just wants to be with his family, to be left alone to live his life.”

        Junior's former teammate paused for a second and then added: “It's real important for Ken to be in a comfort zone at this point in his career.”

        Ken Griffey Jr. has all the money and fame he needs. Sometimes he has too much fame. One night last summer, another former Moeller teammate, Scott Schaffner, went to pick up Ken Jr. after a Mariners game. Seattle had played the Twins in Minneapolis, where Junior's former teammate lives and manages a biotechnology firm.

        Scott Schaffner saw “about 1,000 fans running toward the car. I told Ken to get in and we drove off.” They laughed that if Junior was being picked up at Cinergy Field, he would have been politely approached by “three or four people.” Ken would have “signed some autographs and we would have been able to slowly drive away.”

        Marty Brennaman, the Reds' Hall-of-Fame-bound announcer, agreed with that assessment of Cincinnati's reserve when it comes to fame. “I can go to my neighborhood Kroger store and call people there by their first name. They call me by my first name. We know each other. We can chat. Then I can go about my business and shop. I can go up and down the aisles. Nobody bothers me.

        “Cincinnati is the greatest city in the world. I find it to be a very comfortable city.”

        So does Ken Jr. As Rick Bennett pointed out: “You have to remember that going down to the riverfront, playing at the stadium, being in the clubhouse is, to him, like being at home.”

        When they were in high school, Junior and Rick Bennett would play a baseball game at Moeller and then go down to what was then Riverfront Stadium and “just hang out in the clubhouse.”

        The two kids goofed around and rubbed elbows with members of the Big Red Machine, one of the best teams in the history of baseball. “To Ken,” Rick Bennett said, “it was just like going into a store or an office to meet his dad at work.”

Father's footsteps
        Going to work for the company that gave your dad a job is very Cincinnati. For the son to follow in his father's footsteps is a combination of career success and personal validation. You're grown up. You've arrived.

        Ken Jr.'s statistics as a Mariner speak for themselves. But it is another thing to prove himself on the hometown field, before some of the same people who saw his father play with the Reds.

        “Everybody who has ever played the game wants to play before their hometown fans,” Rick Bennett said. “Ken is no exception. And he has an added reason, his dad.”

        There is a strong bond between the father and the son. When I asked Ken Jr. what was so special, so important about coming home and playing for the Reds, he looked at Ken Sr. Pointing toward his father's chest, right about where his heart beats, the son said, “My dad.”

        Junior joked about having a built-in babysitter. He said his dad could bring his son and daughter to the ballpark, just as he did with Junior. His grandmother lives in town.

        “She has only seen me play two or three games. Now, she can see me play all of my games.”

        Then, he turned, looked right in his dad's face. Father and son beamed.

        “Ken has a very special relationship with his dad,” said Scott Schaffner. “They talk every night on the phone, after every game. Not only do they talk about the game, they talk about life. His dad is one of the few guys he looks up to and listens to. They make these calls no matter what time it is. And no matter what time zone they're in.”

        This coming season, they can save on their phone bills. And Grandma will be in the stands.

Coming home
        After 11 years in the major leagues, 11 years all the way out in Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. was tired of being away from his family, from his friends, from the people, places and city he knows best.

        “No one will know how draining that can be on a family,” said Barry Strasser, Junior's Knothole baseball coach. “And with the Griffeys, family is everything.

        “That's why, at this point, he craves a life that's stable, in a place that's familiar.”

        And part of being in a familiar place is having people treat you like a regular guy.

        “Ken appreciated that when he was on the high school team,” said Mike Cameron, his baseball coach at Moeller. “If he was late for practice, I'd make him run just like everybody else. He didn't receive special treatment because he was the son of a major leaguer or he was so good. He was just one of the guys. And he loved being part of the team.”

        Now Ken Griffey Jr. is part of a new team in his old stomping grounds. No clubhouse in Major League Baseball could be more familiar to him than the Reds' at Cinergy Field. No coach could be more familiar than his dad.

        The familiarity will carry over when he leaves the stadium after the game. In Seattle, he drove home through an area that, no matter how beautiful, would always be a foreign city.

        In Cincinnati, he can take the familiar side streets, cut through old neighborhoods. He can stop at the homes of family and old pals.

        Outside the Reds' offices Thursday night, during the packed press conference, four fans stood in the dank air. They were patiently waiting for a glimpse of the Griffeys. One of the four was a man who 20 years ago used to be a cashier at the Mount Airy Kroger where the Griffey family shopped each week.

        He remembered the family “always being so nice and pleasant.”

        The man now manages the dairy department at another Kroger store. He drove downtown on this wet night hoping to see his famous former customer. Afraid — as only a Cincinnatian can be — of being perceived as someone trying to cash in on a distant brush with fame, he asked that I not use his name. He didn't want anything from Junior.

        “I just wanted to say, "Hi.'”

        He didn't get his chance that night. Junior left by another door. But the man will be back. “I'll try to see him after a game.”

        Cincinnati is glad to have Junior back. And I think the shy man, coach Cameron and Rick Bennett are just some of the hundreds of reasons Ken Griffey Jr. came home.

        Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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