BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DENVER -- First he was begged, and then he was booed. Ken Griffey Jr. wouldn't accept the will of the people, but he couldn't stand their catcalls.
Baseball's most beloved player did not consent to take part in the All-Star Home Run Derby until he heard the loudest jeers of his career Monday afternoon at Coors Field. Then, conveniently, he won the contest.
To those whom much is given, much is expected. Ken Griffey Jr. is that rare athlete who regularly delivers on his profound promise. If he needs to be cajoled now and then, it is usually worth the effort. "Ken Griffey Jr. -- he is the game," Cal Ripken Jr. said Monday. "I mean, he's such a talented player, we all marvel at his ability to go out there and play, the things that he does. When you think about baseball and you think about this time frame, you can't help but think about Ken Griffey."
That's why the thought of Griffey skipping a slugging contest at baseball's most homer-friendly park was almost unthinkable. That's why Griffey spent the better part of Monday afternoon having to explain himself.
"It's a situation where I said a month ago that I wasn't going to do it," Griffey explained at a noon news conference. "Now I have everybody telling me, you know, this is what everybody wants. "Well, the last time I was here, I didn't get a ball out of the infield, couldn't get it up in the air. You know, it's a lot of things that went into this decision. I didn't make an excuse. I just said I wasn't going to do it a month ago."
Three hours later, In a second news conference, Griffey was pressed for a fuller explanation.
"The situation last year, with our travel schedule, I flew seven hours to get to a press conference at nine o'clock," he said. "The home run competition didn't start until four. By four o'clock, I was just worn out. This year, I just said, "I can't do it.' With our schedule, all our off days are flying. We don't have the luxury of going to a city and having a day off in that city. You know, we have a Sunday day game, then Monday we're flying to Boston or New York. That's not a day off for us.
"Right now, I just need to rest."
Junior doesn't like boos
With tickets for baseball's All-Star workout now commanding as much as $50 a seat -- at face value -- spectators should rightly expect a quality show. But with four of baseball's five leading home run hitters announced as scratches, the Home Run Derby was rapidly approaching anticlimax.
Of the many sluggers laying siege to Roger Maris' record, only Mark McGwire was committed to competing at Coors Field before Monday afternoon. Sammy Sosa had the excuse of injury. Greg Vaughn is not a player people pay to see. But each time Griffey stepped into the cage for batting practice Monday afternoon, he was booed.
Frank Robinson spoke to Griffey about his stance, and some of his teammates encouraged him to relent. Finally, when the introductions were made for the Home Run Derby, a familiar figure with a backward ballcap emerged from the American League dugout in place of Cleveland's Manny Ramirez. The fans rose to their feet as if Greta Garbo had come out for an encore.
"I don't like to get booed," Griffey explained later. "This is not a time to get booed. If they want to see me do the home run competition -- the fans -- that's 4 million reasons (All-Star votes) why I did it. For them. I'm going to be a little worn out, but I've got part of tomorrow and Wednesday (to rest), so hopefully I can be ready for the second half."
If Griffey was weary from his travels, it was not evident in his swing. He hit eight home runs in the first round (each player was limited to 10 "outs"), eight more in the second, and closed out Cleveland's Jim Thome with three home runs in the final round before he had exhausted his available swings.
First, he was begged. Then, he was booed. Then, he was best.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.