Fame takes heavy toll on Griffey
Happy kid has become sour adult

Monday, August 31, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK -- Ken Griffey Jr. awakes from a nap on the wrong side of the bed. He is in no mood for interrogation, much less introspection. The Seattle Mariners center fielder sits on a couch in the corner of the clubhouse, palpably weary of this part of his world.

You seek insight or, at the least, answers. What you get are shrugs and smirks. Baseball's most dynamic player has come to the capital of American commerce, leading the American League in home runs, and he regards it not as an opportunity but an ordeal.

"There's just something about this place," he says, vaguely, to a small audience at Yankee Stadium.

Most of his responses, though, are non-verbal. He gestures with his hands, or offers a look of blank indifference, or shrouds his face with his fingers. There are lots of painful silences and nothing in the way of baseball banter.

This is Friday night. Saturday, the local papers take their revenge.

"Griffey sounds like a bitter young man," says the headline in the New York Post.

"Junior behaves like a child," echoes the Daily News.

For all his acclaim, his popularity and his wealth, Ken Griffey Jr. does not do joy on demand. The style and spontaneity he demonstrates on the diamond mask darker moods. Like most public men, Griffey is more complex and more conflicted than his image. Like most competitive athletes, he has little patience for losing.

"He gets depressed," said Ken Griffey Sr., the Reds hitting coach. "He wants to do so well and they (the Mariners) are getting beat up. When we talk, we don't talk about baseball very much. It's more that I keep his spirits up. Most of the time, we talk about the kids."

Though he homered twice Sunday afternoon against the Yankees, raising his season total to 47, Ken Griffey Jr. is pretty much talked out about the Roger Maris race. After the Mariners maul baseball's best team 13-3, their star center fielder tells reporters, "I have nothing to say."

A month ago, he could scarcely avoid the subject. He was giving spirited chase to St. Louis' Mark McGwire, playing the sweet-swinging counterpoint to McGwire's preternatural power. But while Griffey remains the foremost home run hitter in the land of the designated hitter, he has dropped off the pace being set by McGwire (55)and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa (54).

Ken Griffey Sr. cites a hyper-extended elbow, by way of explanation. Ken Griffey Jr. is not inclined to elaborate.

"Does it matter?" he asks. "It matters to me, but it doesn't matter to anybody else. As long as I'm on the field, I've got to be healthy. As long as I'm on the field, they (the public) think I'm 100 percent. All they look at is numbers."

A streak of self-pity runs through Griffey's remarks -- and has at least since his grudging participation in the All-Star home run hitting contest -- but perhaps he is entitled to it. Though his every swing is no longer being scrutinized as carefully as McGwire's and Sosa's, Griffey still encounters home run questions at every stop. At 28, he is trapped between his incredible talent and impossible expectations.

"I'd like to have that ability, but at the same time I wouldn't want all the hullabaloo," said Lou Piniella, the Mariners manager. "It comes with the territory, but it would get old."

Griffey struck three home runs over the weekend -- a space shot into the upper deck Saturday, and two tracer bullets Sunday -- but earlier this month he had gone 54 at-bats between homers. As McGwire and Sosa roared into the stretch, Griffey was fading in the far turn. "We've got to rest him a little more," Piniella said. "I'm not saying he's tired, but if we could find a way to rest him a little more, I don't think you'll see the dry spells."

Friday, Piniella put Griffey in the lineup as a designated hitter, sparing him the responsibilities of center field, and distancing him from the vulgar chants of the fans in the bleachers.

Yankee manager Joe Torre wonders what Griffey has done to deserve so much abuse from the fans. He is told of an interview in ESPN Magazine in which Griffey says he would retire rather than play for the Yankees because of old grudges from his father's days in New York.

"Kids don't forget," Torre said. "My daughter doesn't like Reggie (Jackson). He stepped on her foot in an elevator and didn't apologize."

Griffey Sr. says if his son played for a contender with as high a profile as the Yankees, "He'd be like Michael Jordan." Yet if his weekend in New York is any indication, he is ill-suited for the scrutiny of a major media market.

The possibility of Junior ever playing for his hometown Reds -- a fantasy fueled by his father's presence on the coaching staff -- would also appear remote.

"I have no idea what Junior wants to do," says Ken Griffey Sr. "But it would be tough for them (the Mariners) to let him go."

"I don't see that happening," Piniella said. "Junior is a franchise player and it would be hard for me to imagine that he won't finish his career here. But stranger things have happened."

Griffey's contract with the Mariners has two more years to run, and the team is expected to try to lock him up long-term as it moves into a new stadium next season. To do otherwise would be madness. Moods notwithstanding, this is one marvelous player.

"When I was young, we just went out and played," said Ken Griffey Jr. "If we won, we went out and had ice cream after the game. If we lost, we went home. You didn't have a care in the world. It's not like now, when you've got 900 million people looking at you, wondering what's going on, what's wrong?"

The price of fame is sometimes steep. It is a price Ken Griffey Jr. is not always willing to pay.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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