Wednesday, May 05, 1999

Griffey's visit: Wishing upon a star




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[griffeys]
Imagine Ken Griffey Jr. playing centerfield in the new Reds ballpark and his dad Ken managing the team.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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        It was either entirely innocent or ingeniously staged, but Ken Griffey Jr. took batting practice Tuesday at Cinergy Field.

        Before the game, beneath the stands, behind a mesh screen, without ceremony but in front of the media, baseball's most marketable player worked on his stroke with his dad and swing doctor, Ken Griffey Sr.

        It may have meant nothing. The Seattle Mariners were off Tuesday and headed for Cleveland. Junior chose to add a Cincinnati layover en route to Jacobs Field, to spend part of his day off with his parents. Nothing strange or suspicious about that.

        Except that every step Ken Griffey Jr. takes these days is studied for subtext. He is nearing a contractual crossroads with the Mariners, so every other team is salivating at the prospect of acquiring his services.

        Nowhere has that notion prompted more idle speculation and wasted breath than in Cincinnati. Griffey is a hometown kid, after all, the pride of Moeller High School, and his father is a local fixture and a potential heir to the Reds' 68-year-old manager, Jack McKeon.

Junior still M's property
        With prosperous new ownership in the on-deck circle and a spiffy new stadium on the drawing board, the budget-conscious Reds might be positioned to make a competitive bid when Griffey's contract expires at the end of the 2000 season. Should Seattle management despair of signing Griffey to an extension, the Mariners might be inclined to cut their losses (through a trade) as early as this winter.

        Plainly, some intriguing pieces are in place. What they mean, however, is mostly a matter of conjecture. While his appearance at Cinergy Field may have been designed in part as a negotiating ploy and surely will serve to stoke speculation about his real intentions, Ken Griffey Jr. hardly needs to manufacture leverage through artificial means. When the time comes, he will play where he wants to play.

        “I've been here 15 minutes,” he said Tuesday when asked about a permanent homecoming to Cincinnati. “I'm still a Mariner for two years and I haven't thought about anything else.”

        Maybe not, but the Mariners reportedly have offered Griffey a five-year extension worth in excess of $100 million, and he did not reach for a pen immediately. He has expressed concerns about the club's direction, and a desire to play for a championship team. It would seem to follow that he has contemplated alternative employment.

        Baseball's tampering rules make it risky to speak too freely about one's future, however, and Griffey long ago wearied of the subject. “I'm tired of all the questions about my contract,” he said last month. “If I'm not worried about it, I don't think anyone else should be.”

Baseball's best player
        It rarely works that way in sports. Star players are not interchangeable drones; they are the product. The Mariners are naturally anxious about keeping Griffey, because he is probably the best player in the game and possibly baseball's biggest gate attraction. This makes his business everybody's business.

        One Reds official estimated Tuesday that getting Griffey could be worth as many as 6,500 additional season tickets, plus innumerable single-game sales. Other than Mark McGwire, Griffey may be the only guy in the game who can justify an eight-figure annual salary on the basis of the additional revenues he generates.

        “One guy can't carry you to the promised land,” McKeon said. “But it would be nice to have a guy like that in a year or two.”

        Sooner, if possible. Upon encountering the Griffeys in the Reds' clubhouse Tuesday, McKeon suggested the Reds activate Senior for the evening, then slip Junior into his uniform. He was believed to be joking. The temptation had to be tremendous. Even hitting off his dad, in a covered batting cage that limited his distance, Ken Griffey Jr.'s swing was a sight to behold. At 29, his bat speed is still breathtaking, and the crack of his bat is as crisp and clear as the notes Julie Andrews hit at the top of her game.

        The Reds probably could find a place for him.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Griffey (just visiting) takes BP at Cinergy
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE