Saturday, December 11, 1999

Did Reds owners slam on the brakes?




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Was it all just a tease? Were the Reds ever serious about acquiring Ken Griffey Jr., or did they simply want to see if he could be stolen? Did they build up our hopes only to dash them?

        Was this whole elaborate exercise really doomed from the start?

        So many questions, so few satisfying answers. Reds General Manager Jim Bowden will meet again this morning with his Seattle counterpart, Pat Gillick. But even in the unlikely event the two executives end their impasse and agree on an appropriate trade package for Griffey, Bowden may not have the clearance to close the deal.

        “To go out and give up the people they (Seattle) have been asking for makes no sense,” Reds Managing Executive John Allen said Friday afternoon. “And the money's just prohibitive. The Reds certainly in the near future are not going to be major players in the high-priced free agent market. We can't. I just don't see it happening.”

        While Allen's remarks could be calculated to convince Gillick to lower his price — posturing is as much a part of trade talks as Jack McKeon's cigar smoke — Reds ownership continues to have serious reservations about the risks inherent in getting Griffey. Bowden's aggressive pursuit of the Seattle center fielder belies his bosses' concerns about whether this is really the right way to go.

Bargain shopping
        Carl Lindner & Co. don't much like the idea of breaking up a winning ballclub for the sake of a player they might have for only one season. They don't like the projections of what they would have to pay to keep Griffey long-term — perhaps as much as $20 million per year. They continue to crunch the numbers, but they have yet to come up with an equation they can easily justify.

        Basically, it boils down to this: The Reds want Griffey only if they can get him on the cheap. If Bowden can swing a trade that involves no core players — neither Sean Casey nor Pokey Reese and probably not Scott Williamson — he might get the go-ahead to grab Junior for a one-year trial period.

        Otherwise, it probably won't fly. The Reds would be foolish to strip-mine a ballclub that won 96 games for the sake of a single short-term superstar. Conversely, they are leery of signing Griffey to a long-term deal until they can assess his actual impact.

        They'd like to know how much more business he would mean at the box office, how many more T-shirts he might sell, how much he would enable the club to charge for broadcast rights and advertising signage and luxury boxes at a ballpark yet to be built.

        They would like to test-market Griffey at Cinergy Field before committing to a contract that could cost twice what was paid for Marge Schott's controlling interest in the franchise. Given the stakes and the uncertainties, they are rightly reluctant to simply roll the dice.

Can't afford to gamble
        Ken Griffey Jr. may be the best player in baseball. He is certainly the guy most likely to surpass Hank Aaron's career home run record. He represents a potential bonanza for any ballclub, but he also constitutes a considerable gamble.

        What happens if the Reds get him and go nowhere in the standings? Does the novelty wear off? What happens if Griffey happens to get hurt or loses a smidgen of his bat speed? What happens if the new ballpark falls behind schedule? What happens if baseball is subjected to another work stoppage?

        Lindner and his hired help must weigh all of these possibilities before they pounce on a player who has already rejected a contract proposal worth $140 million. They must ask themselves Clint Eastwood's timeless question: Do you feel lucky?

        Because Griffey's right to veto a trade limits Seattle's leverage, and because keeping him creates a new set of problems, Gillick may ultimately end up taking less for Junior than he currently demands. “It's time for both Griffey and the Mariners to quit acting like he's Babe Ruth,” writes Seattle Times columnist Blaine Newnham, “and deal with the reality of making a deal.”

        Reality from the Reds' standpoint is Ken Griffey Jr. at a bargain price, or not at all.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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