Tuesday, February 22, 2000

He'll help pitchers, hitters and accountants

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Ken Griffey Jr. means more fastballs for Barry Larkin. He means fewer doubles for Pete Harnisch. He means more runs for Pokey Reese and less stress for Sean Casey.

        Except for the ticket sellers and the telephone operators and the sleep-deprived public relations staff, Griffey makes everyone's job easier with the Cincinnati Reds. He makes the team more visible and its goals more viable. He joins a good team and enables it to contemplate greatness.

        “I think we were close last year,” Larkin said Monday. “We're a step closer now.”

        Though Junior's immediate impact has been staggering — General Manager Jim Bowden said there are 10 new phone lines in the ticket office, now open seven days a week — the real test of the trade will be Griffey's ripple effect down the road. If he is the Michael Jordan of baseball, as Bowden keeps saying, Griffey should elevate the entire ballclub. He should lead the Reds to champagne and jewelry and then, presumably, forsake his chosen field in order to fail at pro basketball.

        It probably won't work out exactly that way. Among the many differences between baseball and basketball is the limited power of any one player to affect the outcome of a specific game. Great basketball players can grab the ball and bend the competition to their will. Only pitchers have that much power over a baseball game.

Titles: 0; Talent: plenty
        For all his ability and accomplishments, Ken Griffey Jr. never sniffed the World Series with the Seattle Mariners. Since he plays center field, it is unreasonable to expect him to personally complete Bowden's puzzle-in-progress. Without a dominant No.1 starter, the Reds remain at a decided disadvantage against the pitching plenty of the Atlanta Braves and (to a lesser extent) the New York Mets.

        Yet Griffey's presence in the lineup should lead to more runs. His glove should cover a multitude of sins; Reds scouts still rate Griffey the game's No.1 defensive center fielder, ahead of Atlanta's Andruw Jones. And Griffey's remarkable appeal should keep Carl Lindner's cash registers churning at a pace to make the Reds serious players in the rent-a-pitcher market this summer.

        (Take out your calendar, flip forward to July, and write down the name of Baltimore ace Mike Mussina. When the Orioles approach the All-Star break and/or oblivion, Mussina's expiring contract and extravagant salary demands could lead to a deadline deal. Look for Bowden at the front of the line.)

        Getting Griffey makes all pitchers possible and ought to make all the Reds' hitters happier. In another business, a newcomer of Griffey's salary and stature might be viewed with reserve and resentment. In baseball, his addition is celebrated as a coup.

Trickle-up effect
        Players recognize that Griffey not only enhances the team's prospects, but their own individual statistics. When the Reds staged a Griffey press conference Monday morning atop the dugout at Ed Smith Stadium, they put Larkin, Casey and Reese before the national media. All three players were glad to bask in Griffey's reflected glory.

        Reese, the Reds' leadoff hitter, figures he's good for 130 runs with Griffey hitting third. Larkin, who bats second, can expect to see a higher proportion of strikes and a cleaner uniform. Stealing bases is dubious strategy with a guy like Griffey at the plate.

        “He told me he'd take one (strike),” Larkin said. “That's cool. I want him to hit. He's here to hit.”

        Every run Griffey drives home reduces the burden on the hitters behind him. It allows Reds pitchers more margin for error. It makes a hard game more manageable. “I think it will raise the level of play for a lot of our players,” Bowden said.

        The level of excitement is already advanced. When Ken Griffey Jr. walked into the Reds clubhouse Monday morning, Dmitri Young admitted to awe.

        “He brings leadership qualities, 50 home runs, 140 RBI and the will to win,” Young said. “I've had a lot of people ask for his autograph, but I've had to say no to all of that. I can't be hitting him up constantly. I'm not going to have his hand all cramped up.”

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.