Thursday, February 24, 2000

Let the Home Run Derby begin

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ken Griffey in the batting cage Wednesday.
(AP photo)
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        SARASOTA, Fla. — Ken Griffey Jr. took two swings without making contact. He took eight swings and failed to hit a ball forward. He was approaching the outskirts of Abject Humiliation Wednesday morning when he finally hit his first fair ball as a Cincinnati Red.

        On a field named for Pete Rose, on a day of postcard perfection, before a record workout crowd of 1,845 and a score of unrelenting cameras, Griffey took his first rounds of live batting practice a few minutes ahead of schedule and a few inches behind Pete Harnisch's fastball.

        It was pretty ugly, and entirely predictable, like the flailing futility of a novice fighter. The pitchers are always ahead of the hitters early in spring training, and Ken Griffey Jr. is notorious for his slow starts. His bat speed is a once-in-a-generation baseball gift, but his timing requires an annual adjustment.

        Not to worry. Just to wait.

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(AP photos)
Griffey and Barry Larkin share a laugh on the first day of workouts.
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Larkin grabs the ball from Griffey during a game of pepper.
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Griffey in the field.
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        “You can call the guys (in Seattle), Jay (Buhner) and them,” Griffey said. “If you ask them how many times I'd hit the ball out of the cage on the first day, they'd say, "None.'”

Only warming up
        When Griffey's ninth swing produced a line drive to right-center field, the relieved spectators at the Reds complex responded with a raucous ovation. Griffey removed his batting helmet and waved it to the crowd to acknowledge the applause and mock his own ineptitude.

        Confidence is knowing things will come around no matter how lousy you might look. For 20 minutes, Ken Griffey Jr. was overmatched. Then, suddenly, he was overwhelming.

        His fortunes changed with the pitchers. Once Harnisch and Denny Neagle had finished throwing, batting practice was conducted by Reds coaches and instructors. By the end of the day, Griffey had inflicted so much damage on Mark Berry's deliveries that Reds General Manager Jim Bowden wondered whether he might have to requisition more baseballs.

        “I can keep them in if you like,” Griffey said.

        “That's not a problem,” Bowden said, beaming.

        Reds clubhouse manager Rick Stowe ordered 660 dozen balls for spring training — 7,920 potential souvenirs. Griffey's presence argues for an additional allotment. Once he locked in Wednesday, Junior started smashing soaring drives with such staggering rapidity that the Reds may have to rethink where they park their cars. Griffey hit six homers in seven swings at one stretch.

        “This is the first day, too,” Barry Larkin said. “I don't even know if he's loose yet.”

        As one ball descended over the left-field fence, Griffey observed that he had been “jammed.” When a subsequent shot to right-center field struck the wall of the stadium, Bowden softly muttered, “Oh, Jesus.”

        Three swings later, Griffey had struck three more home runs, each one punctuated by Bowden's escalating enthusiasm.

Bowden looks like a genius
        “Yes,” Bowden announced after Griffey's fourth straight homer, “this was a pretty good trade.”

        On his next swing, Griffey lined a lethal drive into right field.

        “Lousy base hit,” Larkin said, attempting to conceal his awe.

        When Griffey finished hitting, Bowden declared that what he had just seen was not real, but fantasy. When the next group of hitters arrived, Bowden told the heretofore “untouchable” Pokey Reese, “Maybe I should have traded you for him.”

        Having pursued Griffey for eight years, Bowden is almost giddy now that he has him. The surge at the box office vindicates his strategy. The excitement in the clubhouse is testament to his theories. If Griffey's next 10 years rival his last 10, Bowden's imprint on baseball will be indelible.

        How many executives have ever acquired a player who gets an ovation for jogging? How many ballplayers hold press conferences about their batting practice? How many times must Griffey appear in a Reds uniform before everyone goes back to their business?

        “I don't want to be in the way of us winning the championship,” Griffey said Wednesday. “I just don't want to be that one guy everybody follows around.”

        What was it Mick Jagger said? You can't always get what you want.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at

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