Thursday, June 01, 2000

It's about getting on base




By TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ken Griffey Jr. needs an attitude adjustment. He needs to learn to love the walk.

        He needs to stop brooding about the pitches he's not seeing and start celebrating the beauty of the base on balls. He needs to understand that on-base percentage is a much more meaningful statistic than batting average and that a free pass reflects both a pitcher's profound respect and his own ponderous power.

        It's a good thing. Really. Don't let anyone tell you differently. A walk is a poor substitute for a single — it advances only some baserunners, and by only one base, and it rarely shows up on SportsCenter — but it is a lot better than the called third strike, the infield fly or pine-tar flavored tofu.

        A discerning eye is not the reason the Reds craved Griffey last winter, of course, or why his acquisition touched off a stampede at the turnstiles. Fans come out to see the big stars take their hacks — Reds pitchers have been booed at home for walking Mark McGwire — and the public interest increasingly focuses on spectacle rather than success.

        The home run is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, an excuse for fireworks, a cause for ovations. The walk has more of a cult following, like Swedish cinema or haiku. Major-league hitters, who ought to know better, tend to treat walks with disdain. Griffey's present position falls somewhere between resignation and exasperation. He's been conducting an ongoing soliloquy on the subject in the Reds clubhouse, and this week made it the subject of his Web site journal.

        “They say a walk is as good as a hit,” Griffey said, “but a walk isn't as good as a home run. But if they don't give you any pitches to hit, a walk has to be as good as a home run for now.”

Of course they walk him
        He has walked 48 times in the first two months of the season, a remarkable pace for a free swinger and a rate that would enable Griffey to surpass the club record of 132 walks Joe Morgan established in 1975. In 11 seasons in Seattle, Griffey averaged only 68 walks.

        The National League, it is said, is more of a fastball league than the American League. Griffey is finding that it is more of a fast ball four league.

        Some of this is attributable to the hitters behind him. Dante Bichette had an awful April and Sean Casey continues to loiter in the .220 range. Neither man is providing Griffey the kind of “protection” he had with Seattle. Though Griffey himself has only four hits in his last 40 at bats — he was 0-for-3 with two called strikeouts in Wednesday's 10-4 loss to Montreal — managers remain mindful of his potency.

        The book of baseball orthodoxy says to never let the other team's best hitter beat you. To throw strikes to great hitters in the latter stages of close games is tempting fate.

        “Would you pitch to you?” I asked Griffey last Saturday.

        I'm still waiting on an answer.

But he's still producing
        What's been overlooked as Griffey's batting average has dwindled to .212 is that he is still the most productive name on Jack McKeon's lineup card. Griffey leads the Reds in home runs, runs scored, RBI as well as walks. He started Wednesday's game with an on-base percentage of .385. Last year, in Seattle, his on-base percentage was .384.

        If his batting average doesn't improve, he still figures to hit 40-some homers and drive in close to 120 runs. You'd still clone him if you could.

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE