Wednesday, February 09, 2000

Bowden's ducks all in a row - except one




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jim Bowden played his hand perfectly. He sat back and waited for anxiety to turn to anguish, for Ken Griffey Jr. to lose his patience and the Seattle Mariners to lose their nerve.

        The general manager of the Cincinnati Reds has manipulated trade talks to maximum advantage: forcing the Mariners to lower their price for baseball's most dynamic player, prompting Griffey to propose a below-market contract.

        Bowden has maneuvered everyone exactly where he wants them, with one notable exception.

        He has not yet sold his boss on The Trade Of All Time. Carl Lindner, it appears, still needs some convincing.

        After months of offers and counter-offers, red-hot rumors and icy denials, bluster and balderdash, politics and posturing, the Great Griffey Sweepstakes essentially comes down to this: Is Lindner prepared to put his money where Bowden's mouth has been?

        The Mariners have backed off their early demands. Griffey has volunteered to sign away his free agency for substantially less than top dollar. The specific players to be sent to Seattle had not been determined as of early Tuesday, but the prospect of getting Griffey's signature on a long-term contract should make any deal more doable.

        If Lindner will spend the money, the rest amounts to minutiae. If Lindner will not spend the money, there could be hell to pay.

        Reds fans have stopped

        dreaming of Griffey in center field and begun to regard it as their birthright. They have been led to believe the Reds were determined to get the big deal done, to bring Junior back home, to make the assault on Hank Aaron's home run record a Cincinnati story. They are unlikely to be mollified with more of Mike Cameron.

        The fans do not want to hear, after three months of hype, that this whole exercise was an elaborate tease; that the expense can't be justified; that the Reds hadn't calculated Griffey's cost before they raised everyone's expectations (to say nothing of ticket prices).

        There's something more at stake here than profit and loss. It's called credibility.

        Twelve days ago, Bowden sat at a podium at The Albert B. Sabin Convention Center and solicited Griffey trade proposals from fans at RedsFest. Though he has sometimes declared the deal a dead issue, Bowden could never bring himself to take it off life-support. He walked away from the table, knowing Seattle had no alternative but to chase after him, knowing Griffey would veto a trade to any other team.

        Playing coy, of course, is part of the game. Bowden knew the Mariners could ill-afford to lose both Griffey and shortstop Alex Rodriguez for draft choices at the end of next season. He knew Seattle GM Pat Gillick eventually would look to cut his losses.

        What Bowden didn't know, evidently, was whether he had enough juice to green-light a Junior deal.

        Even before Bowden broke off negotiations with Gillick on Dec.11, — citing an impasse in trade talks — Reds Chief Operating Officer John Allen was publicly dubious about a deal because of the dollars.

        “The money's just prohibitive,” Allen said. “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.”

        Conceivably, Allen's doubts could have been calculated to make the Mariners more desperate. Reportedly, the Reds want Seattle to pay some por tion of Griffey's 2000 contract. Presumably, the Mariners have been pushed about as far as they will go before keeping Griffey becomes the better option.

        This is not to say money ought to be no object in these proceedings. If the Reds do not believe they can make a profit with Ken Griffey Jr., they should make do without him. Still, if Lindner & Co. believe Griffey represents red ink, they should have spared us the charade of chasing him and themselves the embarrassment of explaining it.

        You don't pursue baseball's highest-profile player and settle for someone like Alex Ochoa. You don't promise caviar and show up with cold cuts. You don't keep customers with the old bait-and-switch.

        Lindner surely understands all that, and he obviously has the means to pay any player on the planet. This is a man who drops money on politicians as if he were printing it.

        Lindner has run the Reds for only a few months, but he may never have another opportunity to acquire baseball's best player at a discount. If he cannot see the value in Ken Griffey Jr., he's in the wrong business.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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