Friday, February 11, 2000

Junior changes everything




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ken Griffey Jr. changes everything. He makes the beer colder. He makes the girls prettier. He makes the Cincinnati Reds synonymous with style and grace.

        He makes baseball bigger. He makes Cincinnati matter. Eighteen years to the day after Dick Wagner finished dismantling the Big Red Machine — trading George Foster to the New York Mets because no ballplayer was worth $2 million a year — Junior Griffey came home Thursday night and ended Cincinnati's small-market era.

        From here on out, the home team operates on a higher plane — culturally, financially and orbitally. Griffey's supersonic swing — the most lethal uppercut since Rock 'em-Sock 'em Robots — gives the Reds their strongest power source since Foster left town in 1982. His command of center field conjures the best days of Eric Davis, without all the injuries.

        “You look at Junior,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said Thursday, “and you're kind of in awe.”

Enter, excitement
        No player since Willie Mays has blended baseball's basic skills in a more breathtaking package than Ken Griffey Jr. No player since Pete Rose has tugged so tenaciously at Cincinnati's heartstrings. Not since Babe Ruth left Boston for New York 80 years ago has a baseball transaction carried such obvious clout.

        “Feb.10, 2000,” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. “That date will go down in Reds history.”

        For media overkill, shameless grandstanding and claustrophobia, Thursday's trade announcement may be unsurpassed in the annals of horsehide. Politicians lined up for the photo opportunity as if Carl Lindner were dispensing campaign contributions instead of baseball cards of himself.

        Such is the star power of Ken Griffey Jr. At 30 years old, he is at the peak of his form, and on a pace to make mockery of the home run records.

        And he's all ours through 2008. Pinch yourself if you please.

        Getting Griffey does not guarantee the World Series. It cannot clinch a playoff spot. The Reds would be hard-pressed to improve on last season's 96 victories if Griffey had been acquired straight up for Schottzie 02.

        But he raises the profile. He cranks up the volume. He recaptures the imagination of children hooked on the numbing repetition of Nintendo and the peculiar appeal of Pokemon.

Hoping for hype
        In a week, there will be daily Griffey bulletins out of spring training. In a month, there will be Griffey T-shirts on every third kid at the mall. In short order, weekend tickets in the blue seats could be as scarce as Perrier at a fraternity party.

        This, at least, is what the Reds are counting on. Regardless of the going rate or the payment schedule, $112.5 million is an enormous contractual commitment for a baseball club. Lindner and his cohorts paid only $67 million last year for Marge Schott's controlling interest in the Reds franchise.

        If Lindner is to recoup his investment and justify his risk, Ken Griffey Jr. must accelerate attendance and spur spending on concessions, souvenirs, advertising and broadcasting rights.

        He must transform the Reds from a hand-to-mouth operation into a cash flow colossus. He must turn back the clock to 1981, before Wagner traded Foster and Ray Knight and Ken Griffey Sr., before the Reds balanced the budget by demolishing their dynasty.

        If the action at the box office and the congestion on the phone lines Thursday meant anything, Griffey's impact should be seismic. If the trade generates as much income as it has euphoria, the Reds might start subsidizing struggling teams and stop relying on charity.

        Ken Griffey Jr. changes everything.

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

Join the discussion on our Reds forum
Griffey video clips at Majorleaguebaseball.com



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