Thursday, February 21, 2002
Fresh start, sour memories
Pokey: Junior double standard harmed Reds
BRADENTON, Fla. Pokey Reese is at peace. Hehas returned to second base and he is removed from the Cincinnati Reds.
He has a fresh start and an improved attitude. He has recaptured the blithe spirit of better days and left last year's brooding behind him. He has made a career move that has cost him millions of dollars, but he considers it a net gain.
He sees in the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates the same qualities that existed in the Reds, circa 1999. He sees in himself a player who urgently needed a change of scenery.
It's a new beginning, Reese said Wednesday afternoon. I'm going to miss those guys (with the Reds) without a doubt, but for them to get back to where they were, a lot of things are going to have to change.
He was sitting at a picnic table at Pirate City, fresh from his first formal workout of the spring, and the smile on his face was as broad as his bat. This was the Pokey Reese of 1999, a player so energetic, so enthusiastic and so promising that the Reds refused to trade him for Ken Griffey Jr. This was the Pokey Reese who had been missing for most of the last two seasons.
The Reds' clubhouse underwent a seismic shift when Griffey replaced Greg Vaughn as its central character, and Reese thinks the net effect was negative. Reese had idolized Griffey and vowed to be among the first to obtain his autograph when Junior arrived in Sarasota in the spring of 2000. But he came to lament the loss of Vaughn's leadership and resent Griffey's impact on the group dynamic.
Junior's going to be Junior, Reese said. He's going to do his thing and they (management) are not going to say anything. But it's 25 of us, not one ... I know he's Ken Griffey Jr., but someone should have said, "We're all in this together.'
We had a leader in Greg Vaughn. He didn't put up with no crap. He told everybody how it should be. We didn't have that the last couple of years. We didn't have that leader to say what was going on. Me and (Sean) Casey and Dmitri (Young) talked among ourselves that someone needed to say something, but no one did it.
Specifically, Reese pointed to the failure of players to remain on the bench after leaving the game, the tendency for some players to show up late or skip pregame stretching exercises, the failure of some players to observe baseball's ban on cellular phones in the clubhouse and an imbalance in the availability of extra batting practice.
Sometimes, we were supposed to have extra BP, Reese said. But it was Junior BP.
Taken point by point, some of Reese's complaints might seem petty. But the perception of a double standard is always divisive, and the erosion of esprit de corps is always regrettable. In several cases, Reese's remarks were not so much a criticism of Griffey's behavior as a reflection of how much the Reds missed Vaughn.
Yet as the Reds' ranking superstar, Griffey inevitably sets the tone and the standards for younger teammates. If he fails to participate in a drill, his fellow players are bound to take note. Some of them also take offense. Several Reds players have complained privately about the Griffey rules, but being traded tends to loosen one's tongue.
Reds general manager Jim Bowden acknowledges that the Reds lost some leadership with Vaughn's departure, but he defended Griffey as a guy whose example includes playing hard and playing hurt.
I think Ken Griffey Jr. is a winning player, Bowden said. I think he has a winning attitude. I think it's unfortunate that he (Reese) has those feelings. When a team wins, it has great chemistry. When it doesn't win, it doesn't have great chemistry. The reality of it is that losing the last couple years was not about Ken Griffey Jr., it was about not having enough pitching and not being good enough to win.
Griffey left the Reds' Sarasota spring training complex Wednesday before he could respond to Reese's comments. His reaction was relayed Wednesday evening through his agent, Brian Goldberg.
Junior said rather than responding to quotes or partial thoughts, he'd rather just talk to Pokey himself when he sees him in spring training and during the season, Goldberg said. To me, it just sounds like Pokey was just frustrated by his and the team's performance and by him passing up a deal that he'll probably never see again.
Reese rejected a four-year contract worth $21million in April, and by season's end his negotiating power had diminished. He hit .224 for the Reds last year ’ splitting his time between second base and shortstop and failed to win a Gold Glove for the first time in three years.
Rather than offer him salary arbitration, the Reds traded Reese to the Colorado Rockies, who traded him to the Boston Red Sox, who subsequently declined to offer him a contract. Reese eventually signed a two-year deal with the Pirates worth less than he might have made in the first year of the deal the Reds had proposed.
That never bothered me, Reese said. A lot of players were out of work. I'm going to make my money, I feel. I just want to be happy again.
Some Reds officials have speculated that Reese's discontent dates from the three-year contract Barry Larkin signed in midseason 2000; that Reese thought of himself not as an elite second baseman but as a shortstop playing out of position, and that Larkin's deal limited his potential star power and salary.
Reese said Wednesday that Larkin's deal influenced his attitude, but he later came to the conclusion that he was better suited to second base. When Larkin's injuries led Reese to return to shortstop last season, he didn't feel as confident reading the ball off the bat, and his discomfort on defense may have had an adverse effect on his hitting.
I wasn't happy being at shortstop, he said. I wasn't going to say no, but I wasn't happy ... My timing was so off last year, it wasn't even funny. Nothing was going right.
The Pirates hope Reese can recapture his form of 1999, when he hit .285 with 52 extra-base hits and 38 stolen bases.
What we have is a 28-year-old, very athletic guy with two Gold Gloves under his belt, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield said. When you're 28 years old and you've played five seasons in the big leagues, most players have shown you what they are.
Pokey Reese would like to show the Pirates what he can be when he's happy.
Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; fax: 768-8550; e-mail: email@example.com.
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