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The Kid is back

Griffey regains youthful enthusiasm as quest for 500 home runs ends

Updated: Monday June 21, 2004 10:13AM
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V.J. Lovero/SI
Photos From the Field
Griffey's Road to 500
Follow Ken Griffey Jr.'s journey from a youngster in Seattle through his ups and mostly downs in Cincinnati.
  • SI Covers: Ken Griffey Jr.
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  • SI.com's Jacob Luft
    A little help
    Many of the game's active home run leaders, including Ken Griffey Jr., have played much of their careers in hitter-friendly ballparks.
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    Ken Griffey Jr.'s resurgence has put him back on a Hall of Fame pace, but will he ever catch Barry Bonds in legacy and stastics?
    SI Exclusive
    Feeling Good (June 14, 2004)
    With a rejuvenated Ken Griffey Jr. in the lineup every day, the upstart Reds are making a run at the National League Central title.
    By Daniel G. Habib
    SI Flashback
    Junior Achievement (May 20, 2002)
    Three years into his homecoming to Cincinnati, Griffey finds himself on the outside looking in at the Reds' new trio of powerful young outfielder.
    By Stephen Cannella
    Milestone Home Runs
    HR Date Opp. Pitcher Site
    500 6/20/04 StL. Matt Morris Busch Stadium
    400 4/10/00 Col. Rolando Arrojo Coors Field
    300 4/13/98 Cle. Jose Mesa Jacobs Field
    200 5/21/96 Bos. Vaughn Eshelman Fenway Park
    100 6/15/93 K.C. Billy Brewer Kingdome
    1 4/10/89 Chi. Eric King Kingdome
    Source: Cincinnati Reds, Retrosheet.org

    Ken Griffey Jr. was the youngest player in baseball history to pound out the 350th home run of his career. He was the youngest to hit 400, too, and he was about three months short of his 32nd birthday when he smacked a high changeup off of San Francisco's Russ Ortiz in Cincinnati's now-gone Cinergy Field. That made Griffey the youngest to reach 450 career home runs.

    Getting No. 500, though, has taken much longer than anyone ever could have expected, and it's been a lot more painful, in a lot of ways. Since launching No. 450 off Ortiz on Aug. 9, 2001, Griffey has slogged through a personal baseball purgatory, filled with injuries, stinging criticism and, maybe worst of all, a growing indifference to the player who once was mentioned with the best ever. It's been a place that, at its worst, threatened to permanently erase the once ever-present smile from the player who was known simply as The Kid.

    Only in these past few weeks, as he's approached the magical No. 500, has the smile that helped make the Reds slugger one of the most popular players in the game seemed to regain its wattage.

    In a game filled with scandalous headlines and scornful visages, it is a welcome sight.

    "He made the game fun," Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, a teammate of The Kid's in Seattle back in 1993, says now. "To me, he was like a big kid out there playing Little League. I just always thought that he played the game the way it was intended to be played."

    From 1989, when he first broke into the big leagues at 19 years old, two years after being drafted by the Mariners with the first overall pick, it was apparent that Griffey had star qualities. He led all rookies in hitting before he broke a bone in a finger late in the season. He reached base safely 11 consecutive times as a rookie, a team record. The next year, he hit .300 with 22 home runs. In 1991, he hit .327 with 22 homers and drove in 100 runs. He had 27 homers and 103 RBIs the next season. And he did it all with an ease and a humor that made him everybody's favorite.

    "He was pretty much the best hitter in the game -- probably the best all-around player in the game," said Phillies third baseman David Bell, a teammate of Griffey's in Seattle in 1998 and '99 and a product of the same Cincinnati high school (Moeller) as Griffey. "He was as good a player at 17 as he was in Seattle. He's just a natural baseball player."

    In Seattle, from the start, Griffey was a force that no one could contain. The smile, the sweet swing, the seemingly endless home runs made him an overwhelming fan favorite. In 1994, the strike-shortened season in which he finished with a .323 average, 40 homers and 90 RBIs, more than 6 million fans voted for him to start in the All-Star Game. That's still a record.

    From 1993 through 2000, even counting a 1995 season cut short by 73 games when he broke two bones in his wrist crashing into the outfield wall, Griffey pounded 351 home runs, more than anyone in the game. That's an average of almost 44 homers a year for eight years.

    At that pace -- remember, he was only 30 years old in 2000-- he would have hit No. 450 early in the 2001 season. He would have been here, with the 19 other members of the 500 club, sometime early in the 2002 season. He would have been the youngest ever to reach 500.

    During that stretch, people were comparing him with the best ever. He was an 11-time All-Star. Hank Aaron picked Junior, over other thumpers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, as the one most likely to best his record of 755 home runs.

    Things changed, though, in his last couple of years in Seattle. With free agency on the horizon, his relationship with the fans began to sour, especially when he turned his back on an eight-year, $148 million offer to stay with the Mariners. Then, in February 2000, he opted to sign with his hometown Reds for a stunning discount -- a nine-year contract worth $116.5 million.

    The fans in Cincinnati were ecstatic. Junior was coming home. He forfeited millions of dollars to play for the Reds.

    In 2000, during his first season in Cincinnati, Griffey launched 40 homers and drove in 118 runs. But the team finished a disappointing 85-77 after winning 96 in 1999. And then things got really ugly.

    Nobody stays a Kid forever. Griffey tore his left hamstring in spring training in 2001, limiting him to 111 games that year and 22 homers. In 2002, he played in only 70 games because of a knee injury and a tear in his right hamstring. He hit eight homers that year.

    The Reds lost 96 games in 2001 and 84 in '02. The Reds tried to trade Griffey, to no avail. He became a favorite target of fan frustration. He lashed out at his critics in the media. He appeared sullen sometimes and too sensitive almost always. The naturally gregarious Griffey just withdrew.

    "He wants to be a great player, and I think he wants to be recognized as a great player," Bell says, "but I don't know if he wanted to deal with all the things that come with it."

    Said former Reds pitcher Chris Reitsma: "The fans were hard on him, and I think it wore on him."

    Last year, Griffey dislocated his shoulder in April on a dive in the outfield and the fans again moaned. He fought through the injury and homered in five straight games in July. But in his first game after the All-Star break, in a scene that had become too familiar in Cincinnati, he tore a tendon in his right ankle running out a double against the Astros. The next day, he had season-ending surgery. A couple of weeks later, in a separate operation, doctors inserted six screws into his shoulder, too.

    Critics feasted. The Reds spiraled into another losing season and traded away some of their best players -- Aaron Boone, Scott Williamson, Jose Guillen -- in a July firesale. Griffey's contract, considered a steal only a couple of years earlier, was now an albatross to the small-revenue Reds. Trade rumors ran rampant.

    Ken Griffey Jr., a graduate of Cincinnati's Moeller High School who grew up at Riverfront Stadium where his dad, Ken Sr., was an integral part of the famed Big Red Machine, had hit bottom.

    "I think the thought crossed his mind, 'Am I snake bitten?' " says his longtime agent and friend, Brian Goldberg. "It didn't have anything to do with the fans. That was the big question: 'Why is this happening to me?' "

    Nobody expected much from Griffey this season. His shoulder was a question mark. So was his surgically repaired ankle. The hamstrings were still iffy. Griffey walked gingerly into the 2004 season as a beat-up 34-year-old on a bottom-feeding team that was ready to dump him and his ungainly contract.

    He sat out Opening Day with a strained calf muscle, pacing the dugout for much of the game. The next day, in his 2004 debut against the Cubs, Griffey smacked a homer. The Reds won. Incredibly, they have continued to win. And Griffey has been a huge part of it.

    His swing, pure as ever, is not producing the average it once was. After three injury-plagued seasons, it's not surprising that Griffey is a bit rusty, hitting only .259.

    But the homers are coming. It's always been there. Griffey has 19 homers now. He had 10 homers in May, the most in the majors, including five in the team's last nine games. He also had 29 RBIs, second only to Cleveland's Victor Martinez, who had 30.

    Career No. 500 finally came Sunday off St. Louis' Matt Morris.

    "That guy's really good when he's healthy," Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, another Cincinnati son, said last month. "That's what I think. I mean, he's really, really good when he's healthy."

    By all accounts, Griffey not only is healthier now, he's happier. One reason, of course, is that he's playing. That always helps. Secondly, and probably just as important, is the fact that he's on a winning team. The Reds are contending for first place, where no one expected them to be in the stacked National League Central.

    "I'm happy for him. He seems to be having fun again," says Expos manager Frank Robinson, who hit 586 homers in his Hall of Fame career. "Everyone likes him. What's not to like? A kid full of enthusiasm, a big smile on his face, a young guy going out there and playing like he's a kid in a sandbox."

    Considering where he's been through in the past few years it is, indeed, a heartwarming sight. Griffey bouncing back. Griffey pounding homers. Griffey getting No. 500. Finally.

    It's enough to put a smile on any baseball fan's face.

    John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.