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Just having fun

Griffey draws huge crowd during first practices

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Posted: Wednesday February 23, 2000 05:30 PM

  Spectators watch as Ken Griffey Jr. takes batting practice. AP

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) -- Ken Griffey Jr. was a hit at the turnstile if not in the batting cage.

Nearly 2,000 people pressed against the security fences Wednesday to watch Griffey go through his first full-squad workout with the Cincinnati Reds.

Fans grew hushed when he stepped into the portable batting cage for his first round of swings, then remained as silent as a gallery on the 18th green as he alternately fouled off or missed Pete Harnisch's pitches.

Finally, Griffey made solid contact on his ninth swing and the crowd burst into applause over a line drive to right-center. Griffey stepped away from the plate, raised his batting helmet in recognition and beamed.

"I was just trying to have some fun," Griffey later explained.

He was a singular sensation Wednesday. The turnstile counted 1,845 fans for Griffey's first public appearance as a Red, more than double the crowd for the last workout before he arrived.

The complex hadn't been so busy for a workout since Michael Jordan tried his hand at minor league baseball six years ago. Fans started arriving at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday -- 15 minutes before the sun came up, 2 1/2 hours before Griffey took the field.

"This is the first time it's been this heavy since the Jordan era, absolutely," complex manager Pat Calhoon said. "On a typical day, we would have maybe 500 to 1,000 for a full-squad workout. We had passed 1,300 at 10 o'clock."

By that time, Griffey was still going through the early stages of the 3 1/2-hour session -- playing pepper, playing catch, getting base running instruction.

The crowd cheered Griffey's first appearance and followed him from field to field as the morning went on. Parents hoisted children on their shoulders for a better look when he put on a batting helmet and stepped into the cage for the first time.

It wasn't much of a show. Griffey got 19 swings against Harnisch and left-hander Denny Neagle, but hit only three balls out of the cage. He swung and missed four times and fouled off the other 12 pitches.

Griffey had a bemused look after his first few swings. He expected to be rusty the first time around.

"True to my history, I was happy to get one out of the cage in the first round," he said.

He got much better later in the session, when batters took their cuts at pitches merely lobbed over the plate. Griffey sprayed line drives into the outfield and over the fences.

When his group was finally done, Griffey grabbed his helmet and bat and headed for the clubhouse without signing autographs, drawing a few boos. He had a promotional photo shoot scheduled for right after practice, leaving him no time to mingle.

Griffey said it was the largest crowd that has ever turned out for one of his workouts and worried that all the attention would disrupt his teammates.

"It takes 25 guys to win a championship," he said. "I just don't want to be that one guy that everybody follows around."

Like it or not, he is that guy.

"I guess I'm here like the others to see Griffey," said John Miller, who lives in an Amish area of Millersburg, Ohio. "He's going to be a real fan grower for Cincinnati."

Miller, in Florida on vacation, rode his bicycle from an Amish area nearby and propped it against the outfield fence before passing through the turnstile. Dressed in typical Amish garb of blue shirt, dark hat, dark pants and suspenders, he stroked his graying beard as he stood in the front row behind the fence and watched practice.

A few feet away was Stephen Tylka, 75, who held a Griffey Mariners jersey that he hoped to get signed. Tylka is a transplanted New Jersey resident who has lived in the area for 11 years.

The turnout reminded Tylka of two things: Jordan's stay in Sarasota and the Big Red Machine's spring training camps in Tampa.

"We used to follow Pete Rose, George Foster, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver," Tylka said.

Reluctantly, Griffey has joined the celebrity list.

"It's a little tough," Griffey said of the attention. "I hope things will become normal, to a certain extent. I don't want to disrupt the club at all."


 
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