A loft in a $35 million Falcon 900 jet last Thursday night, Ken Griffey Jr. told the story of recently playing golf with Jack Nicklaus for the first time. Nicklaus, his son Mike and Mark O'Meara, a PGA Tour pro and friend of Griffey's, smacked their drives off the 1st tee down the middle of the fairway. Griffey, hitting last, could feel his knees trembling as he stood over the ball. He didn't know Nicklaus well, and the golfing legend had said almost nothing to him. Griffey promptly sent an ugly slice screeching far into the rough. "So Jack walks by me," Griffey said, "and as he's walking, he says to me, 'In my sport we play the foul balls.' "
Griffey howled with laughter, as did the rest of the passengers, including his wife, Melissa; his son, Trey, 6; his daughter, Taryn, 4; and a few Reds executives and members of their families. This went on for two hours—Griffey, the life of the party, telling one funny story after another. Never had a man seemed so ebullient upon signing away the next 10 years of his career for about half his market value.
What mattered more than selling himself short was that Griffey, Cincinnati Moeller High class of '87, son of Reds coach Ken and Birdie Griffey of Cincinnati, was heading home. Reds majority owner Carl Lindner had approved the trade with the Seattle Mariners and Griffey's new contract and then had provided his jet to make the sentimental journey possible. Considering his status as one of the game's greatest players now and forever, Griffey accepted such a huge discount that commissioner Bud Selig greeted the news of his signing by yelling, "Thank you! Thank you very much!" and nearly weeping.
Griffey is guaranteed $116.5 million over the next nine years, with the Reds holding an option for a 10th season. Although Griffey's salary will be $12.5 million a year (plus a $4 million buyout for the 10th year), the deal is worth only about $89 million in present-day dollars because Griffey agreed to defer $57.5 million of that total at 4% interest. Those payments are stretched between 2010 and 2025, when Griffey will be 56 years old.
Griffey agreed to those terms one day after the Mariners finally blinked following four months of talking and posturing about a trade with the Reds. Seattle agreed to take righthanded starter Brett Tomko, outfielder Mike Cameron and two minor leaguers, righthander Jake Meyer and in-fielder Antonio Perez.
Lindner, a Cincinnati financier who has a controlling interest in Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Amtrak, among other holdings, sent his jet to Orlando, where Griffey lives, to bring him to Ohio in style for the posttrade news conference. Two thousand people greeted the Falcon 900 as it touched down. A Rolls-Royce and two limousines pulled up while two news choppers with searchlights hovered above. Lindner told Griffey to hop in the front seat of the Rolls—with the 80-year-old Lindner driving—and told Junior's wife and kids to sit in the back. The rest of the traveling party jumped into the limos. As the vehicles crawled out of the airport, fans swarmed the cars, popping the flashes of their cameras, banging on the hoods and windows, and yelling, "Welcome home!"
Lindner, in the lead car, slowly steered the Rolls free from the knot of people; the sleeves of his jacket slid back enough to reveal a pair of gold cuff links he wears every day that read ONLY IN AMERICA. As the caravan gathered speed onto Kellogg Avenue, something happened that seemed serendipitous—that is, if you hadn't known how well-connected Lindner is in Cincinnati. Every one of the traffic lights on the avenue switched to flashing yellow, affording Griffey an unimpeded trip downtown to Cinergy Field, where a burst of fireworks welcomed him.
Unimpeded? If only the trip had been so easy from the beginning. Griffey wound up in Cincinnati only after the Mariners alienated him with their curious trade tactics; only after the Reds twice pulled out of the talks, including as recently as three days before the actual trade; only after Griffey's agent illegally jump-started discussions; and only after Griffey was snubbed by his first choice, the Atlanta Braves, who wanted his teammate, shortstop Alex Rodriguez, instead. According to several insiders familiar with the deal, this is the story of how Griffey came home.
The first sign of trouble in Seattle came in July, when the Mariners offered Griffey (who was scheduled to become a free agent after the 2000 season) $138 million over eight years and were met not with a counterproposal but with indifference. Griffey, whose Mariners salary was $8.5 million, had no problem with the money—though he didn't tell Seattle that at the time—but he wasn't sure if he wanted to stay. His children were reaching school age, and that had made him ponder more often the idea of playing closer to Orlando. "We'll think about it," his agent, Brian Goldberg, told Seattle.
Later that month the Mariners opened Safeco Field, a resplendent $517 million stadium with a sliding canopy that keeps out the Northwest rain but not the chill. Between one wall of the Mariners' clubhouse and Griffey's locker the club did not install the three other lockers that would have fit there. This area was designed specifically for Griffey, who in that space could store his personal travel trunk for his bats, as well as the assortment of gadgets, boxes and other equipment he accumulates during a season.