The homecoming king wants no part of any crown. He I is, he droned last week, "a regular guy." Ken Griffey Jr. insisted on that Monday evening as he pulled on his Ken Griffey Jr. limited edition denim jacket to match his Ken Griffey Jr. limited edition denim jeans to go with his specially produced Nike sneakers (not available in stores).
He insisted on that after half the city of Cincinnati seemed to be wearing something with GRIFFEY stitched or silk-screened on it, turning the downtown into a faux family reunion. He insisted on that after the Reds had to hire 400 stadium workers—nearly doubling their workforce of last year—to accommodate the approximately one million more people who suddenly want to watch the Reds because of him. He insisted on that after Cincinnati sold $1 million luxury boxes like popcorn boxes just because of him.
A regular guy? Sure, as son, father, husband, brother and generic warm-blooded mammal, he certainly qualifies. But it took only a blink of this baseball season—five innings of a rain-shortened Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers—to see the enormousness of Griffey, homegrown baseball icon, to his town and his team. So irregular is Griffey in that context that he joined Bernoulli, La Ni�a and greenhouse gases as being worthy of designation as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Behold The Griffey Effect.
"The Griffey impact has been overwhelming," says Reds chief operating officer John Allen. "We've been overwhelmed by the outpouring of the city. The people wanted him, and they've put their money where their mouths are."
Think what St. Louis would be like if Mark McGwire had been born there. Allen has had to add 10 additional phone lines at Cinergy Field to keep up with fans calling for tickets. He has hired two extra people for his marketing department and another for his merchandising department. On the morning of March 28 he put up for sale the 61 luxury boxes to be built in Cincinnati's new ballpark, for which no shovel has yet to dent dirt and which isn't scheduled to open until 2003. By the end of the day all but 11 of them were sold—and Allen expects those that remain to be snapped up by the end of this month. The boxes, with annual rents ranging from $50,000 to $120,000, were offered with five-, seven-and 10-year leases. "I thought the 10-year ones would be the hardest to sell, and they were the first to go," Allen says, referring to the boxes that demanded a $1 million up-front commitment.
Everyone seemed to want to jump on the Reds bandwagon, which rolled down Fifth Street on Monday morning behind Belgian draft horses. The dray, known as the Tally-Ho Wagon, carted the 1919 Reds to Redland Field for their home opener. It has been part of Cincinnati's Opening Day parade ever since. So many entrants wanted in on this year's march that organizers had to start it one hour earlier than usual.
The procession included marching bands, politicians, a six-foot-high papier-m�ch� version of Griffey, 15-foot-tall inflatable bananas, a pair of dromedaries and, though not an authorized marcher, a man playing folk guitar and wearing nothing but boots, a cowboy hat and a pair of briefs that were, of course, red.
Most of the town opted for more traditional Reds garb, causing pregame lines of 20 or more people snaking to the cash registers at souvenir shops. People snapped up replica Griffey game jerseys ($100), replica Griffey batting-practice jerseys ($80), Griffey T-shirts ($23 and $20), Griffey baseballs ($11), Griffey framed pictures ($10), Griffey socks ($8) and Griffey pennants ($5). Reds tickets have been hot sellers ever since Feb. 10, when Cincinnati traded four bit parts for the All-Century outfielder and then signed him to a nine-year, $116.5 million contract. Opening Day against the Brewers, your clich� cupcake homecoming opponent, had sold out in 3� hours even before the Griffey trade, drawing a regular-season record 55,596 to Cinergy Field.
"We're running 700,000 to 800,000 ahead of where we were a year ago," Allen says of the Reds' ticket sales. Cincinnati drew two million fans last year. An additional 800,000 tickets sold—at an average of $12 apiece, according to Allen—translates into $9.6 million for the Reds. That means Griffey, who deferred all but $7 million of his $12.5 million salary this year, more than pays for himself in ticket sales alone. The effect will be muffled next season because Cincinnati will lose 14,000 seats at Cinergy Field because of construction on the new ballpark, to be built next door. "If you're looking to put a number on what Junior means to the city, it's probably in excess of $10 million," Allen says.
Griffey also has created an incalculable feeling of optimism for those who believe in fairy tales. He batted on Monday at Cinergy Field, formerly known as Riverfront Stadium, for the first time since he was an eight-year-old playing in the Reds' annual father-son game. His father, the elder Ken Griffey, wore number 30 as an outfielder with Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s and is now the team's bench coach. The senior Griffey's eyes welled with tears on Monday when the crowd welcomed his son home with a robust standing ovation.