Like many young fans of his generation, Bruce grew up idolizing the 13-time All-Star who played his first 11 seasons and clubbed his first 398 homers for Seattle, but Bruce's admiration went much deeper. He modeled his swing after Griffey's, wore Griffey's line of Nike spikes and, at age nine, called the Seattle Kingdome hoping to talk to the superstar. (He ran up a hefty long-distance charge but never got past the switchboard operator.) Even after he went 3 for 3 with a double, two RBIs and two walks against the Pirates in his major league debut, Bruce says that his welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment came "when I walked by Griffey in the dugout on my way to the on-deck circle for my first at bat, and he kind of patted me with his bat. That was when I was like, Wow, here I am."
Bruce is still pinching himself—"The other day we were talking about paintball and go-karts," he says, "and I'm sitting there thinking, I'm talking to Ken Griffey Jr. about paintball and go-karts!"—but he doesn't hesitate to go to the future Hall of Famer for advice on topics ranging from pitchers' tendencies to the best way to lace up cleats. After a recent road game Bruce spent two hours in Griffey's hotel suite, talking to the 10-time Gold Glove winner about playing the outfield at Great American Ball Park. Says Walton, "Jay will call me and tell me all these things he's talked about with [Griffey], then he'll pause and say, 'You think I'm bothering him too much? I hope I'm not.'"
Griffey, 38, embraces his new role as Bruce's mentor. "It makes me laugh when I think that Jay is just seven years older than Trey," Griffey says, referring to his 14-year-old son. "I'll have to hit Jay up for some babysitting." Griffey has little doubt about Bruce's future in the game. "He doesn't let all the hype get to him, and when you're 21, trust me, that's not easy," Griffey says. "The other thing is, he's willing to learn and listen, and he's always getting better."
Ask any of Bruce's current and former teammates, and they'll tell you that what has made Bruce so good so soon is his ability to adjust. After a game last month in Louisville, for example, Bruce walked up to infielder Jolbert Cabrera and asked, "You think I'm ready for the big leagues?" Replied Cabrera, a nine-year veteran with four big league teams, "You need to work on your pitch selection. They're throwing you changeups away, and you're chasing them." The following day Bruce hit a home run and two doubles, and walked twice. Says Cabrera, "He totally changed his approach. After that he wasn't chasing pitches and started taking walks. Look it up: He already has [almost as many] walks in the big leagues as he had in the minors."
SCOUTS PROJECT Bruce to be a perennial .300 hitter with 25- to 30-homer capability who will move to rightfield after he fills out. Many liken him to a young Larry Walker, the former All-Star rightfielder and 1997 National League MVP who four times hit .350 or better and more than 35 home runs with the Colorado Rockies. "They see the sweet lefthanded swing, the speed around the bases, the great arm," says Walton. "But if you look closer, you'll see that [Bruce's] swing is actually much closer to Barry Bonds's. We teach kids to start their swing with their hands first, in front of their body, but Bonds uses his hips first. Jay does the same thing—that's how he generates his tremendous bat speed."
After his first 19 games with Cincinnati, Bruce had batted first, second and third in the order, but he was clearly the No. 1 target of abuse. Teammates have razzed him on everything from his buzz cut ("You don't even want to know how much he spent on that," says first baseman Joey Votto, a fellow rookie who has also gotten off to an impressive start) to his ill-fated attempt to grow a mustache. ("He's not capable of doing it, and he shouldn't even try," says Dunn.) Bruce has been duped into reporting to the ballpark four hours earlier than everyone else, and he has sprinted onto the field alone while the rest of the team remained in the dugout cackling.
But this was the best prank of all: Before a Reds-Yankees spring training game, Dunn told Bruce that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter had requested baseballs signed by him. "He was real convincing about it, so I figured, hey, maybe those guys do collect baseballs," says Bruce. "So I sign them, TO ALEX... TO DEREK, FROM JAY BRUCE. Dunn had the balls delivered to the New York clubhouse. When Bruce came out for batting practice, he spotted Rodriguez and Jeter holding the baseballs, standing with Dunn and laughing.
The absence of a big ego is why Bruce is universally liked. "In Louisville we get every game the Reds are playing, and I have never seen a team follow a player like [the Bats] follow him," says Sweet. "When something good happens for Jay—and it was happening all the time that first week—I hear cheers go out everywhere, from the training room to the weight room to the TV room to the locker room. Everyone who's played with Jay roots for him because he's such a nice kid."
THE SON of a retired plumber and a special-education aide, Bruce had a humble upbringing in Beaumont. "We didn't have much," he says. "We lived paycheck to paycheck." To raise money that would allow him to play in Houston summer leagues as a teenager, Bruce walked door-to-door asking for donations and occasionally sat outside supermarkets selling Chick-fil-A coupons. "Jay didn't have his own car," says former high school teammate James Ewing, a second baseman at Southern Mississippi, "so when he went out, he drove his dad's brown rusty truck. We called it Old Brown. We drove it everywhere, to practices, to the gym."
Bruce grew up with two older sisters, Amy, now 32, and Kellan, who is 26 and mentally disabled. "Jay and Kellan, as long as I've known him, have been really close," says Ewing. "He'd do anything for her. I think she grounds him and gives him perspective. That's part of the reason why it's not the end of the world for him when he has a bad day at the ballpark." Flush with his signing bonus from the Reds, Bruce still did not make his first purchase—a new Chevy Tahoe—until after he had sent $50,000 to Amy and her family, and $100,000 to his parents so they could pay off their mortgage and, as Ewing says, "finally get rid of Old Brown and get a car that runs. "