THE REDS were back in Cincinnati, and that included the freshly minted member of baseball's 600 Home Run Club. It was the day after Ken Griffey Jr.'s milestone shot had landed in the rightfield seats of Dolphin Stadium, and inside the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati media were making the rounds and soliciting reactions to the historic night. They descended upon the locker of leftfielder Adam (Big Donkey) Dunn, the team's Will Ferrell look-alike and clubhouse clown. But before a question could be asked, Dunn, wearing a black T-shirt with a yellow smiley face atop the words I HATE YOU, began, "He's a special player. It's exciting to watch what he's doing. But I've always known Jay Bruce was destined for greatness." Dunn paused, then—his words overflowing with sarcasm—blurted, "Oh, you guys want to talk about Junior? What about the Next Big Thing?"
The Next Big Thing is Jay Bruce, the Reds' 21-year-old rookie centerfielder who, in his first three weeks in the majors, was the talk of the town even as his childhood idol closed in on 600 homers, even as 24-year-old righthander Edinson Volquez was off to the best start (9--2, 1.64 ERA, a major league--leading 105 strikeouts) by a Cincinnati pitcher in nearly 100 years. Baseball America's 2007 minor league player of the year and top prospect entering the '08 season, Bruce was called up from Triple A Louisville on May 27 and proceeded to enjoy the best debut week by a rookie in three decades. Over his first seven games he had 15 hits in 26 at bats, reached base in 22 of 33 plate appearances, scored 12 runs and drove in seven more, and hit three home runs, including a walk-off shot.
"Not a bad start," says the apparently hard-to-impress Griffey, who was 19 when he made his own ballyhooed debut 19 years ago. "He's doing a good job of taking the spotlight. After all the hype, I guess the fans are kind of excited to see him here."
You think? Bruce's number 32 T-shirt sold out at the stadium store less than 24 hours after the first shipment arrived. His debut had the highest rating for a Reds game broadcast on Fox Ohio this season. One of numerous fan-produced homages on YouTube has Bruce's face superimposed atop Superman's body, which hovers in the heavens before hurtling toward Earth as the voice of Marlon Brando intones, "I have sent them you, my only son."
The 6'3", 205-pound Texas-born phenom has opponents buzzing ("If you base it on the couple games we saw, he's already an All-Star," says Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell), women at the park holding up WILL YOU MARRY ME, JAY? signs and bloggers writing things like, "Is it me or does Bruce kind of look like Tom Cruise?"
Bruce may not be Ethan Hunt with exceptional gap power, but Reds fans can agree on this: With Griffey's days in Cincinnati numbered (many believe the rightfielder will be back in a Seattle Mariners uniform next year), the new Face of the Reds is already here—and he requires a shave only twice a week.
"In my 35 years [in Cincinnati] I've never seen anything like Bruce's debut," says radio play-by-play man Marty Brennaman. "I wouldn't say Reds fans are the best fans in the country, but I think they're the most knowledgeable when it comes to playing the game the right way. You really have to do something to impress them. These are people who have seen the great ones: Rose, Bench, Morgan, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, Barry Larkin. They know what a good player is, and they know what a great player is. They know this start by this kid isn't a fluke. They know Jay Bruce is going to be a great player for years to come."
JACOB WALTON heard the greatness of Jay Bruce before he witnessed it. "It was the first day of varsity practice, and I was in the dugout getting a drink of water," says the baseball coach at West Brook High in Beaumont, Texas, who was an assistant when Bruce joined the team for his freshman year in 2002. "I start hearing this loud whack, whack. I look up, and it's this sort of chunky kid, and he's only hitting pop-ups at this point, but you could see the sweet swing and the great bat speed that would produce that kind of sound. [Coach] Kevin McDonald looks at me from the mound with this stare that says, We've got someone who's going to be pretty damn good."
After a distinguished high school career—he was a Baseball America national player of the year finalist—Bruce was picked at No. 12 in the famously stacked 2005 draft by the Reds, who gave him a $1.8 million signing bonus. Two years later Louisville manager Rick Sweet was already begging the Cincinnati front office to promote Bruce to play in the Bats' injury-depleted outfield. The Reds did so grudgingly; though Bruce was slicing up pitchers at Double A Chattanooga, he was still a 20-year-old with only 66 at bats above Class A. In an e-mail to Sweet last July, Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky wrote (in all capital letters): FOR ONE WEEK ONLY. Bruce, however, quickly made the Reds think twice after he homered in his first game, then had a two-homer game a week later against Triple A pitching, which brought back sweet memories for Sweet.
In 1987 Sweet was the young manager of the Mariners' Class A Bellingham (Wash.) affiliate when a brash 18-year-old arrived fresh out of high school, ready to take professional baseball by storm. "I always wondered if I'd ever see a talent like that again," Sweet says of Ken Griffey Jr. "After two or three weeks of seeing [Bruce] in Louisville, I started thinking, Gosh, this kid is in the same category as Junior." In fact, Bruce wound up hitting .305 with a .567 slugging percentage in 50 games with the Bats last season. "In terms of all-around physical talent, he was there," Sweet says. "What impressed me most was his opposite-field power. The other thing was how he went about the game—always having fun, always a smile on his face. Just like Junior."