Like Rose, Griffey not always loved
Junior's tenure in Cincinnati marred by injuries, losing seasons
CINCINNATI -- There's no doubt that Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the most polarizing figures to ever walk the Cincinnati sports landscape. He's right up there with Pete Rose in some ways.Fans either loved him or hated Griffey -- no middle ground to be shared most of the time. For Junior, the feeling was mutual -- both ways. "It's been up and down, but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," Griffey told fans at Great American Ball Park on a June night where he was celebrated for hitting his 600th home run.
The duality of Griffey's Reds existence can almost be summed up by his final homestand. Always generous to children, he recently he gave the batting helmet off his head to a young boy behind the dugout holding a sign after hitting a home run. Few probably noticed. No one could see him in the clubhouse autographing one of his jerseys and asking for it to be express mailed to a dying boy in a hospital.Unfortunately, those charitable moments were overshadowed by a negative in full view of the ballpark and television audience. On Saturday, Griffey made a slash gesture to his throat in the direction of radio broadcaster Jeff Brantley because he was unhappy with some of Brantley's on-air comments about him. The incident drew the ire of talk radio and fans alike. Both Reds owner Bob Castellini and general manager Walt Jocketty said the issue had nothing to do with Griffey's unexpected trade to the White Sox on Thursday. "No. Absolutely not," Jocketty said. The city of Cincinnati was euphoric when Griffey arrived in town on Feb. 10, 2000, in a trade from the Mariners. How could it not be? The Reds were getting one of the greatest players of all time while he was still in his prime. Anyone who played with, worked for or followed the team had every reasonable expectation that championship flags would be raised and personal glory would be achieved. And on top of that, he was the hometown kid playing for the team his father, Ken Griffey Sr., won two World Series with during the Big Red Machine years. On Thursday, nine seasons later, Griffey's tenure with the Reds came to an unexpected and almost unceremonious end when the 38-year-old was traded to the White Sox for pitcher Nick Masset and second baseman Danny Richar. In the years in between, there were no championship flags and no postseasons. The Reds had just one winning season in 2000 (his first year) and seven straight losing seasons with an eighth being a strong possibility this year. Because of circumstances largely out of anyone's control, Griffey was unable to fulfill the destiny everyone had scripted for him. From 2000-07, Griffey missed 453 games with injuries. He soldiered through hamstring, knee, ankle and shoulder surgeries, but all of the screws and plates that put him back together couldn't return him to the player he was in Seattle from 1989-99, where had already built a future Hall of Fame career with one MVP in 1997 and 10 Gold Gloves while averaging 52 homers his last four seasons. Had it not been for those injuries, Griffey might be pursuing Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 home run club. As odd as it sounds, he had to settle for being one of only six Major League players to hit 600 home runs. On Wednesday at Houston, he hit career homer No. 608 to land one spot behind Sammy Sosa for fifth place all time. Disappointed fans often blamed Griffey, sometimes unfairly, for all the Reds' woes because he was unable to play. Or at least play up to the very high bar he set in Seattle when he was the smiling "Kid" who wore his cap backwards. As a sad result, the faithful never appreciated what they had in front of them. Even diminished by injury, Griffey's swing was one of the sweetest around and his presence in the lineup was still an intimidating factor for pitchers. Although not a trademark leader inside the clubhouse, he was a cutup who liked to have fun and playfully tease teammates and reporters. Not enough people could see that. In a generation of "me" players that celebrate themselves, Griffey purposely shunned the spotlight and often refused to talk about himself or his accomplishments in the game. Most of his good deeds and charity were done out of the spotlight because he wanted no attention. Griffey often internalized media criticism and fans' booing and made it personal, like the Brantley incident. "He said, 'If I could do it all over, I wouldn't change a single thing, including coming here," Reds radio legend Marty Brennaman said Griffey told him after the trade was done. "He said, 'I was able to put on the same uniform my dad wore for nine years.'"
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.