Retiring legend spent eight years with hometown team
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Reds right fielder Jay Bruce grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., wore the same shoes as Griffey and had a poster in his room.
Unlike most kids and their sports heroes, Bruce also got to play with Griffey as a rookie in 2008. On Wednesday, hearing the news that Griffey had announced his retirement from baseball was difficult.
Junior calls it a career
"He's been playing most of my life," said Bruce, who was born in 1987. Griffey debuted for the Mariners in '89. "Whew, it's surreal to hear him say he's done. To me, he's definitely one of the top five, top 10 players to ever step on the field."
Griffey was already bound for the Hall of Fame after a prolific career in Seattle from 1989-99, but he demanded a trade to his hometown Reds. It was the team his father -- Ken Griffey Sr. -- played for in the 1970s with the Big Red Machine. The stay would last nine years.
"We were very honored to have a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Ken play for us for nine years," Reds CEO Bob Castellini said in a statement. "The Griffey family is at the center of baseball tradition in Cincinnati, and Ken and his father gave our organization and Reds fans many wonderful memories. Not only was Junior one of the best baseball players of this or any other generation, he is a wonderful person and family man. We wish Ken, Melissa and their family success and happiness in life off the field."
After he arrived in town on Feb. 10, 2000, Griffey and Reds fans had ambitions of bringing championships to Cincinnati. When he was traded to the White Sox on July 31, 2008, Junior left with just one winning season in '00 and no postseason appearances. The lack of success created a love-hate relationship between Reds fans and Griffey, who was always uncomfortable with attention that came with being a celebrity in the small town where he grew up. He often internalized media criticism and fans' booing and took it personally.
Sharing the power
Ken Griffey Jr. is just one of four players to have hit 300 homers for one team, and 200 for another.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Injuries would become Griffey's legacy in Cincinnati. Between 2000-07, he missed 453 games with various and debilitating maladies. He still hit 210 of his 630 career home runs while with the Reds. He collected milestone homers No. 500 and 600 while wearing the Cincinnati uniform. But his inability to stay in the lineup from 2002-05 robbed him of a chance to be the all-time home run leader, among other things.
"He played the game and played the game right," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "You didn't hear anything about scandals or anything about Junior. That's a big tribute not only to him, but also his mom and dad and family as well, how he was raised and how he is."
Reds medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek knew more about Griffey's injuries than anyone else. Every time Griffey broke down, it was up to Kremchek to do the repair work. Among the surgeries he performed were on both of Griffey's knees, his shoulder, ankle and a ruptured right hamstring that tore completely off the bone in 2004.
"I must have operated on him eight times," Kremchek said on Wednesday. "Of all the players I dealt with on the Reds and other teams, he was the closest to being a friend in the game. I got to see a side of him no one else got to see. I wish more people would see what he went through behind the scenes."
Bronson Arroyo came to the Reds in a 2006 trade from the Red Sox, where he played with superstars like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Arroyo said he enjoyed playing with Griffey, who was bigger than almost anyone in the game.
"When you have guys that are superstars on the level that he was on, nobody really knows unless you play with them, what kind of guy he really is behind the scenes," Arroyo said. "Griff was happy-go-lucky every day. Everybody enjoyed being around him all the time.
"I enjoyed him because he didn't always just talk about baseball. He'd talk about flying his plane or whatever and you'd just see he was kind of a kid. He was always enthusiastic about the things he was passionate about. That's the first and foremost thing I will remember about him."
After Griffey was traded to the White Sox for reliever Nick Masset and second baseman Danny Richar, it was Bruce who shifted from center field and replaced Griffey in right field. Griffey always knew it was a scenario that was coming, but Bruce found his idol to be generous.
"He was great. As big of a superstar as he was, he was very welcoming to me," Bruce said. "When I wanted to know something, I asked him. He was very gracious about telling me. He was fun to watch, even when he was here."
Griffey returned to play with the Mariners in 2009 and his career finished in lackluster fashion at 40 years old. He became one of the greatest players to never reach a World Series.
"He had a great career," Baker said. "He loves to play. He's played through a lot of pain and a lot of injuries. Otherwise, he might have gone down as the greatest of all time and not just one of the greatest. That's the toughest thing for a player, especially a great player, to know when to retire. I'm just glad he retired on his terms. The game will miss a quality player and a quality person."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.