Bringing up Junior

Wow—has it been that long?

Ken Griffey Jr.’s contract with the Cincinnati Reds is set to expire at the end of the season. I doubt the team will pick up the option.

I remember covering the trade, when I was associate editor of MLBtalk (now ESPN Insider Baseball), like it was yesterday. It’s hard to believe that “Pokey” Reese held up the trade for awhile. Reese has been out of the bigs since the end of 2004. Other quick memories of that time…

  • The circus leading up to the trade. Griffey and his agent, Brian Goldberg, made the trade request in November and went so far as to issue a signed statement bidding farewell to Mariners fans. After initial bidders were few, Griffey reversed course and told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he never asked for a trade—he just didn’t want to sign a contract extension.
  • The players received from the Reds: Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer.
  • The dustup over Junior wishing to wear No. 24—Tony Perez’s old number, which was to be retired. Ultimately, he settled on his dad’s old number.
  • A lot of discussion surrounding the future of 10/5 rights after Griffey used that provision as a hammer severely limiting the negotiating leverage Pat Gillick could wield, by publicly stating he would only accept a deal to the Reds.
  • The Reds barely missing the postseason in 1999. The Griffey deal was thought to be a prelude to “The Big Red Machine 2.0.”
  • Barry Larkin and Junior crowing that Griffey would have vetoed any deal with Cincinnati in which the Reds gave up (in Junior’s opinion) too much talent, in order to keep the 1999 team intact as possible.
  • Other untouchable Reds prospects of that time including Sean Casey and Scott Williamson.
  • A nitwit poster named “Gallagher” who spammed the message board after the trade with tirades about what a mistake the Reds had made in acquiring Griffey. His usual refrain was “WHIFFEY IS NOT YOUR SAVIOR!!”
  • The question of whether the Mariners should deal Alex Rodriguez to avoid getting shafted a second time when A-Rod went through free agency. The Mariners felt they could take Rodriguez at his word that Seattle was his “first choice.”

A slow start in 2000 saw Griffey hearing the boo-birds at Riverfront. Nevertheless, he rebounded with a 40-homer season and cracked the century mark in runs and RBI. Unbelievably, his 40 dingers were a bit of a disappointment considering that he averaged 52 HR over the previous four seasons and was viewed for the longest time as the man who would top Roger Maris’ 61 in ’61. The Reds didn’t improve on 1999, finishing 85-77 while his old club made it to the ALCS against the New York Yankees losing in six games.

I’ve long felt that 2000 marked the beginning of the end for Ken Griffey Jr. After years of abuse on the hard Kingdome Astroturf, the Mariners finally had a natural grass field at their new digs. In demanding a trade to the Reds, he sentenced himself to three more years on the ’turf—however, after 2000 he averaged 99 games played per season. It took him until last season for him to reach his first season’s totals in games played since going to Cincy.

He never again topped 100 runs scored or RBI and never reached 40 dingers again—he hit 35 in 2005 and 30 last season. His dreams of resurrecting the Big Red Machine ended up in tatters; the club never topped .500 after his first year while the Mariners would four times top 90 wins narrowly missing a fifth 90 (88) win season in 2007.

It seemed the organization and Griffey’s career came apart in sync—the club went through six managers, four general managers and two ownership groups while Junior made eight trips to the disabled list, missing almost three full seasons worth of play with the Reds. The Reds’ slow start has Junior seeing the handwriting on the wall. The Reds will not pick up his $16 million option for 2009 and the team is off to a rough start despite some impressive young talent on the roster and in the system.

He again wields the 10/5 hammer, but the leverage is gone. Once home run No. 600 has been celebrated, he will find himself in the situation Barry Bonds found himself in last season—with a struggling team that has nothing else to gain from his continued employment. Back in 2000, he was considered the best player in the game (or one of them)—heir apparent to Hank Aaron, a Gold Glove center fielder coming off seasons of 49, 56, 56 and 48 HR. Now he’s a sub-par defender coming off an injury-plagued decade batting a mere .229/.308/.373.

Part of him may not realize this, however. In a USA Today article he’s quoted as saying, “My situation is different only because I can tell them where I want to go. I want to be in position to win a championship. I’m not strong-arming anybody, but that’s the way it is.”

While it’s true he can tell them where he wishes to go, they’re under no obligation to send him there. In 2000, it was the player who would not sign a contract extension with his old club. Now it’s the team stating that the player will not be staying. The Mariners hoped to salvage something from Griffey’s departure, whereas the Reds will gain something from his leaving—saving $16 million by not picking up the option.

Griffey does enjoy 10/5 rights, but any trade he vetoes may be his only opportunity to land on a contender (although I think the Reds are far from out of it this year). Unlike 2000, he cannot write his own ticket out of town. He needs the Reds and a second team to change his circumstances, so the odds of him strong-arming anyone are effectively nil. The Reds front office that has done a masterful job in rebuilding the farm system is likely perfectly willing to take the draft picks should a trade to the Reds’ liking not materialize.

Sadly, in the USA Today article, Griffey is still trying to spin the events of 2000, making it seem that he had little choice but to leave the Pacific Northwest. Of course, that’s bogus since all he had to do was sign the proffered contract extension. “I wouldn’t change anything, I had to leave Seattle when I did. I just had to. They know the real reason why I left.” He left because he wished to go—no more and no less than that. At his introductory press conference as a Red he said “Well, I’m home.” Those are not the words of a man with little recourse. Those are the words of man who used every power at his disposal to engineer a trade to the team for which he wished to play.

When he says he wouldn’t change anything—well, I don’t believe he didn’t look back at some of those 90-plus win Mariners teams and wonder if they could’ve gone all the way had he been just a little more mature and a little less impetuous. A-Rod said the same thing about Texas while almost screaming, “I’m not normally a praying man but if you can hear me up there—save me, Scott Boras!!!”

Ah, well.

Who would have thought in 2000-2001 that come 2008 Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and the Seattle Mariners would still be looking for their first World Series?

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

But I digress.

I hope Griffey can have a happily ever after. Perhaps he can have the homecoming he craved back in 2000. The future Hall of Famer thought he was going home then when in reality he was returning to his father’s home—Seattle was the home of Ken Griffey Junior. As Mariners President Chuck Armstrong stated, “I think everybody in Seattle would like to see him retire in a Mariners uniform, he was born a Mariner. And I’d like to see him finish up as a Mariner … but he always will have a special place in my heart, and everyone here in Seattle.”

I hope he makes it back to Seattle. Maybe he’ll finally get his ring the way Dave Winfield did back in 1992—driving in the winning runs in the final game of the Fall Classic. However, I’ll always look back at the career of Ken Griffey Jr. with disappointment. What if he hadn’t decided to subject his legs to the hard Astroturf of Riverfront Stadium (I’m not calling it by that other name!) and decided to stay on the soft grass of Safeco Field? It will go down as another sad “coulda/woulda/shoulda” that defines the sport.

Go home, Junior.

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