Hard-hitting fans deliver Griffey message on basics

July 07, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

DENVER -- It was Ken Griffey's party, and he invited his good friend Publicity and even an acquaintance named Controversy. He just never counted on the 51,231 crashers, the fans who booed him at Coors Field.

All day, reporters kept asking why he wouldn't participate in the All-Star home run contest. All day, major-league officials and ESPN executives kept hoping that he would change his mind.

Then, the fans at Coors booed him, booed him as he received a trophy for getting the most All-Star votes, of all things. If only for a brief moment, the party was over. And Griffey was one unhappy host.

"I don't like to get booed. I don't think anybody does," he said after entering -- and winning -- the home run-hitting contest. "This is not a time to get booed, at the All-Star Game.

"If they want to see me in the home run competition, the fans, there's 4 million reasons why I did it -- for them," Griffey said, referring to his All-Star vote total.

Of course, that's who he should have been doing it for in the first place, but Griffey -- like so many superstar athletes -- wanted it both ways. He wanted not only to be begged, but also to be excused for begging out.

He learned a harsh lesson, but he's not the only one in baseball trying to play by his own rules. Many others in the sport deserve to be slapped the way Griffey was slapped yesterday.

Major-league RBI leader Juan Gonzalez also should have been in the home run derby. Nomar Garciaparra should have been picked for the American League team, and Kerry Wood for the National League squad.

No one wanted to hear that Griffey and Gonzalez would get sore from swinging too hard. No one wanted to hear why Garciaparra was excluded. No one wanted to hear about Jim Leyland's computer rejecting Wood.

The game is for the fans, OK? The game is for the fans, and it's a showcase event that stands alone on the July sports calendar, the ideal marketing tool for a sport still trying to recover from the strike of 1994-95.

"We've done a lot of good things since the strike," Tony Gwynn said. "Is it enough? No, I don't think so. I think we've still got a lot of work to do, but we're trying."

Some people, at least.

Only in baseball could a manager like Leyland sound almost proud to say that he ignored marketing considerations while filling out his NL roster. And only in baseball could a superstar like Griffey get booed at an All-Star workout.

He said he made up his mind right then to give the fans what they wanted, but it's not clear whether that actually was the case, or whether Griffey just thought it was the right thing to say afterward.

Rafael Palmeiro said the players in the AL clubhouse "kind of convinced" Griffey to participate. Griffey said that the player who made the final decision was the one he knocked out of the contest (Manny Ramirez).

Whatever, 30 minutes before the home run competition was to begin, Griffey spoke with Frank Robinson behind the batting cage, and still seemed undecided.

Robinson did most of the talking, gesturing several times and growing animated as he hammered his points home. Griffey stood in silence, listening to the Hall of Famer.

"He said, 'People are getting on me,' " Robinson said. "I said, 'Just explain to them why you don't want to enter. You're not the first person to pull out of a contest. If you feel you're in a good groove and this might take you out of it, explain it to them and let it go.' "

Griffey's recollection?

"He just said, 'If you really don't want to do it, you said your reason, stick with it. That's it. They can't take that from you.' "

The problem is, Griffey never actually stated his reason, offering one lame excuse after another. He mentioned his swing, yes. But also said that he didn't do well at Coors Field, that his travel schedule last year was too difficult, blah, blah, blah.

"I flew seven hours to get to a press conference at 9 o'clock," Griffey said (the Mariners had played the previous night in Anaheim, and the game was in Cleveland). "The home run competition didn't start until 4. By 4 o'clock, I was just worn out."

It showed -- Griffey didn't make it out of the first round, and got booed at Jacobs Field. The Mariners again played the Sunday night ESPN game prior to the break. But this time, Griffey's flight was only from Dallas to Denver, and the contest started at 6 p.m. MDT.

Griffey is correct in his belief that most fans don't understand the difficulty of the Mariners' travel schedule. But he's out of touch when he says that's "unfair." Not only don't the fans understand, they don't care.

In 1993, Griffey and Gonzalez produced indelible memories during the home run derby at Camden Yards, Griffey hitting the warehouse, Gonzalez the facing of the left-field upper deck.

Yesterday, in the middle of a great home run season, with the All-Star Game at a great home run park, the two sluggers were ready to bail on the contest and their sport.

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