Griffey gets his way with power play

February 13, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It wasn't about money. That's what Ken Griffey Jr. said, and he kept his word.

Alas, his trade to the Cincinnati Reds cannot simply be hailed as a display of financial sacrifice and hometown pride and other old-fashioned American virtues.

Griffey's stare down with the Seattle Mariners was about image and control and power, and he should not be nominated for sainthood simply because he accepted a lower average annual salary than Shawn Green.

No one should scoff that Griffey took $116.5 million from Cincinnati when he rejected $148 million from Seattle and probably could have gotten $170 million if he had agreed to a trade to the New York Mets.

No one should scoff when $57.5 million of his money will be deferred, lowering the present-day value of his nine-year contract to less than $90 million.

Griffey's new average annual value ranks him seventh in the majors, just below the Orioles' Albert Belle. He almost certainly will fall out of the top 10 once the class of 2000 free agents sign new contracts.

Professional athletes often measure their worth by their salaries, but Griffey now stands as an exception. He didn't just give the Reds a hometown discount -- he gave them the Peter Warrick discount at Dillard's.

Just hold your applause.

Griffey could veto any trade as a veteran with 10 years of major-league service, five with the same team. And he wielded that power with a vengeance, taking the shine off his touchy-feely homecoming.

Truth be told, Griffey is not the first player to accept less money from his preferred team -- the Orioles' Mike Mussina and San Diego's Tony Gwynn have done it, if not to the same magnitude.

What's more, Griffey is "sacrificing" from a record base of $116.5 million, and he will make a ton of outside income as baseball's Michael Jordan, particularly if he approaches Hank Aaron's all-time home-run record.

It wasn't about the money. It didn't have to be about the money. The money was going to be there, one way or another.

Griffey knew that. He also knew that he was starting to look like the biggest jerk in baseball. Sensitive sort that he is, he wanted to reclaim his image, reconnect with his public.

And, with fans almost universally outraged by professional athletes' salaries, the best way to do that was by proving that he was not Ken Greedy.

Mission accomplished.

Griffey likely will be forgiven everywhere but Seattle for forcing the Mariners into an abominable trade, just as he was forgiven for an earlier hint of petulance, his last-minute entry into the 1998 All-Star home-run hitting contest.

He is known as The Kid, all happy-go-lucky, cap turned backward.

But check your scorecard:

Griffey disavowed his initial trade request in November -- a request confirmed in a statement he approved with his agent -- almost immediately after it was announced.

He compromised the leverage of Seattle general manager Pat Gillick by reducing his list of desired teams to Cincinnati, and Cincinnati only.

And he talked his way out of Seattle by claiming that everyone in the city despised him, when nothing could have been further from the truth.

It was all just posturing, perhaps even the months-old death threat that Griffey conveniently revealed as his "last straw" just when Gillick's talks with Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden reached a critical stage.

Gillick is not above reproach -- he chided Griffey for being mercurial, and further antagonized him by trying to strike a deal with the Mets one day after Griffey let it be known that he would reject a trade to any team but the Reds.

But the bottom line is that Griffey freaked the moment he lost control of the process, started swinging his 10-and-5 hammer and left the Mariners with two unappealing options:

Ruin the season by keeping a sulking superstar against his will.

Or receive next-to-nothing in a trade for this generation's Willie Mays.

The Mariners had no choice but to accept the latter, which is how they ended up with pitcher Brett Tomko, center fielder Mike Cameron and two minor leaguers -- an empty package if there ever was one.

Gillick didn't get Gold Glove second baseman Pokey Reese. He didn't get minor-league shortstop Travis Dawkins to potentially replace Alex Rodriguez. And he didn't get Rookie of the Year closer Scott Williamson or promising left-hander Dennis Reyes.

Why, Gillick didn't even get Jim Edmonds, the Anaheim center fielder who reportedly was part of a proposed three-way deal. Edmonds will be a free agent after the season. He had said that he would not sign with Seattle. And while multi-talented, he is unquestionably brittle, and regarded by some as selfish.

Maybe Cameron will prove a better long-term addition. The good news is, he's coming off career highs in virtually every offensive category. The bad news is, he's a lifetime .240 hitter with 44 homers in 1,366 career at-bats. And now he must replace Griffey.

Tomko is not without potential, but he won only five of 26 starts last season. The two minor leaguers? Infielder Antonio Perez is all of 18. And pitcher Jake Meyer appears little more than a throw-in.

The Mariners still could be formidable, but they're now a pitching-based team with an anti-pitching manager. Will Lou Piniella wreck a rotation of Freddie Garcia, John Halama, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele and Gil Meche? How about a bullpen that includes Jose Mesa, tender Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki, Japan's all-time saves leader who is coming off elbow surgery?

If Griffey had stayed, he could have played for a World Series contender this season, and still landed in Cincinnati as a free agent. The Mariners would have been left with only draft picks, but might not have been worse off.

It wasn't about money, but that doesn't make Ken Griffey Jr. a hero.

Evidently, he considers some things even more precious.

Image. Control. Power.

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