Griffey spins into camp

Reds' new superstar explains his side of tumultuous off-season

`I just want to play'

New teammates happy to have him aboard

February 22, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Superstar Ken Griffey showed up for spring training a few days early. He modeled his new Cincinnati Reds uniform for photographers. He held court for a huge gathering of national media. He did everything but prepare the buffet in the press room.

The winter of his discontent is happily over. Now, it's just a matter of putting the best face on the off-season intrigue that led to his escape from Seattle and his recent homecoming in Cincinnati.

"There were some things written about me and said about me that are not true," Griffey said. "I just want to go out there and play and make everybody forget about that."

Indeed, there is the widespread perception that he used his pending free-agent eligibility and his right to veto any trade -- as a player with 10 years' service, five with the same club -- to force the Seattle Mariners to deal him for a package of players well below his full trade value. That essentially is true, but Griffey bristles at the suggestion that he held the Mariners hostage with his insistence that he would only accept a deal to the Reds.

"I had 10-5 rights," Griffey said. "I never did anything to put the Mariners in a tough situation. They didn't have to trade me. They could have kept me until the end of the year."

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple, especially after the veteran center fielder made it clear that he did not want to come back to Seattle for the final year of his contract and raised the emotional stakes to an uncomfortable level with the public revelation that he had received death threats from disgruntled Seattle fans.

The Mariners seemed to have little choice but to make the deal for pitcher Brett Tomko, outfielder Mike Cameron and minor-leaguers Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer, a predicament acknowledged by Reds general manager Jim Bowden during yesterday's news conference.

"Seattle had two choices -- trade him to us or keep him this year and get two compensation draft choices who might not ever play in the big leagues," Bowden said. "We had the leverage, but we knew we still had to give up something good to get him."

No one is complaining in Cincinnati, where Reds fever hasn't been this contagious since the days when Ken Griffey Sr. was a pivotal member of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. It's just a coincidence that the city and the organization are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the club's 1975 world championship, but it certainly is a nice coincidence for the Reds and the Griffey family.

"The last time I was in a Reds uniform, I was 8," Griffey said. "It was a father-son game."

The last time there was an arrival of such distinction at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium, it involved a superstar basketball player who wanted to be like Ken. Michael Jordan held a news conference on the top of the same dugout here in 1995 to talk about his attempt to jump from the NBA to the major leagues. Griffey -- often referred to as the Michael Jordan of baseball -- figures to have a little more success.

"This is different," Bowden said. "Michael was a basketball player wanting to play a new sport. This is the best player in the game."

The Reds weren't bad to begin with. They won 96 games last year with a couple of well-known veterans and a collection of promising youngsters, and Bowden added slugger Dante Bichette to the lineup earlier in the off-season.

If former 20-game winner Denny Neagle of Gambrills and one-time Oriole Pete Harnisch pitch to their potential, the Reds figure to have an excellent chance to reach the playoffs in October.

"I think we're all excited, when you have a club that won 96 games last year and you add a player the caliber of Ken Griffey to it," said Reds manager Jack McKeon. "When I was in San Diego, we picked up Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles in 1984 and immediately it made the club rise to a new level."

McKeon can only hope for the same result. The Padres went on to win their first National League pennant that year. The Reds have not been to the World Series since they swept the powerful Oakland Athletics to win the 1990 title.

"I think Cincinnati is back on the map again," Bowden said.

Griffey signed a record $116.5 million contract as part of the deal, but he has insisted from the start that money was not the predominant issue. The numbers bear that out, even though the total face value of the deal is higher than the seven-year, $105 million contract the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Kevin Brown in December of 1998.

The Griffey package is two years longer and about half of it is deferred, making the real value somewhere below $100 million, well under the reported $148 million package offered by the Mariners.

He originally asked the Mariners to trade him closer to his Orlando, Fla., home and then narrowed the list of possible teams to one after the club tried to deal him to the New York Mets.

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