Griffey's preferential treatment should hardly come as a surprise

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

February 24, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Ken Griffey used to be one of the most likable guys in the game, but his positive public image has taken a serious pounding since he forced the Seattle Mariners to trade him to the Cincinnati Reds two years ago.

Now, it seems, it's open season again.

Former teammate Pokey Reese took a few parting shots at the Reds superstar last week, charging that Griffey plays by a different set of team rules than his less-heralded teammates and has failed to play a leadership role in the clubhouse.

"Junior's going to be Junior," Reese told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "He's going to do his thing, and they are not going to say anything. But it's 25 of us, not one ... I know he's Ken Griffey Jr., but someone should have said, `We're all in this together.' "

Or, maybe someone should have informed Reese that in the real baseball world, not every player is created equal. The system is set up to turn players like Griffey into untouchable icons who exist in a different dimension than their more ordinary teammates.

Doesn't it seem a bit naive to complain about individual treatment in a sport that allows some players to earn $20 million a year and others to earn $220,000?

There's nothing new here. Cal Ripken took his share of criticism around baseball when he started booking his own hotel rooms. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown engendered some similar bad feelings when his then-record $105 million contract included the use of a private jet to ferry his family coast-to-coast to watch him pitch.

Wasn't it just last summer that home run king Barry Bonds came under fire for the way he commandeered a certain corner of the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse?

Perhaps in a perfect world, everybody would be treated the same and even the biggest stars would humbly fade into the team concept, but that isn't going to happen in a sport that so unabashedly celebrates individual achievement.

Griffey isn't just another guy in the clubhouse. He's the guy in Cincinnati who puts the meat in the seats. That makes him different. That makes him special. That makes him an easy target for disenchanted ex-teammates.

The leadership issue is something else altogether. Griffey probably does deserve some criticism for turning inward after the move to Cincinnati did not turn out to be a happy experience, but he also isn't the first big-time player to be taken to task for supposedly lacking true leadership skills.

Ripken, for example, chose to make his presence felt on the field, where his ability and work ethic were unassailable. Even the vocal and affable Tony Gwynn occasionally was the target of criticism for his obsession with individual performance.

Trouble is, statistical leadership is only part of the equation, and players who assume franchise icon status (and salary) should be willing to shoulder a greater role in the clubhouse, even if they aren't particularly comfortable doing so.

Griffey countered Reese's broadside by pointing out that he played much of the year with an injury - once again falling back on leadership by example.

"To say I'm not a leader ... if I wasn't a leader, then I wouldn't have played 97 of the last 105 games," Griffey said. "I could have shut it down at the end of August. But when I came to the ballpark, I expected to play no matter what the team's condition.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy. It's not my job. My job is to play every day. How can you jump on anyone for not getting out there, when you're not getting out there yourself?"

That may be true, but Griffey would be better served by making a new commitment to his teammates, like the White Sox's Frank Thomas did after a much-publicized clubhouse fracture in Chicago a couple of years ago.

Don't be surprised if Griffey bounces back from his injury-marred 2001 season to hit 60 home runs this year. It's just a question of whether he takes everyone else on the team along for the ride.

The graying of baseball

The heightened emphasis on border security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has had an unexpected consequence. Latin American players are suddenly getting older now that their visa requests are facing tighter scrutiny.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Bartolo Colon, for instance, was listed as 26 years old on the club's roster, but he admitted to being 27 after a report surfaced that said he was 30. His true age, according to a club official who helped him through the tightened immigration process, is 28.

New York Yankees infielder Enrique Wilson also was supposed to be 26, but he has aged 2 years since he re-entered the United States. His teammates have been teasing him by calling him Enrique Almonte, a reference to the age scandal involving teen-age pitcher Danny Almonte in last year's Little League World Series.

Wilson's deception might have a more serious consequence. The Yankees are reviewing his contract status after signing him to a one-year, $700,000 deal. It is possible that they could ask to have the deal voided because of the age fraud.

The Indians are downplaying Colon's situation, since there's really nothing they can - or want - to do about it. He is, after all, their top starting pitcher.

"I don't care how old he is," said Indians manager Charlie Manuel. "As long as he can throw 100 mph, I'll like him."

Unlikely Expo

Jose Canseco doesn't appear to be a good fit for the Montreal Expos, but new manager Frank Robinson said Thursday that he hopes the big slugger - who needs 38 homers to reach 500 - forces him to carve out a place in the lineup.

"That [500 home runs] is a number that all power hitters want to achieve," Robinson said. "I hope he gets those 38 home runs here."

It's going to be tough for a guy who has been used largely in the designated hitter role during the latter stages of his career. He hopes to prove he can still play the outfield and hold his own at first base.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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