Friday, March 03, 2000

Griffey buzz builds to a roar


The Junior Effect has phones ringing and cash register singing

BY JOHN J. BYCZKOWSKI
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Ken Griffey Jr. is swamped by autograph seekers at Sarasota.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        SARASOTA, Fla. — There's lights, there's cameras, and today, there'll be action.

        In full uniform, Cincinnati Reds manager Jack McKeon stood on the grass near first base in Ed Smith Stadium not long after sunrise Wednesday, amid spotlights and video equipment. The Reds' ad agency, Backley & Gingrich, was filming sound bites for TV commercials, around the theme “It's a whole new ballgame.”

        He took the 2-inch Arturo stogie from his lips and balanced it carefully on a spotlight handle.

        “I got four dollars left on that thing,” Mr. McKeon says.

        Producer Mark Braver asked the manager to talk about last year's team, the one that won 96 games but missed the playoffs. Mr. McKeon faced the camera: “I think it really revitalized the city of Cincinnati. I think the fans came back ... .”

        In spring training, everybody gets ready for the season — not just pitchers and fielders, but also the people who sell tickets, merchandise and advertising. In the era of Big Red Junior, it's a whole new ballgame for them, too.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN
  The Reds open the exhibition season with a pair of split-squad games at 1:05 p.m. today. Mark Portugal will start against Baltimore's Calvin Maduro at Fort Lauderdale, and Ron Villone will confront Minnesota's Johan Santana at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium.
        The real dress rehearsal begins today: The Reds will take on the Minnesota Twins in the spring opener.

        The Reds won't discuss how the long lines at their ticket windows will affect attendance this season, but the action in Sarasota provides a glimpse. On the heels of last year's winning season and the trade for star Ken Griffey Jr., ticket sales for Reds home games in Sarasota look to be up about 40 percent. Sales for road games have jumped as well — even without the promise of an appearance by Junior.

        Cases of red and black T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs — ordered hastily after the Feb. 10 trade — are almost sold out; they were supposed to last till Opening Day, April 3.

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Reds merchandise manager Jill Perrin says Ken Griffey Jr. stuff is selling fast.
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        The Reds' traveling secretary, Gary Wahoff, said he's fielded more calls from fans in Cincinnati, asking for details on visiting Sarasota. “From the day Ken Griffey was signed, it's just been remarkable,” he said. “Our slowest day is better than our best day last year.”

        Steve Bartholomew drove out of Price Hill at 1 p.m. Monday, arriving in Sarasota 13 hours later with wife, Kea, and their two young sons in tow.

        Two-year-old Steven, wearing a Reds cap with six Reds' autographs on it, clung to the chain-link fence around the practice field and wordlessly pointed at the players. His father can't explain his interest. Steve said he and his wife talked last fall about making the trip, but the trade for Junior “pushed us over the edge. ... That probably got the excitement going.”

        Fans like the Bartholomews are rare, clouding any economic boost Sarasota might get from Junior. Most of those interviewed at the Reds training complex were Florida residents or snowbirds, who make the rounds of spring training sites.

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Dmitri Young, Scott Williamson and Pokey Reese tape a TV commercial.
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        Norton Waterman of Louisville, who winters in Longboat Key, was headed to the ticket office to buy tickets for six games. He's glad to see Mr. Griffey on the team, but said, “I come here every year anyway.”

        Not his friend Philip Levy, also from Louisville, who said he's not much of a baseball fan. “Griffey did have an effect. I wouldn't be here,” he said.

        The nine baseball teams that come for spring training in the five counties around Tampa contribute $199 million to the economy there, or $22 million a team on average, according to a 1999 study by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. Projecting those figures for the 20 teams that train in Florida indicates an overall impact on the state approaching $500 million, Planning Director Avera Wynne said.

        But tourism is a $43 billion industry in Florida. Mr. Wynne said the impact of Mr. Griffey — who trained only in Arizona during his 11 years with the Seattle Mariners — on state tourism is miniscule.

        Mr. Wynne said all impact stems from attendance, and that's up in Sarasota. The crowds at the Reds' training fields have fallen off from the crush of 1,845 on Feb. 23, the first day of spring training. The smallest crowd was 500 on Tuesday, but that's still triple the smallest crowds of last year. Attendance for Wednesday's free intrasquad game was 1,792, double that of last year's game.

        Reds general manager Jim Bowden called Ken Griffey Jr. “the Michael Jordan of baseball,” but so far, Junior can't match Michael on the one playing field they have in common: Ed Smith Stadium.

        Mr. Jordan was the featured player in 1994 when he came to spring training in Sarasota with the Chicago White Sox, who occupied the ballpark until moving to Arizona three years ago.

        That year, the White Sox sold 115,382 tickets to their games at the 7,500-seat stadium.

        Last year, in the same ballpark, the Reds drew 60,515 for their games. Patrick Calhoon, who has managed Ed Smith Stadium since it was built in 1989, said the Reds were on track to boost that to 70,000 or more, even before the trade for Mr. Griffey.

        “We were ahead (of 1999) on ticket sales, and then they signed Deion (Sanders) on Jan. 28, and there was a bit of a spike,” Mr. Calhoon said. “Then they signed Griffey, and the number of phone calls we got inside the stadium went from 4,000 a week to 12,000 a week.”

        Ticket sales took off after the Feb. 10 trade; and now, Mr. Calhoon, said he expects total attendance for 15 Reds games to be around 85,000, which would be a 41 percent increase. That's 1,600 a game above last year's average crowd of 4,034. Officially, the Reds will say only the March 10 game against the New York Yankees is sold out — 8,000 tickets including standing room.

        Other teams are getting a kick from Mr. Griffey as well. The Reds have five games scheduled in Fort Myers, 79 miles south of Sarasota, three against the Boston Red Sox and two against the Minnesota Twins. The Twins last year averaged 5,100 in their stadium, but they expect sellouts of 7,500 for both games. The Reds also play the Texas Rangers twice in Port Charlotte, and the Rangers say they've sold an extra 2,000 for each of those games.

        But the Reds won't guarantee Mr. Griffey will appear at any of those games. “We're not going to make him take the long trips, and he may or may not make a trip to Bradenton or Tampa,” Mr. Bowden said. “If I were fans in Florida, and I wanted to see him, I would go to Ed Smith field and buy the tickets, because that's your best shot at seeing him.”

        A long trip “can be whatever we decide it to be,” Mr. Bowden said. “When we get near the end (of spring training), he'll play most of the games. Obviously, to get ready for Opening Day, we normally play our guys almost every day. It's the first couple of weeks, he won't be making any of the long trips.”

        Why? The Reds get no cut of the gate on the road, so if Junior's going to play, he'll play on the home field, where the Reds get to keep the revenue.

        Regardless, the Texas Rangers have asked the Reds to send along Ken Griffey Jr. souvenirs, said Jill Perrin, the Reds' new director of merchandising.

        And she will, if there are any left.

        Ms. Perrin said she was at a sporting goods trade “supershow” in Atlanta the night the trade for Mr. Griffey was announced. She spent one day there doing nothing but ordering No.30 hats, T-shirts and other souvenirs. One manufacturer, smelling a gold mine, agreed to stop production on all other merchandise to focus on Griffey stuff.

        “The orders I placed at the supershow, I thought would carry me through Opening Day,” Ms. Perrin said. But fans in Sarasota and those visiting the team's Web site — where up to 150 orders are placed every day — have sucked up most of that merchandise. She brought 400 of one style of No.30 T-shirt to Sarasota, and there were 30 left Tuesday.

        “I talked to the Seattle (Mariners) people. They said "whatever you ordered, triple it,'” Ms. Perrin said.

        None of this is lost on the players.

        “First of all, you just look out and you listen to the buzz,” outfielder Dmitri Young said. “I was in Cincinnati when the trade went down. The buzz was already kind of deep (before the trade). ... And when it happened, it went ballistic.”

        And he can imagine what Cinergy Field will be like this summer. “We're going to have sellouts every night. People all over the place,” Mr. Young said. “People are going to be wanting TV spots, radio spots, commercials, car deals. They're going to come at us from all angles, but we've just got to keep it simple. Us 25 guys are the ones that are going to make it or break it.”

        First baseman Sean Casey said the team is just trying to have fun with the added attention. “I think it's great,” he said. “I think everyone's looking forward to just doing what we did last year, and going about our business.”

       



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