Sunday, April 09, 2000

Griffey wants No. 24 back




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ken Griffey Jr. is off to a bad start with the Cincinnati Reds. If he's not careful, he might make it much worse.

        The home team's struggling center fielder wants his old number 24 back, this despite the Reds' intention to put it in mothballs next month in honor of Tony Perez. After two months of graceful deference to the Big Red Machine's Hall of Fame first baseman, Griffey has begun to reveal signs of a more selfish streak.

        Following Friday night's loss to the Chicago Cubs — a game in which his batting average dipped to .056 — Griffey informed clubhouse manager Rick Stowe of his intention to abandon No. 30 and asked that a new jersey be prepared with the number 24.

        Reds coach Ken Griffey Sr. echoed his son's request in a loud voice. Stowe replied that he would comply only under orders from his superiors.

Meeting of minds
        Within minutes, Reds General Manager Jim Bowden was conferring with Griffey in manager Jack McKeon's clubhouse office.

        Reds captain Barry Larkin was called in for consultation. Larkin agreed to call Perez to broach the idea of sharing his number — an idea Perez vigorously opposed when Griffey was acquired from Seattle on Feb. 10.

        “The number's retired,” Reds Chief Operating Officer John Allen said Saturday evening. “It's not to be used. We think the world of Tony Perez and the only way that number would be reissued is if Tony came to us. We are not going to him and asking that question.”

Bench: Junior's frustrated
        Where it goes from here is a matter of conjecture. Griffey and Larkin both declined to address the subject Saturday and efforts to reach Perez for comment were unsuccessful. While several Reds officials are already bracing for bruised egos, Johnny Bench thinks the issue is likely to evaporate once Griffey begins producing at the plate.

        “It's just frustration,” said Bench, the first Reds player to have his number retired. “I just think he's trying to do well the first week and there's a lot of pressure. When he has time to think about it, I think he'll have a different view.”

        When Griffey first signed with the Reds, his willingness to accept a new number in the year of Perez' Hall of Fame induction was widely seen as a sign of his class.

        Griffey's stature among current players is unsurpassed, but he is new to the Reds and has been reluctant to demand special favors. Under suffocating attention and enormous expectations, he has continued to insist he is merely one of 25 players.

        How he proceeds from here will say a lot about whether he is perceived as a closet prima donna or a comparatively selfless superstar.

        “You have to respect tradition and history,” Bowden said. “I would never give (Dave Concepcion's) 13 to anybody. I wouldn't give (Pete Rose's) 14 to anybody. The only way you can wear those numbers is if the person who wore it gives his permission.”

Bowden's balancing act
        Bowden must tread carefully here. The two defining events of his career have been the bold acquisition of Griffey and the rash firing of Perez, 44 games into his first season as the Reds manager.

        Bowden cannot attempt to mollify Griffey without making Perez a scapegoat all over again. He can't support Perez without running the risk of offending his franchise player.

        He can't logically retire a number that is still in use.

        The New York Yankees retired the No.8 in honor of both Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, but they did so after both men were finished as active players — when taking a number out of circulation was a rare honor reserved for an elite few.

        The distinction has since been diminished by its frequency. The Chicago White Sox retired Harold Baines' No.3 in 1989, though he has since played for the Texas Rangers, Oakland A's, Cleveland Indians, the White Sox (again) and Baltimore Orioles (twice).

        “I don't know what the Reds would have done if we had traded for George Brett,” said Bench, whose trademark No. 5 was also worn by the great Kansas City third baseman.

        “But I would have given it to (Joe) DiMaggio, if he'd really wanted it.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes you e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com

       



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