Sunday, June 02, 2002

What's not to love about JUNIOR?


Detractors say he's too easily riled and rude; defenders call him a hero and humanitarian

By John Erardi, jerardi@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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        For all of Ken Griffey Jr.'s perceived shortcomings, there is one thing he is not: A phony.

        Some fans think he's too aloof at the ballpark, that he should smile and wave more, sign autographs for kids.

        Critics say he's too sensitive about what's written and said about him. They snipe that he too often cites the fact that he came to the Reds for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere, as though that gives him leeway to be bad-tempered or rude.

        But Junior isn't going to change his ways. His code: “To thine own self be true.” And if that makes him unpopular, so be it.

        As the Reds superstar eases back into the lineup after recovering from a torn knee suffered two months ago, rumors persist that he'll never finish out the remaining six years of his contract here.

        Not a day goes by that somebody isn't dogging Mr. Griffey on sports-talk radio for why he appears so unhappy. Fans, once so adoring, now question his lack of production.

        Injuries have kept him out of all but 12 of 55 games this season. And as he writhed in pain on the grass at Cinergy Field, moments after he tore his right knee in a rundown April 7, some fans yelled, “Get up! Get up!”

        Mr. Griffey and his agent, Brian Goldberg, and Reds chief operating officer John Allen say there's no truth to speculation he wants to be traded. But columnists in Seattle, New York and Atlanta continue to float the possibility.

        Still, Mr. Griffey rarely signs autographs at the ballpark because if he signs 10, the 11th kid's feelings will be hurt. He's not going to smile just because fans think he should. And he won't be pleasant with the media when he doesn't want to.

        It's the code.

        Reds shortstop and good friend Barry Larkin, who like Mr. Griffey was raised in Cincinnati, says the media here have failed to capture the many good sides of Junior: his work with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and terminally ill kids through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

        “The media around here have led people to believe that Junior is a (bleep),” Mr. Larkin says.

        Curses at the movies

        Spend time with Mr. Griffey in the clubhouse and a picture emerges of a man who believes he should be accepted for excelling at the things that matter most: the game, clean living, family bonds.

        Instead, he's forced by celebrity to “live a different life,” Reds second-year slugger Adam Dunn says.

        “Me and you, we don't realize how tough it is,” Mr. Dunn says. “We're not in his shoes. And everyone else doesn't realize it, either. People say, "Well, he makes a lot of money, so get over it.'

        “Yes, that comes with the territory. But when you see it firsthand, you say, "Whoa! The guy can't go out without being hounded!' ”

        Mr. Griffey is uncomfortable in most crowds away from the field, especially when he doesn't know the people, those close to him say.

        When he took his son, Trey, to the new Spider-Man movie, he endured some obscenities from fans. When he goes out to dinner, he sometimes slips in back doors to avoid being besieged. Yet he declines the use of private dining rooms because he's sensitive to criticism that he's trying to hide.

        But Mr. Griffey can be warm and expressive when he wants to, his friends say. On those days, he clearly wants them to know his story. But he never tells all. There are some things he believes should stay private.

        For example, Mr. Griffey doesn't volunteer this fact: Later this month he's paying travel and other expenses to bring 75 kids and 30 chaperones of Boys & Girls Clubs in Seattle and Orlando to Cincinnati for a three-day visit and at least one Reds game.

        To mention that would violate the code, to seek public approval for off-the-field, good work. And that would violate Mr. Griffey's sense of right and wrong.

        Feeding into the critics

        When Junior took umbrage three weeks ago at a Channel 12 poll in which 74 percent of 800 people said he should be benched when he was healthy enough to return to the lineup, the code worked against him.

        When he was injured, his bat couldn't do the talking, and he hadn't built up a deep reservoir of goodwill with fans that might have helped carry him through the bad times.

        Still, Mr. Griffey played right into his critics' hands. He went on a rant: “I'm tired of it,” he said. “I'm tired of getting beat up. It's been three (expletive) years of the same (expletive).

        “I get beat up for no reason,” he continued, as baseball writers took notes. “They keep picking on me. I'm not playing, so they throw me in the poll. The question was set up to make me look bad.”

        He added: “I don't think anybody knows me. I don't think they have had a chance to get to know me or my personality.”

        The critics went on a roll.

        Overly emotional, they said. Rabbit ears. Petulant for engaging the debate. Whiny, said ESPN.com, which ran a cartoon of Junior in a diaper. Ken Grumpy Jr., said national talk-show host Jim Rome. Paranoid neurotic, Seattle columnist Art Thiel told national talk-show host Tony Kornheiser.

        Mr. Griffey doesn't sit around reading every story about him in the press or listening to every word on radio and TV sports-talk shows. But he does have friends around town who call him when they've heard somebody say something about him that rings especially false.

        He knows he can trust these friends to accurately report to him what was said.

        Barbara Pinzka, who did public relations for Pete Rose after baseball's investigation into his gambling, says, “Keeping track of your bad press is insanity.”

        But Junior wants to know.

        Tony Grasha, a University of Cincinnati psychologist, says it's normal for success-oriented people to want to know what others think about them. Almost all celebrities watch, listen and read. But most, seeing they can't win the media scuffles, don't respond.

        Who your friends are

        More than a year ago, Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman went to Mr. Griffey and told him that if he must listen, he should at least consider the source. Be careful about what criticism to respond to, Mr. Brennaman advised.

        Why did he do that?

        “Because I like him,” Mr. Brennaman says. “I want him to succeed. And if I didn't like him, I wouldn't have offered the advice. He's a very sensitive guy.”

        Mr. Brennaman, who has experienced his share of criticism, can understand Mr. Griffey's wanting to know what people, especially Cincinnatians, think of him. Junior came home to Cincinnati only two years ago, after 11 seasons in Seattle.

        He's had a rocky go of it, seriously injuring his hamstring and missing much of last season, and tearing up his knee to miss two months already this year.

        When Mr. Brennaman arrived in town in 1974 to announce Reds games as a rookie major-league broadcaster, he very much wanted to know what listeners thought of him, too.

        “I wanted their acceptance,” he says today. “I wanted them to say, "We are thrilled to have Marty Brennaman broadcast the Reds games.' But after a while, when the team had built up a following and individually I knew that people enjoyed my work, I was less inclined to be concerned about the minority who weren't.

        “For some people, you're never going to be good enough,” Mr. Brennaman says. “I think Junior is viewed in the same manner by a lot of people. The realization he has to come to is that the people in this town who are critical of him are in the minority — I think.

        “As long as he can live with that — that it isn't the overwhelming majority — I think he can still listen. But if he can't deal with it, then he shouldn't listen.”

        You don't know me

        In his comments three weeks ago about the Channel 12 survey, Mr. Griffey felt aggrieved that people haven't “had a chance to get to know me or my personality.”

        But when the Enquirer offered Mr. Griffey the opportunity to provide a glimpse into his world away from the ballpark, he turned it down. It might come off as whining, he said. His first concern is for his family, he said.

        Still, Mr. Griffey did talk some in the clubhouse.

        Being close to his family — moving them from Seattle to Orlando to within a short commute of the Reds' spring training site and a two-hour flight to Cincinnati — is what coming home was supposed to be all about.

        But his wife has been the recipient of significant verbal abuse at Cinergy Field. Last year, when Mr. Griffey was struggling to recover from his hamstring injury, a fan accosted Melissa Griffey and yelled, “Go back to Seattle and take your (expletive) husband with you.”

        Mr. Griffey says he never expected that in his hometown, of all places. But the damage to his wife was done.

        “She said, point-blank, "I will never come here (Cinergy Field) again.' (Then she) got on a plane and left,” Mr. Griffey recalls. “She came here Opening Day, but that was because it was Opening Day and my mom talked to her.”

        For Mr. Griffey, family is off-limits for abuse.

        “As long as they don't (mess) with my family, I don't have a problem,” he says.

        And if they continue?

        “We'll see,” he says.

        That is neither a threat nor an ultimatum. It's just Junior being Junior, making sure people realize that it's no small deal to him. Again, it's the code, and so he brings it up.

        Playing on his terms

        Ultimately, it's a fruitless exercise for fans to try to turn Mr. Griffey into the person they want him to be.

        Celebrities will only yield to the whims of fans if the benefits outweigh the costs. And Mr. Griffey hasn't reached that stage yet, psychologist Grasha says.

        Mr. Griffey's code doesn't allow for external shaping. For him to change, he would have to be persuaded by someone he trusts. He would have to listen, and he couldn't be combative, says John Bloomstrom, senior vice president of Cincinnati-based Northlich advertising and public relations.

        And then there's this: While it's wonderful for a franchise and a city to have athletes who interact positively with fans, it's by no means required and shouldn't be expected, public relations experts say.

        Even injured, Mr. Griffey is among the top American athletes about whom sports fans want to know more, experts say. Junior's right up there with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali and Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant.

        It's both a blessing and a curse for the Reds' moody center fielder. A blessing because it makes him attractive to national sponsors and lets him give back to kids and charities; a curse because he'd rather be just one-of-25-guys.

        Today, Junior's 32, banged up and champing at the bit to show the homeboys what he can do. But does he ever think that maybe, just every now and then, he ought to lighten up and relax the code?

        Remember the “Griffey Shift,” in which the opposing team's third baseman moves over to shortstop, and the shortstop moves behind second base to force Junior to hit to the left, away from his power?

        The code says, “Don't give in to it. Just keep pulling the ball. Beat them at your strength.”

        But, occasionally, Mr. Griffey does give in.

        Occasionally, he relaxes the code. He drops a bunt down the third-base line.

        Just to let them know he can do it.

       



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