OAKLAND, Cal. - It's funny what a few home runs will do for a man's image. Seventeen long balls this spring haven't softened Junior Griffey's edges. He never had edges. Still, the perception of Griffey as whining sulker is as going, going, gone as the pitches he has been pounding lately.
"Now that he's come back (from injuries) he's perceived as more human," says Todd Jones. "Superman's got an Achilles" heel. "He's got a chink now. Before he was hurt, you couldn't relate to him. Now, you pull for him."
Griffey was giving it to Sean Casey on Monday afternoon. Manager Dave Miley had assigned Casey designated hitter duty for the series opener with Oakland. Nobody worth his National League stripes wants to DH. DH-ing is for guys on life support.
"I'm 34," Griffey cackled. "You're 29, and you're DH-ing!"
Miley appointed Adam Dunn the DH Tuesday. Griffey didn't razz Dunn. "I wouldn't take that," Dunn said. "I might have to get a little violent with him."
And so it goes. We like to think we know a little about the jocks we watch. We know only the image they project. Often, it's a caricature. Junior Griffey was well-liked by his teammates before he began his assault on 500. They didn't see him as petulant and sulking. They saw him as hurting and frustrated.
Mostly, they saw him. They still do. He's always around, early to the clubhouse, late to leave, working out, playing video games, razzing everyone within range of his jaw. At night, he's out to dinner with his teammates, or at the hotel bar with them, sipping something non-alcoholic. Unlike most superstars, Griffey shrinks in front of the cameras. He wants to be one of the boys.
Griffey is not the dominant veteran presence in the Reds clubhouse; Barry Larkin is. As Jones said, "Griffey is bells and whistles, Larkin is nuts and bolts." It's not Griffey's personality to be the center of attention. It makes him uncomfortable. During interviews, Griffey beams when talking about his family or the joking he gives his teammates, especially Casey. It's a trait that endears him to his mates. Griffey will never big-time them. When Jacob Cruz arrived at spring training, to play for his fifth major league team in eight years, Griffey shook his hand and asked him how his knee was. Cruz missed most of last year with a sprained right knee that required surgery. He was stunned Griffey would know that. "A superstar, treating me like that," Cruz said.
Griffey has left notes of encouragement in the lockers of Dunn and Austin Kearns when one or the other was slumping or hurt. "A lot of people don't think he's like that. I can tell you he cares about everyone in this clubhouse," Dunn said.
Griffey approaches 500 home runs and no one is ambivalent about the chase. Barry Bonds' teammates in San Francisco keep their distance. In Boston, Pedro Martinez is viewed as a diva in his own clubhouse. If Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's career homer record, he will be respected for it, not beloved.
When Griffey reaches 500, everyone will feel elation. They might also give him grief about the outfits he wears on the airplane, during road trips. "Pimp suits," Casey called them. Said Jones, "He thinks he's such a gangsta. He's just a big nerd like the rest of us. He probably knows all those rappers because he reads Rolling Stone."
Can you imagine one of Bonds' teammates saying that about him? Can you imagine one of his mates saying anything about him?
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