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Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Updated: March 21, 10:06 AM ET
ESPN The Magazine: Remember Junior?

By by Jeff Bradley

He is being followed. He is sure of it. Why? Who knows. But Ken Griffey Jr. is absolutely, 100 percent sure that right now, on this dark, rainy afternoon in late February, as he pulls his midnight-blue Mercedes sedan out of the parking lot of Ed Smith Stadium and onto the streets of Sarasota, Fla., he is being tailed by someone in a little black car. To prove to himself that he's not crazy, not making this up, Griffey drives like a confused, lost tourist. Blinker on. Blinker off. Lane change right. Lane change left. Speed up. Slow down. The black car mimics the Mercedes' every move. Griffey's seen enough. He signals for a left turn and begins to fade in the direction of the left-turn lane, then suddenly zips to the right, across two lanes, to make a right. He is in the clear. For now, anyway.

"You too can have this lifestyle," Griffey says the next day, shaking his head. A second later he says, "I'm used to it. No big deal. Whatever." He also says -- unconvincingly -- that he's come to grips with the "350-something" death threats he claims he received in 2000. Come to accept that one day, in St. Louis, he played a game knowing that the FBI, which was screening Griffey's e-mails, had traced a message threatening Griffey's wife, son and daughter, to one of those Internet-by-the-Hour terminals at a Cincinnati mall. And when Griffey called his wife, Melissa, on her cell phone, she and the kids were at that mall ... "Whatever," he says again.

"What am I supposed to do? Stop living? Stop playing?" Griffey asks. Sitting in the third base dugout before a spring training game, he stares through his sunglasses, out toward centerfield. "All I can say is, thankfully, nothing's happened with any of the threats. Do I ask what have I done to deserve it? Do I ask, 'Who have I ever hurt? What have I ever done on or off the field to offend anyone so bad?' Well, yeah. But what can I do?"

It's time to shag flies. Griffey starts to jog toward the field. Suddenly, he stops and turns around. A huge grin crosses his face. It's the same smile that helped make Junior the most popular player in baseball in the '90s. The smile that made people say, "No one enjoys the game as much as that kid." The smile that has seemingly been on leave for much of the past three seasons. For a second, he gives you a flashback.

He's on to something. For several days now, Griffey's been trying hard to explain himself, sitting through several hours' worth of questions about everything but baseball. Questions about stalkers and death threats, the whereabouts of that smile and the inflammatory comments made by former Reds players Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young and coach Ron Oester, who said Junior poisoned the Reds clubhouse when he came to the team in 2000. "I've worried enough," he says. "I've got to get out there and play, you know?"

And with that, Griffey pauses before jogging to the outfield. And he shrugs.

***

You notice that Ken Griffey Jr. shrugs a lot. Raises his eyebrows. Stares off into space. Purses his lips. Lifts his shoulders. Turns up his palms. Obviously, the shrugs are a defense mechanism, something he does when he feels the words may not be coming out right. Or when he may not be willing to share his real feelings with you. For all the confidence Griffey has displayed on the baseball field since he came to the big leagues 13 years ago, at the age of 19, he admits, "Questions and answers make me nervous. You know the kid in school who never raised his hand? That was me."

Sure, it sounds like a convenient out. The "reluctant superstar" angle. But the more you observe Griffey, the more you think there might be something to his claim. You watch him interact with teammates, and he's a cut-up. Busting Sean Casey about his new diet. Teasing hitting coach Jim Lefebvre about his ubiquitous "Super Blue Stuff" infomercial. Stirring up some make-believe controversy between a couple of rookies. Always in the middle of the noise. And when reporters first gather around his locker, he's not afraid to poke fun at their physiques, their clothes or their apparent lack of sleep. It's not until the pens and pads come out, the tape recorders are running, the camera lights come on, that Griffey transforms. His voice turns to a whisper. His eyes wander. He breaks out the shrugs.

"Griff's like the opposite of Deion Sanders," says Casey. "Last year, when Deion played for us, he was a quiet guy in the locker room. Kept to himself. But when you see Deion being interviewed, he's full of confidence. Griff can be brash around us, but around the media, he becomes very reserved."

Griffey confesses, "When I'm doing interviews, I wonder, what's going to come out of this? What's going to be said about me? I feel like so much has been written about me, but I don't think anyone really knows me at all. So, it's like I'm back in high school, standing at the chalkboard, all nervous about what I'm going to be asked."

***

"Junior!" a voice calls out. "When did you become the most hated man in baseball?" It's Texas Rangers pitcher Rob Bell, who was traded away from the Reds last June. Bell is smiling, standing at the fence, outside the practice field where the Reds are taking batting practice before an exhibition game. Griffey laughs and yells back, "Yeah, that's me." The exchange is in reference to the comments made by Reese, Young and Oester early this spring.

To recap: Reese, who is now with the Pirates, said Griffey got preferential treatment, including extra batting practice, and was allowed to skip mandatory on-field stretching. He also said that Griffey was not as good a leader as ex-Red Greg Vaughn, who helped lead the Reds to 96 wins in 1999, the year before Griffey arrived in Cincinnati. Young, who's now with the Tigers, said, "Pokey was dead on." Young then took it a step further, saying Griffey and Reds captain Barry Larkin told Reds management to trade Young and that Griffey was a divisive force in the Reds clubhouse. "Once Junior got there, the team broke off into cliques," Young said. "[Griffey's] got his accomplishments. But he throws them in your face. He'd sit there and say, How many home runs do you have? How much money do you make?'" Finally, Oester, who was fired as a coach in the off-season, said, "Junior needs to work on being a teammate" and "When I used to see him in Seattle, he was always having fun. He always had a smile on his face. Somehow, that got lost. I don't know what happened."

To baseball fans, these were not startling observations. Dating back to his final years in Seattle, Griffey's persona had started to change, from The Kid -- the fun-loving, backward-hat-wearing baseball prodigy who made playing in the major leagues look effortless and fun -- to something much darker. Brooding, bitter and moody were just a few of the words columnists used to describe Griffey as he approached and passed the age of 30.

Part of it was caused by his untidy parting of ways with Seattle in 1999. There was no way he was going to get out of there after 11 years without taking some shots. Even if Junior did accept about $5 million less per year to play in Cincy and proves it was "all about trying be a better dad" every time he commutes two-plus hours from Sarasota to Orlando for 8-year-old Trey's baseball games, it doesn't matter. He was now the guy who put a gun to the Mariners' heads and forced them to trade him.

And part of it was, by his own admission, the funk he got into in 2000. "Having to adjust on and off the field was a little rough, and I don't think a lot of people understood it," he says. "When you change your environment completely, and you try to adjust and do everything you're supposed to do, some things suffer. That and the death threats. After a couple of months, it wore me out. Things snowballed and I snapped a few times." And part of it is that last season, he was limited to 364 at-bats because of a torn left hamstring. So, yes, it's hard to smile when you can't play.

But what made this spring's criticism cut even deeper is that it came from two players and a coach, not two writers and a radio guy. That seemed to validate all these criticisms. Actually, it seemed to go beyond validation. Suddenly, it seemed that Griffey's demeanor, not a bullpen full of arsonists, held the Mariners back in the late '90s. And perhaps it was Griffey's frown, not his hamstring, that caused the Reds to lose 96 games last year. Here's a guy who, with 40 home runs, will become the youngest player in history to reach 500. But it's a much bigger story that he was allowed to stretch on his own and can take his clubhouse chirping too far.

So it goes with stars. For all the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit for the Giants last year, for all the 137 runs he drove in, there was still a faction in the clubhouse who thought Bonds' leather recliner and big-screen TV and the fact that he didn't play hearts with the boys kept the Giants out of the postseason. "Junior's the fall guy, no doubt," says Larkin. "For some guys, I guess that beats looking in the mirror and saying, 'I didn't pull my weight.'"

Says Reds manager Bob Boone, "This stuff is laughable, really. Junior is the ultimate gamer. He plays the game hard. He plays the game right. He plays the game hurt. Do I give him some special treatment? Sure, because he's earned it. If Gookie Dawkins asked me if he could meet the team in Baseball City because he wanted to drive home a day early to watch his son play Little League, I might not allow it. With Junior, that's a no-brainer. When Pokey Reese, who wouldn't play for me last year, even when our doctors said he was okay ... who was having a bad year, but didn't work at the game ... when he criticizes Junior, it becomes a big story. That just goes to show you right there what it's like to be Ken Griffey Jr."

Indeed, hardly a word has been written this spring about the hours Griffey spent in the batting cage during the winter. As much as three hours a day, because he was so antsy for more baseball after playing only 111 games last year. Hardly a word about the long hours of stretching and strengthening he did to try and make sure his hamstring is 100%. Even when ex-teammate Alex Rodriguez came to Griffey's defense, saying, "Junior was a great teammate, a brother to me and so many guys in Seattle," it hardly registered.

Meanwhile, Griffey ... shrugs. His passive defense begins. "Better people have said worse things about me," he says. "But do you think if I broke a team rule it wouldn't have been news? My pregame stretching was a special program for my hamstring, and it was cleared by the team ...

"Pokey said I wasn't a leader. Well, I don't yell at people. Maybe Pokey needs that. But that's never been me. I try to lead by example. I was hurt last year, and we were mathematically eliminated, and I still played. I could've shut it down. That's how I try to lead."

As for being a clubhouse trash talker, Griffey says he is guilty as charged. "It's the only place in the world where I'm loud. But I don't talk about how much money I make. I've seen what that can do in a clubhouse. Joking around about home runs, everybody does that. And it's not like I don't get teased about a lot of things. That's what ballplayers do to each other."

You sense another shrug is on the way. And there it is. "They can rip me," he says. "Pokey and Dmitri are best friends. What am I going to do? Two times I offered to defer money so they could stay with the Reds. They both turned down long-term contracts. They didn't want to be here ... and now I'm supposed to be the reason they're gone?"

The look in Griffey's eyes is distant, nonemotional. This is the look that has replaced the smile as Griffey's signature. He admits as much, though he's not sure it's fair that he's been criticized for it by people like Oester. "Paul O'Neill threw bats and looked ticked off all the time and he was intense," Griffey says. "I don't smile and something's wrong with me. I'm in a Catch-22. In Seattle in '99, we were losing a lot. If I went out on the field and smiled that year, what would people have said? That I don't care. How can I win? Should I go out there and fake-smile if I'm not happy? Nah. What you see is what you get. If we're losing, I'm not going to smile.

"People still think of me as a kid," he continues. "I'm 32 years old. I have an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. But they still think that I'm The Kid. I'm still supposed to play video games and hang out with the batboys, the way I did when I came up. If I was 25, or even 22, it would be different. When you become an adult, you have to deal with adult things. When you become a dad, you have to deal with family things. People have to respect that."

You are getting a long glimpse at Griffey's one, great tragic flaw. His sensitivity. Sure, being sensitive, caring what others think of you, is a virtue in many walks of life. But it's not for sports superstars. No less an authority than his father, Ken Griffey Sr., admits, "He needs to become more insensitive to all the bull." It's why all the shrugs and "whatevers" can't mask his feelings. He'd never admit it, but that Five For Fighting song Superman (It's Not Easy) could be Griffey's theme. Particularly the line, "It may sound absurd, but don't be naive, even heroes have the right to bleed."

He asks, "What have I ever done off the field? Anything negative? Then why is it so hard for people to just take me for who I am? A guy who loves to play baseball. A guy who loves being a dad. People say I'm cold and bitter. Just because someone's an athlete doesn't mean he's going to be comfortable in crowds, or being interviewed. When fans come up to me, they may be nervous, but a lot of times I'm just as nervous. I get freaked out. My life the past two years has changed me. People may say all they want is an autograph, but a lot of times, I'm wondering, what do they really want?

"The death threats," he continues, his voice becoming barely audible. "Then someone comes running up to me in the street ... and if I'm quiet, it doesn't mean I'm mad ... just not sure."

***

He needs to play. Needs to crush a ball and pose in follow-through. Needs to glide under a ball in deep center. Needs to remind people, as Boone reminds you, "He is one of the handful of best players to ever wear a uniform. And he's 32 years old."

Griffey also knows that, every once in a while, he needs to remind people, as he is doing right now, "I'm doing what I always wanted to do. And yes, I am having fun."

If he does that, Griffey will be followed for the right reasons. "I tell you, he was poised to have a great season last year," Boone says. "And I feel even more that way this year." Good enough to reclaim his spot among the best players in the game?

"Among the best?" Boone asks you back. "The best."

Griffey's got one word for that comment.

"Whatever."

This article appears in the April 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.