Griffey back among immortals

"It's a great feeling to play now in front of these people and sense their respect. And I think it's directly related to me being among those names, on that [500-homer] list."

-- Mike Schmidt, on the same fans who had booed him for 15 years, after his 500th home run

It's just a number. But for some people, it's a number that changes everything.

Seventeen years ago, when Mike Schmidt became the 14th member of the 500-Homer Club, he was shocked by how his entrance into that hallowed fraternity changed the perception of him in the city he'd played in all his life.

He'd endured 15 years of frustration while trying to figure out how to pierce through the boos and carve his way into the hearts of Philadelphia. But when he reached 500, it was almost like a wake-up call to his fans. It was, Schmidt once laughed, as if it suddenly dawned on them that "all this had been happening, right in front of their eyes, all those years."

From that day on, it was never the same for Mike Schmidt. For 15 years, he never seemed to do enough. For the rest of his career, he never seemed to do a whole lot wrong.

It was No. 500 that changed his world. And now it's happening again. It's happening to Junior Griffey.

For four years, we've watched his hometown love affair with Cincinnati turn messier than Ben and J-Lo. For four years, we've watched the fans of America sour on the same falling star who used to seduce them with his smile and transfix them with a swing sweeter than baklava.

So how do we explain what's happening to him now? Those sparkling flash bulbs? Those lines at the ticket window? That noise you hear when he's heading for home plate -- a noise that sounds suspiciously like actual cheers?

How do we explain it? Five hundred home runs.

"We could see it in Oakland and Cleveland. Normally, when he gets introduced there, he gets booed more than anybody," Reds closer Danny Graves said. "But last week, he was actually getting standing ovations. To me, that's a signal that fans are embracing him again."

It's not that number itself they're embracing, of course. But the power of 500 is more than just another number. It's such a magic number, it is forcing all of us to take a second look at one of the great players of his time and re-focus on his accomplishments and what they mean.

First of all, there are his accomplishments of this year. Had Griffey been staggering toward No. 500 in the midst of another disappointing, injury-ravaged season, it's safe to say the air wouldn't have felt quite as turbo-charged as it does this week.

But when the Junior Griffey standing at home plate is third in the league in homers (tied with some guy named Bonds) and tied for third in RBI, it sends out those "Junior's back" kind of vibes. Which sure makes it a whole lot easier for those 39,000 people in the seats in Cincinnati to cheer like 2001 and '02 and '03 never happened.

"You know what?" Reds first baseman Sean Casey said. "They always wanted to love the guy. But he was always hurt. He wasn't on the field. But now that he's back on the field, they love him again. When Ken Griffey Jr. came back to Cincinnati, the buzz in that city was just phenomenal. And now that buzz is back."

But that buzz is about more than right now, too. That buzz is still connected to all those amazing things Griffey did before he ever played a game in Cincinnati.

We are talking, after all, about a man with seven 40-homer seasons. Just three players in history -- and no center fielders -- have had more. (That would be Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew.)

And we are talking about a man who once had four straight seasons of at least 40 homers, 130 RBI and 120 runs scored. Only one player -- Ruth -- ever strung together more consecutive seasons like that.

We are talking about a man who, even after all those injuries, will reach 500 homers at a younger age than all but five guys on one of baseball's coolest lists.

And we are talking about a man who joins just two other center fielders in that 500-Homer Club -- the great Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Pretty good group.

"The numbers just put it all in perspective," Graves said. "When he passed Lou Gehrig [with No. 494], that's the one that amazed me. That's when I really understood what was going on -- when you start saying the names and the numbers of the people he's passing. That's when it starts getting unbelievable."

Yep. There is just something about the sight of a guy zipping by those all-time icons that can't help but grab you by the brain cells.

This guy has more home runs than Lou Gehrig? Driven in more runs than Johnny Bench? Has a higher career slugging percentage than Hank Aaron? Produced more extra-base hits than Joe DiMaggio?

All true. No wonder those people in Cincinnati are asking themselves what the heck they've been booing.

But even as those boos have disappeared, Griffey isn't ready to acknowledge that development as a sign the worst may be behind him. Asked if he thought the 500-homer hoopla was a sign that people are beginning to re-embrace him, he took a long time before phrasing a typically guarded answer.

"No, pretty much the people who supported me throughout my career are still behind me," he said. "It's only getting noticed because people are writing about it.

"I tried to take it easy throughout the whole thing," he went on, "to not get too frustrated when things weren't going well, to not get too high on myself when they were."

But if you believe that, we've got a very attractive bridge across the Ohio River we'd like to sell you. The frustration of the last few years couldn't have been written more clearly on his face if he'd written a message on his forehead that read: "LEAVE ME ALONE."

The boos, the talk shows, the newspapers -- they devoured him, far more than a player of his stature should ever have allowed that to affect him. And it was his thin skin, almost as much as the injuries and shrinking numbers, that caused his once-adoring public to turn on him.

"If you're a superstar," Graves said, "you have to be ready to take some heat. It goes with the territory. And Junior had trouble handling that. But he seems to be having a lot more fun now, and it's a lot more fun watching him."

Funny how that happened. In the end, it turns out, all people ever really wanted was the chance to see that Junior Griffey they used to root for -- the human highlight film with the golden smile -- materialize again before their eyes.

And now, voila. That guy is back, on one of the surprise teams of the year, with a mythical milestone as the lure to make us all pay attention to his every move.

"It's amazing," Graves said. "The guy went through so much for so long, you almost forgot what he used to do. And now he's doing it again."

For that gift, we can all be thankful. And we can also thank that magic number -- 500 -- for reminding us of what Junior Griffey once meant to this game, and what he has come to mean again. Finally.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.