During the 2000 Home Run Derby in Atlanta, Ken Griffey Jr. had to be forced to do on-field interviews following his turns. Griffey happened to come up against perhaps the most extraordinary exhibition in the annals of that All-Star exhibition by Sammy Sosa, and that didn't brighten his temperament either. The defending champ and three-time winner of the event was sullenly outslugged by the smiling Sosa in front of a national audience. Griffey's trademark wide grin always seemed forced up close and he rarely if ever made eye contact.
In stark contrast, as Junior approached the most significant milestone home run of his career, no one was more approachable in a Cincinnati clubhouse, which is one of the most congenial in sport. With a traveling assemblage that included his wife Melissa, three kids, his former teammate and father Ken Sr., his mother Birdie and his step-mom, Griffey has had to hold things together as they trekked to Oakland, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and now St. Louis.
But after failing to nail No. 500 in front of them, and his hometown fans, he graciously consented to a postgame interview after going 0-for-3 with a strikeout. His dad was in the front row, dressed all in black on a sweltering afternoon in Cincinnati, explaining he'd be the bad guy today, it was Junior's time to be the good guy. In reality it was because Pop was on his way to Billings, Mont., in his role as special-assignment scout for the Reds when he was diverted to the No. 500 home run watch and basically had three black outfits with him. Speaking of bad guys, when asked if it's just we in the media who notice a gregarious Griffey, or if the family does too, his father acknowledged unquestionably, his son's a changed man. Griffey Sr. credits the young Reds he's befriended, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Sean Casey, Danny Graves and the rest, for helping his son be at his most playful and healthiest in years.
Once Junior finished discussing why he hadn't hit No. 500 during a brief three-game homestand, he rushed in to join his teammates in the clubhouse, where every Reds victory is celebrated behind closed doors with a raucous version of Toby Keith and Willie Nelson's "Whiskey for my Men, Beer for my Horses." The sight of hip-hoppers like Griffey and Barry Larkin, and the Reds' sizable Latin contingent, barking out this country drinking song up the alley of Jason LaRue and Dunn is not for outsiders' eyes, but fires the imagination when you hear it. It's amazing they even know the words, but as they joked, they had to break out lyric sheets after a disastrous, winless seven-game road trip.
If Griffey HAD homered on Thursday, he would have been the 20th to join the 500 club, and do it on the 44th anniversary of Ted Williams' getting his 500th on that day in 1960. Although Williams went on to manage the Washington Senators, who moved on to become the Texas Rangers, that franchise has yet to be part of a 500th home run.
Every time Griffey bats, the umpires swap out balls with specially prepared ones marked by the Reds' clubhouse guys to ensure authenticity. Reds public relations extraordinaire Rob Butcher has made it his duty to procure the ball from whomever it ends up with it, a tougher task on the road than in Cincinnati. Butcher went on the radio following the Reds' win Wednesday to implore the little girl who got the game ball to return it to Phil Norton. It was his first major-league win. Griffey had innocently tossed it into the stands after the last out, and when Jason LaRue ran out to retrieve it, the little girl had left. Not to worry, by the time LaRue got to his truck, the girl was waiting, and he got it to Norton the next day. Remarkably, Norton can't remember whom he got his first hit off, even though it came in his first major-league game, and he has only one other. Todd Van Poppel remembered his first win was against the same Rangers team he played for last season, and beat later that day, and that his first big-league hit was off Colorado's immortal Mark Browson. What makes Norton's fuzzy memory even more troubling is that the retiring Joe Nuxhall, 60 years after his record-setting debut as a 15-year old, still remembers who he faced that day, and what the counts were!
The ribbing between Dunn and Griffey is merciless, but the bond is inspiring. When Dunn was hurt last year, Griffey posted a photo in his locker telling him to hang in there. Dunn was appalled that the one he and Kearns had signed during one of Grif's many injuries, telling him they missed him and to hurry back, was somehow missing from No. 30's locker, and he promptly replaced it.
Kearns seems to have been infected with Griffey's Cincinnati injury curse. He's back on the disabled list this week, and playing in Louisville with a thumb injury. Trainer Mark Mann applies a silicone gel to the inside of Kearns' right thumb, but the real secret is the invention of bullpen coach Tom Hume, who has combined a batting glove, leather sewn over it, and a Velcro strap that wraps around Kearns' digit for protection. Patent pending.
While Kearns rehabs his latest injury, Dunn thinks Griffey's bad luck has contaminated him. Earlier this season he had the famous incident with a TV rental in Pittsburgh's William Penn Hotel that cost him $884.00 to play video games for four days. This week it was the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. Dunn called down to the bellman to pick up his bags, and left a gratuity on the dresser as he headed for the bus, as he always does. When the team got back to Cincinnati, Dunn was the only player without his bag. Two days later, they found it, still sitting in his Philly hotel room, and now had to send it ahead to St. Louis. The tall Texan was most relieved none of the precious caps in his incalculable collection were in the bag. His personal favorite, at least this week, is the one that reads "Se Habla Espanol," from his teammate Jacob Cruz. Dunn proclaims he knows more Spanish than Cruz, D'Angelo Jimenez, Felipe Lopez and his other Latin teammates give him credit for; but most who speak Spanish would tell you "se habla espanol," is an Americanized way of saying you speak the language.
Now back in the American League, Buck Showalter says its actually tougher to manage in the DH loop, because in the National League, most of the decisions are made for you. About the toughest call is around the fifth inning if you're in a pinch-hit situation with the pitcher due up. Buck finds there are three or four "outs" in every NL lineup, but most AL lineups have none. When I asked him what he's learned or changed from his previous managerial tenures and even his broadcasting stint, the former Yankees and Diamondbacks skipper said each job has been completely different. In New York, Showalter came on in the midst of George Steinbrenner's "lifetime" ban by Fay Vincent, and with the Yankees in dire need of rebuilding. Without Steinbrenner to spend wildly, Showalter was able to develop and nurture young talent like Bernie Williams and Roberto Kelly, even as he inherited the misguided signing of Danny Tartabull, and to benefit from cost-effective trades such as the one that got him Paul O'Neill. In Arizona, he basically was given control or a say in almost everything in the organization, and started developing before the franchise even had any players. Now in Texas, Showalter simply manages baseball. Buck says his reputation for being a strict, militaristic, rules-mad, rigid manager is unfair and a gross misconception. With the Rangers, he did the same thing he's done with each of his teams ... at the end of spring training, he throws down a blank pad of paper in the clubhouse and tells his team, "here, you guys make the rules." His experience is that most guys want to act and dress like major leaguers, and he has never had to intervene, since no team yet has made a dress code of tank tops, cutoffs and flip-flops standard.
The Rangers have gone from a clubhouse that was dominated by Hall-of-Famers-to-be, like Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, to a team concept with Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira and Michael Young setting the tone, while role-playing veterans Eric Young and Rusty Greer have become the go-to veterans and personality tone setters. Although Greer will likely never play the field again with debilitating elbow and shoulder injuries, Showalter invited him to join the team on road trips and he has been a huge influence on the young team. Greer holds out hope of being ready to DH by September.
Most surreal scene in the Rangers clubhouse: Blalock calling Showalter "dude," just like he does everyone else on the planet. Buck said he was honored, with phrases like "Dude, this guy on the mound is dealin'!"
Just like Showalter, Alfonso Soriano has Yankee ties, and Soriano still keeps in touch with them, especially Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. The day he was traded to Texas, Jeter called his keystone mate and assured him the deal was about Alex Rodriguez and not that the Yankees didn't want Soriano. Jeter told him to just work hard all the time in Texas and everything would turn out great. In the six games against his old team, Soriano has faced Rivera only once, and he told him if he threw his famous cut fastball to him, he'd put it in the seats. Rivera threw him a rare changeup, and Soriano fisted it for a single, but got stranded at third in a 2-1 loss on D-Day.
Across Texas, Houston has fallen on hard times, and that was before its main rival in the Central, the Cubs, completed a four-game sweep there this week. Andy Pettitte's been out twice already and is in a hurry to rejoin his hometown team. General manager Gerry Hunsicker fears they may be bringing the division's only significant left-handed starter back too soon, but some are considering this a desperate time already for the Astros, in mid-June. Without Pettitte to go deep in games, and with Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding performing well below expectations, the Astros' bullpen is getting worn out more than the Reds' bullpen. That was part of the necessity for acquiring David Weathers from the Mets. But more than that, Richard Hidalgo was clearly never going to get over losing his starting job and refind himself, at considerable expense, this season in Houston. Jason Lane is out of options and things to prove in the minors, and will be given the chance to seize the job now. Lane admitted he'd been pressing in very limited at-bats all spring, and didn't get his first RBI of the season until last Saturday in Milwaukee. The former USC standout is hoping that will help him turn the corner. Playing all four games in the Cubs sweep, Lane went 5-for-15, with a homer and two more RBI.
Most of the Trojans are in mourning this week. USC didn't come close to making the College World Series in Omaha, where the Trojans won 12 times, but none since Lane and Morgan Ensberg teamed up on the 1998 squad. Ensberg broke open a tight title game with Arizona State by stealing home. In fact, he did that three times that season, and was a 20-20 man for the Trojans in 1998. Ensberg says he's still capable of stealing as many as 20 bases in the majors, but has only 12 thus far in his career. Lane says many from the 1998 championship team, and other alums including Jacque Jones, the Boones and Geoff Jenkins, regularly show up for the USC alumni game each January. Lane, Ensberg, Chad Moeller, Eric Munson and Seth Etherton are among those who re-live that wild 21-14 title game that included a Lane ninth-inning grand slam that also made him the winning pitcher.
Favorite observation of the week: Cubs hitting coach Gary Matthews Sr. describing his profession: "That's the thing about this job, someone's always broke. Even if the whole team's in a hitting hot streak, someone's always gonna be broke." Sarge hasn't had too many "broke" Cubs in June.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.