- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- He's the official Greatest Center Fielder of His Generation. But not anymore.
When you write the name of Kenneth Griffey Jr. into your Cincinnati Reds scorecard this season, you'll be writing a "9" next to his name instead of an "8." And if that feels strange to us, just writing it, you can imagine how strange it must feel to the Greatest Center Fielder of His Generation.
So go ahead. Imagine away. We'll have no choice -- because Griffey did his best Thursday morning to keep his innermost feelings out of view by shrugging this off as just another day at the office.
Asked, in a conversation with ESPN.com and half a dozen Cincinnati-area reporters, what the most difficult part of this move might be, Griffey replied: "It's no different. Would it have been any different if I was going from center field to DH in the American League?"
Well, we suggested, it might be the National League equivalent of that.
"Not even close," Griffey said. "Because I still get to go out and play the field."
And that's true. They haven't turned him into Edgar Martinez Jr. quite yet.
But no matter how many times Griffey uses the phrase "no big deal" -- and he used it a lot Thursday -- he has spent his career as a special player at baseball's most glamorous position. So this is a major milepost in the life of a guy we haven't been able to take our eyes off since he showed up in the big leagues in 1989, at age 19.
"It's not that big of a deal," he insisted Thursday, before the Reds played their 20th consecutive game this spring without Griffey in their lineup. "You guys [in the media] are making more of a big deal out of it than it is."
He looked into the eyes of his inquisitors. A smile formed at the corners of his mouth.
"You never know," he said, tossing this thought out there like a BP softball. "I may play it again."
Well, sure, he might. He also might play shortstop next week. He even joked with Reds media relations whiz Rob Butcher that he might break out his catching gear any minute now.
But it clearly doesn't appear to be the Reds' intention to have this move be a little, temporary stopover -- like changing planes at O'Hare. He will not just be passing through his new baseball area code.
Manager Jerry Narron and GM Wayne Krivsky have tried very hard this spring to handle the situation delicately. But they obviously believe that this is a change of address that will help Griffey stay healthier and -- how to put this delicately? -- make them a better defensive team.
If that is a sentiment that Griffey finds aggravating or frustrating, he has disguised those emotions as well as he can -- mainly by uttering as few words about it as he can. But there was one brief moment Thursday when he allowed a tiny blob of frustration to seep out.
Asked a question about how he feels about his "transition" away from center field, he answered: "It didn't really matter how I felt about it. That's really not important, because I'm not there. And I've got to make the best of it."
That suggests he didn't have a vote on this. And from all indications, he didn't. Because, in the end, the Reds had no choice.
Griffey might have had at least some say -- if he hadn't broken his hand in December, while wrestling with his kids. Or, if that hand had recovered faster, and he'd been able to play in these "all-important" spring-training games from the beginning, the Reds might have had the opportunity to let this play out differently.
Instead, nearly a month and a half into spring training and three weeks into the exhibition-game portion of the spring, Griffey still has logged zero innings on the field. And while that is expected to change in the next few days, time ran out on everybody to allow this scenario to unfold more gracefully.
Not that Junior didn't see it coming.
"A couple of you [reporters] have been out here when I've taken [fly balls during] infield [practice] in the last three weeks," he said. "Where have I taken it?"
The answer, of course: Right field.
"So obviously," he said, "I knew a month ago."
Which means he also has been dancing around the topic for a month, never seriously addressing questions about it. Which is fine. And politically correct.
But sometimes in life, people tell you more with what they don't say than what they do. So if you'd like to conclude that his silence this spring has told you more than his actual words, we won't try to talk you out of it.
Asked what he thought the toughest part of this move might be, Griffey was careful not to take that as a psychological kind of question.
"I don't know," he said. "I've never done it."
That's not 100 percent true, though. He did, in fact, play four innings in right field for the Reds, back on Aug. 4, 2004 -- and suffered a frightening injury halfway through his evening, when he detached his hamstring making a spectacular sliding catch.
When that was pointed out, that he couldn't quite use the word "never," he quickly amended those remarks.
"OK, I don't have multiple games there," he said. "I've got multiple innings."
Then that magical Junior Griffey smile returned.
"I've already had discussions with our pitchers," he said.
Having served up that straight line, he paused -- waiting for the question we'd just been carefully set up to ask:
And, uh, what discussions were those?
"Throw hard in to righties and soft away to lefties," he laughed. "How hard is it to pitch like that the whole year?"
It's times like that, when he flashes that smile and that sense of humor, that he reminds us again of the qualities that helped make him such a magnetic figure. This was always more, you see, than about a baseball player whose talents seemed to jump off the field at you. It was also that joy of being a baseball player that drew the world to the ballpark whenever Junior Griffey was passing through.
That joy disappeared for a few years there -- in part because of demons and critics Griffey practically seemed to egg on at times. Then came all the pulls and the tears and the fractures -- developments that would wipe the smile off anybody's face.
But life in a laid-back Reds clubhouse has softened him over the past couple of years. So through the frustration of more injuries and more disappointment, Griffey has finally appeared to relax and be That Guy again.
He may not divulge his true feelings about a monumental career move for the planet to dissect. He may have wondered why ESPN.com had stopped by his locker "for no reason." But the good news was, at least he could toss a joke or two out there.
Asked another question about the different spin that balls have when they're heading for right field than when they're bound for center, Griffey revealed his secret strategy for leading the league in fielding percentage.
"It usually [spins] toward the line," he deadpanned. "So I figure that if I stay on the line and work my way toward right-center, I'll be fine."
He looked around to see how that pearl went over.
"See," he chuckled. "I know what I'm doing."
We have no doubt that when Ken Griffey Jr. looks into a mirror, he doesn't see a right fielder. And there's a good chance he never will.
He was, and will always be, the official Greatest Center Fielder of His Generation. So his lifelong position has never been merely a number next to his name on your scorecard.
It has been part of his identity. Center field will do that to a guy. It should do that.
But Willie Mays played 21 games in right field. Mickey Mantle played 146 games in right field. Even Joe DiMaggio played 18 games in right field. So it happens.
There comes a time -- for every player -- when he can't do the things he used to do, at least not the way he used to do them.
So now that time has come for Kenneth Griffey Jr. Stuff happens -- even to him. And now he'll just have to let it happen, because the alternative is moving on to his next career. Which he already has planned out, he said.
"Vacationing," he laughed.
That doesn't tend to pay as well as his current career, we told him.
"No, you haven't heard my plan on this," he said with a chuckle. "You take me on vacation. I'll be a professional vacationist."
Hey, good work if you can get it. But first, we'll have to write "9" next to his name a few times on a scorecard near us.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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