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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Griffey of Old Seems Long Gone

June 09, 2002|Ross Newhan

It is early Friday evening of an interleague weekend in Anaheim, and Jim Lefebvre, the hitting coach of the Cincinnati Reds, is saying he is convinced that Ken Griffey Jr. can regain his impact form and "be the Junior of old."

"There is no question about it, no doubt in my mind," Lefebvre says.

The reality, of course, is that doubt accompanies every step Griffey takes as he struggles with leg injuries for a third consecutive season, the Junior of today knowing in many ways he will never be the Junior of old, that even if he regains his Hall of Fame form he can never recapture the carefree persona of his teenage emergence as a major league superstar.

He is 32, after all, and everyone changes over time.

Besides, there have been all those fun-sapping slights, real and imagined, all those injuries, all those changes in his personal life.

It is early Friday evening when he, too, is talking about all of this, several hours before doubt would accompany him down the first-base line as he ran out an infield grounder in the fourth inning of what would become a 4-3 loss to the Angels, a game he left after straining the hamstring muscle in his right leg on that run up the line.

This is the same leg in which a partially torn knee tendon forced Griffey to miss 41 consecutive games from early April to late May, a year after a torn left hamstring reduced his 2001 availability to 111 games, two years after hamstring injuries plagued him throughout 2000 and sidelined him for almost all of September.

Now, having only recently returned from the knee injury and still searching for that Roy Hobbs magic, Griffey is day to day again, and the doubts are pervasive.

Can he get to 100% and stay there?

Is he paying a price for all those years on the unforgiving artificial surface of the Seattle Kingdome when, because it all came so easily, he may not have worked on his conditioning as he should have, as Lou Piniella, his former manager, suggested in April, when Griffey went down with the knee injury?

Look, whatever the answers are, however the doubt plays out, it seems like only a minute ago that Griffey was the best player in baseball, a natural ebullience characterizing his game, and it hurts to think that might be gone or diminished, no matter the reason, just as it hurt to see Griffey sitting on an equipment trunk late Friday night, icing the new hamstring strain, tears in his eyes.

He was asked how the leg felt and said, "bad enough."

He was asked about his frustration level and said, "I don't know what to say. This is what I do, the only thing I know how to do, but I've gone through this for two ... years now. I just want to play, that's it."

On Saturday, the tears faded. Griffey ran in the outfield, took batting practice and might play in today's series finale.

The Reds are fighting for a division title, have a reservoir of talented young outfielders, and went 25-16 when Griffey missed those 41 games earlier this season.

In some ways, his unavailability solves a lineup logjam.

Then again, this is a Gold Glove center fielder whom Henry Aaron tabbed as the favorite to break his home-run record, a guy who went home to Cincinnati having hit 48 or more home runs for four consecutive seasons and, despite missing almost all of that last month, hit 40 in the first year of his eight-year contract with the Reds.

And so now, because his uncertainty makes it a little easier to fill out the lineup, we're supposed to think the Reds won't be yearning for the "old Junior" down the stretch when there's no way to know how all those young outfielders will be performing?

Earlier Friday, scheduled to start in center field, hoping to build on the home run he had hit against St. Louis on Thursday, his first of the year and 461st of a career in which he was limited to 22 last year because of the hamstring problems, Griffey sat on that same equipment trunk and said he is simply trying to get the leg strong again so he can be the player he has always been, that it isn't a matter of having anything to prove or reclaiming an artificial crown as baseball's best player from former Seattle teammate Alex Rodriguez.

Again, as in almost all Griffey interviews, he would lapse into that theme of no respect and unrealistic expectations, as if that's what he feeds off of, and he would again express anger at the recent poll by a Cincinnati TV station in which 73% of the less than 2,000 respondents said that he should be the outfielder who sits when he is ready to play.

"I know it wasn't very scientific," Griffey said, "but it was a set-up question. With the team fighting for first place and so many positive things going on, it should never have been asked. How many cities would love to have its team in first place?

"People should be having fun and excitement instead of answering negative questions. Do they remember that I took a discount to come home and play in Cincinnati?

"Would they have done that to Shawn Green in L.A. or Barry Bonds in San Francisco?"

This is the way it is with Griffey, who at 32 says "no matter what I do it isn't good enough" and who can't be expected to sustain the carefree, cap-backward image of 19 because he is the father of three now and "we all change" and if people don't always see him smiling and joking it doesn't mean he doesn't care or loves the game any less "but how am I supposed to be smiling and joking when I've been hurt for two years and missed as many games as I have? It's not real fun. I mean, it's not like I'm going around yelling and screaming, but what's there to laugh about? The one thing I want is a world championship, and who knows how long I'm going to play? I have to be more serious."

In the freeze frame of our mind, the Junior of old looked like he could play forever. Now, it's one day at a time.

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