Fifteen years ago last month, the telephone rang, general managers Pat Gillick and Jim Bowden conferred, and one of the most monumental deals in baseball history was completed. Ken Griffey Jr., as much a part of Seattle as Puget Sound, was going home. To Cincinnati.
On a recent Monday afternoon, the telephone rang again. A retired would-be home run king was on the line from his home in Florida, and his concerns pretty much are the same now as they were then.
It was family first then and remains so today.
"This is probably the busiest time for me, this time of year," Junior Griffey said. "I try to get all the stuff that I have to do done before the kids' spring break and their summer break so we can hang out."
The trade is not one of Griffey's favorite subjects. He is reluctant to even talk about it.
It was a deal that, for a time, branded him a traitor in the state of Washington and a hero in Ohio. It was a deal that complicated his life, altered his legacy, made possible his homecoming and started the gradual descent of his baseball life.
But, most importantly, it also positioned him to be exactly what he always aspired to be.
No, not the heir to Henry Aaron's home run title. Something that, to him, had always been far more important. Where once Junior spent his life in uniform, now it is his children who are on the athletic stage, and he's purposefully arranged his life to be there to support them and be a full-time father.
Fifteen years after engineering the deal that knocked the breath out of the baseball world, Griffey is smiling and breathing easy.
His oldest son, Trey, is 21 and a redshirt junior receiver on the University of Arizona football team.
His daughter, Taryn, 19, is a freshman on the University of Arizona women's basketball team, redshirting this season while recovering from knee surgery.
And son Tevin, 12, is preventing Junior and his wife, Melissa, from becoming empty-nesters anytime soon.
Griffey will make his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot later this year, surely a slam dunk for election. With 630 homers, he ranks sixth all time but should be fourth, behind Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660). Both Barry Bonds (762) and Alex Rodriguez (654), his former teammate in Seattle, have had their totals tainted by steroids.
Griffey, whose father played on the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, has never been suspected or accused of cheating. As he plowed through his mid- to late 30s, while some of his peers launched second stages of their careers as if by rocket booster, Griffey aged just like 30-somethings aged for decades before him. Imagine that.
Age exacerbated by persistent leg injuries robbed him of the run at Aaron many expected. It also prevented him from tossing his hometown Reds onto his back and carrying them toward champagne and ticker tape.
"I don't think about it," Griffey says now of the trade. "It happened, and we made the best of what we could."
Looking back, he says his decision to retire at age 40 in 2010 had more significance for himself and his family than the trade that occurred 10 years earlier. He said that's because his son Trey needed him more as a 16-year-old than he did when he was six.
"I came home pretty much at the right time when my boy needed me," Griffey said of his decision to retire. "We were able to talk, and he could express himself, and I could guide him through certain things. He needed his dad, and things worked out.
"I think the first go-round, at the time of the trade, I needed him more than he needed me."
Neither Gillick nor Bowden recalls exactly how many phone calls it took before the deal was completed Feb. 10, 2000, but one thing is clear: Gillick, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, inherited an extremely difficult situation.
The Mariners hired him in October 1999, and his first order of business was to handle Griffey's trade request.
"I wouldn't say I was shocked, but I was sort of surprised by Junior requesting a trade," Gillick, now senior adviser to the president and GM of the Phillies, says.
After all, Gillick said, Griffey had been the original No. 1 overall draft choice of the Mariners in 1987 and had played his entire career in Seattle.
"He had played in the Kingdome and then finally got into an outstanding facility midyear 1999, and I thought he probably would have wanted to play and finish his career with the Mariners," Gillick said, referring to the Mariners' move into Safeco Field.
The club had gotten itself into this predicament by calling up an 18-year-old kid named Alex Rodriguez for just 17 games before the strike in 1994. Because of his service time then and in '95 (48 games), both Junior and A-Rod were eligible for free agency following the 2000 season.
So the Mariners approached Griffey before the 1999 season asking whether he would entertain an offer for a contract extension.
By then, Griffey already had played in Seattle for 10 seasons and had been loyal to a fault, re-signing with Seattle instead of entering free agency. Now, when the Mariners made him an offer in May 1999, Griffey wasn't so sure, and it had nothing to do with the money.
He already was dreading the end of the summer when, for the first time, his family was going to leave early because Trey was entering kindergarten in Orlando.
Woody Woodward, the GM who preceded Gillick in Seattle, had famously said that he did not want to be remembered around town as the man who traded Ken Griffey.
Now, it was Gillick who was stuck.
He, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln flew to Orlando early that winter to try to convince Griffey to stay. No dice.
So Gillick became the point man in the trade talks, but he had little room to maneuver. Griffey had no-trade powers, giving him the leverage. And the list of clubs to which Griffey would agree to go was very small.
"In that situation, you probably can't expect to get value for him," Gillick says. "If you had 29 other clubs to work with, you could extract value. When you're limited to a couple of clubs, those teams are aware that they're in an elite group. They can basically not give you what he's worth."
Nevertheless, attempting to attain some type of leverage, Gillick briefly fished in waters that included clubs not on Griffey's approved list. Predictably, the tension escalated when Griffey's camp learned of this.
Bowden, now an analyst for MLB Network Radio and ESPN.com, said he knew he had Gillick backed into a corner. Under normal circumstances, he said, "This is not a deal Pat Gillick makes. ...He's not making this deal and saying, 'Oh, great!' for Seattle.
"That's why you have to understand the elements. This was about Junior wanting to go home. It was everybody doing the right thing."
Then and now, Junior never was altogether comfortable in the spotlight despite his status as one of the all-time greats and his quick wit and easy charm. He was even less comfortable as the center of attention 15 years ago as trade talks swirled and the moving trucks were ordered.
He took a beating publicly in Seattle. Then, as the injuries mounted, things weren't so red hot in Cincinnati, either. All 10 of his Gold Gloves and all seven of his Silver Slugger awards came when he was with the Mariners. Of his seven top-10 MVP finishes, including winning the American League award in 1997, none came after the trade to Cincinnati.
"He was never the same player he was in Seattle," says Hal McCoy, the longtime Hall of Fame beat writer for the Dayton Daily News. "He was pretty damn good, but he wasn't the same Ken Griffey Jr., and the fans held it against him. It turned out that you either loved Ken Griffey or hated Ken Griffey; there was nothing in-between."
And always, there has been this incredibly sensitive side to Griffey. Over the years, he heard the boos. Felt the pain. Picked himself up, rubbed dirt on it and kept moving forward.
So whatever was happening in his professional life, good, bad or painful, he was determined to be there for his own children. So it was that little Trey's Pop Warner football team in Orlando had perhaps the only team photographer who doubled as a major league All-Star.
"I've been taking pictures at Trey's games since he was seven," Griffey says. "Now, because he's in college, people see it.
"I enjoy photography. It's a lot of fun. It keeps me on my P's and Q's and, when you think about it, most people think photography is just going to a game. But you start to think, dang, that would be a good picture. Or you're driving along and see something and think, 'that would be nice.'"
In Tucson, where the Griffeys purchased a home four years ago when Trey became a Wildcat, it is not uncommon for Ken to ask a fellow football or basketball parent for an email address.
"My biggest thrill is, if I get a great picture of a kid, I give the picture to the kid's parents," he says. "I know people who come to games and charge for pictures of the child. But I got a couple pictures last year of a kid in midair making tackles, and..."
And he couldn't wait to get the shot to the kid's parents.
"He's been a great dad," Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez says. "He's been extremely supportive since Trey has been here. The nice part is, and I've told Ken and his wife this, is that there is no sense of entitlement with Trey. He's as hard-working of a kid as we have in our program. He's a great teammate, and he's earning everything he's getting."
The urgency on the other end of Bowden's line shortly after he arrived for those winter meetings in December 1999 in Anaheim, California, was unmistakable.
Here was a guy who loved making the big splash as a GM and who had been enamored with Griffey for years. Loved his five-tool skills. Loved his swag, the whole backward baseball cap thing. Phoned the Mariners every winter after taking over as Cincinnati GM in '92, pestering them about Griffey's availability. And Ken Griffey Sr. had played for and was working with the Reds.
Now, as the winter of 1999-2000 dawned, he was so close to his holy grail.
"When the airplane took off from Cincinnati for the winter meetings, I knew there was a 99.9 percent chance we were getting Ken Griffey Jr.," Bowden says. "When we landed at John Wayne Airport, there was a Los Angeles Times in the backseat of the limo, and the headline of an article written by Ross Newhan was that I came to Southern California to get Griffey, not Goofy.
"Now, understand, I was a young GM with a little bit of swag sitting there reading that article, feeling really good. We had won 96 games the year before. I was about to trade for Ken Griffey Jr., and how cool is this? I'm riding the most ridiculous high possible."
Then his cell phone rang ("bigger cell back then, by the way," Bowden quips) as the limo pulled into the parking lot of the winter meetings hotel. It was Cincinnati CEO John Allen.
"I need you to pull out of the Griffey talks," Bowden remembers Allen saying. "I've talked to our owner, and we don't have the money. You have to take the full hit. You cannot blame it on me or ownership. You have to be convincing to everybody there that this is a baseball decision."
"You talk about deflation," Bowden says. "You may as well be in a hot air balloon and somebody pops it. You talk about the highest high and the lowest low."
For the next two months, Bowden worked doggedly to convince Allen and Carl Lindner, then the Reds' owner, to do the deal. Griffey had made clear that he would take less money to play in Cincinnati. And it didn't hurt Bowden's cause that it had become so public. Fans in Cincinnati wanted Griffey. Badly.
Then, in early February, working from his spring training office in Sarasota, Florida, Bowden got the call from Allen: Ownership had given the green light to make a deal.
"Everybody was trying to make this work," Bowden says. "We tried to give them quality back, but we knew we didn't have to overpay."
In the end, the Reds sent outfielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Brett Tomko, infielder Antonio Perez and a minor league pitcher named Jake Meyer to Seattle for Griffey.
Cameron would play a key role in one of the greatest Mariners seasons ever, the 116-win summer of 2001—which came, ironically, not only two years after Griffey's departure, but the season after A-Rod left. Griffey, true to his word, would sign a nine-year, $116.5 million deal that was a bargain for the Reds.
The procession to the introductory press conference in Cincinnati was not unlike that of a presidential motorcade. Lindner, then 80, sent his private plane to pick up Griffey, his family and Bowden from the Sarasota airport, then personally chauffeured Griffey from the Cincinnati airport to Riverfront Stadium in his Rolls-Royce. A limousine for Griffey's family followed, as did another limo for Bowden's family. News helicopters hovered overhead. The whole thing was live on the local news.
"Biggest press conference I ever saw in Cincinnati," McCoy says. "The room was absolutely stuffed with people. Every member of the front office was there. Tremendous headlines. Everybody was ecstatic that Junior was coming home.
"I'll never forget: Jim Bowden stood up and the first thing he said was, 'Baseball is back in Cincinnati.' Which raised some eyebrows, because everybody said, 'Where's it been?' In 1999, the Reds had tied for the NL Wild Card and had a one-game playoff with the Mets, which they lost mostly because of pitching. Steve Parris was the starting pitcher.
"There was one guy in town who was not very happy, and that was [former Reds manager] Jack McKeon. He said, 'We needed pitching, we didn't need hitting.'"
From his home in North Carolina, McKeon, now a special assistant to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, essentially shrugs over the telephone. That first year, 2000, the Reds went 85-77, finished second in the division and McKeon was replaced by Bob Boone that fall.
"That was the consensus among everybody," McKeon says of wanting pitching instead of hitting. "But you can't argue that you were getting a potential Hall of Famer. We had the hitting that year, it was just a question of needing the pitching. But what the hell, I wasn't in on the decision. There was no question, it was a good PR move."
Griffey was entering his age-30 season, and before long, the toll of all those years playing on the cement disguised as the Kingdome's artificial turf in Seattle began to appear in his legs. Hamstrings. Groin.
Though he played in 145 games in 2000 and finished with 40 homers and 118 RBI, the next four seasons he played in only 111, 70, 53 and 83 games, respectively. The Reds couldn't pick him up, sinking toward the bottom of the division.
Or, perhaps more accurately, they wouldn't pick him up. Of the two primary reasons he signed such a cut-rate deal to come home, the second, after his family, was this: Griffey did not want to eat up so much of the overall payroll that the Reds couldn't field talent around him. He wanted to win.
That didn't happen.
"Everybody knows that the Reds' higher-ups above the baseball people misled Junior and I about the team that would be put around him," Brian Goldberg, Griffey's agent, says. "Junior was smart enough that when people figured it out and asked him about it, he wouldn't take the bait.
"Not because he wasn't misled. But the reason Junior wouldn't say it is because he knew people wouldn't look at what he said so much as who said it because of his injuries."
Says Wayne Krivsky, the former Reds GM (2006-2008), "It was a pleasure to get to know him and be around him. I wish we could have had a little more pitching. It would have been a real nice story had he come home and the team went on to win the World Series. But it wasn't to be."
The excitement, the packed press conference, the giddy anticipation...it all evaporated into ice bags, missed time and team underperformance during Griffey's eight-and-a-half years in Cincinnati. And it was a bumpy ride much of the time.
In the spring of 2001, ex-Reds Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young bitterly blamed the Reds' deteriorating clubhouse chemistry on the acquisition of Griffey.
"Once Junior got there, the team broke off into cliques," Young told Booth Newspapers of Michigan that spring.
More than a decade later, Young regrets those words.
"I love the guy now," Young says. "But when we were together, I had never played with a superstar before, a guy who even people outside of baseball know. There would be times he would be doing things for EA Sports or MLB and he wasn't out there for batting practice. Guys take that personal, like is he too good for this?
"After playing with Pudge Rodriguez [in Detroit], I got an understanding that this guy is representing MLB and being pulled every which way."
Young continues: "He was totally different than he was portrayed. He was very down to earth. You take cameras away, he was like your neighbor. Over the years, that's what I learned about him. The things I said back then, I wish I could take back."
When Griffey was inducted into the Reds' Hall of Fame last August, Young was there. And the two of them spent their time together mostly talking about their children.
"A lot of things were said early, guys who never met me, and they had been together when I came in," Griffey says. "You understand that. I understand that. I love Dmitri to death. It happened 15 years ago. It was an adjustment for everybody."
Without the injuries, Bowden is sure Griffey would own the record book by now.
"He would be the only 800-home run hitter in baseball history today," Bowden says. "And the one thing you know about Junior too: He didn't take any PEDs. No chance. Zero chance. We're talking about the highest-quality person. He played the game the right way."
Says Young: "You know what? He even got injured the right way. Meaning, during that era, people were taking stuff and other people were turning a blind eye. Junior was on the field busting his butt to play and freaks of nature happened. He got injured. He never traded in his integrity for self-promotion, so to speak."
His numbers still hang from the rafters in the all-time hall of greats. But, oh, what might have been.
"As people would vent their frustration, I was the one who would have to live with it," Griffey says. "People would be upset because they wanted to see me play. I went out there and played as hard as I could because that's the only way I know how to play.
"If I didn't dive for that ball, what would they say? If I didn't run into a wall, what would they say? That's the only way I knew how to play. Injuries are a part of the game. If you play hard, you're going to get hurt. My dad said, 'If you get hurt playing hard, what can you say? Nothing. But if you get hurt lollygagging, you're always going to have that in the back of your mind.'"
These are some of the values he tried to drive home with his own kids during those homecoming years. And as his greatness began to ebb, it was his family that provided cover as the tough times became more frequent.
Like spending all day rehabilitating an injury, then going to watch a friend play softball at 8 p.m., with sports radio callers then ripping him for daring to attend a softball game when he should be rehabbing.
Who rehabs 24 hours a day?
"It happened and it's over, and I'm in a great spot," says Griffey, now employed by the Mariners as a special consultant to the franchise.
Yes, even after the trade, both Griffey and Goldberg have maintained their close friendship with members of Seattle's front office and ownership.
"I don't dwell on the past and never really have," Griffey continues. "I try to keep moving forward. It is what it is. I'm with the Mariners, and that's it."
Now, the roar of the crowd neither sends Griffey's mind scurrying down memory lane nor wallowing in the depression that floods so many athletes when their time in the arena is finished.
Because, normally, Ken and Melissa are too busy texting to even notice the crowd. If one of them is in the stands for Trey's football game and the other is watching on television at home, as soon as Trey trots onto the field, the text is sent from the stadium: "He's in."
"That means he's in for this series," Griffey says. "So no matter what we're doing, if I'm home watching on TV, she'll text me so I know ahead of time that he's in. They've got some pretty good wide receivers, so all of them take turns."
Trey caught 31 passes for 405 yards and one touchdown last fall for a Wildcats team that went 10-4 (7-2 in the Pac-12). He also got some time on special teams.
Junior made 12 of the 14 games, and even with Taryn redshirting (she's expected to be fully healed and ready for next season), he's made six of the women's basketball team's games. Plus practices.
"Our practices are open, and he's always welcome, but he still always asks if it's OK to come," Arizona women's basketball coach Niya Butts says. "Again, he doesn't come off as a giant figure. He could probably walk in any building and nobody would question anything. But he doesn't just assume he has jurisdiction."
Both Wildcats coaches, Rodriguez and Butts, enjoy having him around.
"He's here probably more than I see," Rodriguez says. "He doesn't come up and bother anybody.
"I talked about Trey with him the last time I saw him, and that's probably the first time I've talked about Trey with him in two years. Normally, that's all you talk about with parents. I wanted to tell him how proud he should be, that there's no sense of entitlement, that as a dad you should be proud."
With Tevin playing football and baseball and participating in taekwondo at home in Orlando, keeping up with the children is practically a full-time job. Griffey has the flight schedules between Orlando and Tucson memorized, to the point where he can tell you exactly which flights change to which times when daylight saving time occurs (Arizona remains the only state in the continental U.S. not to observe this).
Which is more difficult, hitting a Randy Johnson fastball or being in all of the places he'd like to be for the kids?
"The second one," Griffey says, chuckling.
Clearly, among the things he needs right now are good legs, and yes, they've healed nicely from all of those late-career strains, pulls and tears. He rides his bicycle outdoors and says he covered 1,100 miles last year. When his inquisitive mind wants to know more about gear situations and other bike-related issues, he phones his friend Barry Bonds, who rides religiously.
He obtained his pilot's license several years ago and pilots his single-engine SR-22 Turbo Cirrus (complete with a parachute) to business functions (he owns car dealerships in South Carolina) and, sometimes, to Atlanta and Cincinnati for baseball commitments. He also travels throughout the Mariners' minor league system during the summer working with prospects.
He was named as an American Public Diplomacy Envoy in 2008 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, in that capacity, held baseball camps last year in Cuba and Mexico City. He mixes in lots of golf, he's served on the national board of directors for the Boys & Girls Club for 14 years, and his calendar is filled with charity events—Derek Jeter's Turn 2 Foundation golf tournament in Las Vegas in March, Joe Carter's event in Toronto in June and Bo Jackson's bicycle ride, Bo Bikes Bama, on May 2.
"If I believe in the cause, I'm going to show up," he says. "Because not everyone has been as fortunate as we've been to play professional sports. Some kids just need a fighting chance."
Plus, Bo Bikes Bama is at the perfect time, coming a week before Trey and Taryn are due home from Arizona. As Griffey says, May 9 is "shutoff day," when his world stops for the few weeks his kids will be home between seasons and semesters.
Yeah, this is Ken Griffey Jr., full circle, 15 years later. Maybe one day he'll pull a baseball uniform back on in some capacity, but it's difficult to see that day right now. As he says, if Trey winds up playing on Sundays in the NFL, and if Taryn winds up playing in the WNBA or overseas, "Mama's going to veto me having a job because she's going to want to see her babies."
Truth is, it ain't just mama. Even during the bad days in Cincinnati, when injuries kept him in the clubhouse or the losses were keeping him down, Griffey always brightened up at the mention of his kids.
Practically a lifetime later—at least, in the life of an athlete—his children who led him to engineer the controversial trade continue to flourish around him.
Last game of the Arizona football season this year, a 38-30 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, Griffey's eyes trailed Trey on the field as his son found the senior Wildcats, one by one, and administered a hug to each of them.
"For me, that was one of the most impressive things to watch, because he knew it was the last time he would walk on the field and be with them," Griffey says. "I was looking at him, I don't think he saw me, and I thought, 'Oh, that's nice.'
"That is nice."
This from a man who knows full well the emotions of goodbyes and new beginnings. Fame for fatherhood? That's a trade Griffey would gladly make all over again.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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