- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A white Washington Nationals jersey with the No. 24 and “Swingman” embroidered on the back hung in a locker inside the clubhouse at RFK Stadium yesterday. Given that this was the visiting clubhouse, the shirt looked somewhat out of place.

In a way, so did its owner. Cincinnati Reds center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. usually can’t be found hanging around any clubhouse this deep into the season, at least not lately. Griffey said he won the jersey, bearing his old number and the name of his shoe brand, in an unspecified bet with an unnamed Nationals player.

That Griffey was around to collect, play center field and hit the way he used to and just sit and smile in front of his locker at this point feels like a new experience — for himself, his team, his fans and anyone else who missed him during a big chunk of the last four years.

After wrecking his hamstring a year ago, yet another serious injury that ruined yet another season, Junior Griffey, 35, is fit and healthy again. He is a serious contender for National League comeback player of the year, which no one wants to win because the winner had to be someplace he didn’t want to be. But if it happened, it would stand as perhaps his most significant achievement.

“It’s about time,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said. “It’s about time for things to go right for him. Everyone should feel good about this. It’s been fun to watch because it’s been so frustrating for him the last four years and frustrating for us to watch him. It’s just a feel-good story.”

There is no public reflection from Griffey on the nature of the struggle, no self-congratulation for his accomplishment. Why should there be if there was no self-pity before? He almost always has downplayed everything about himself, including and especially his talent. So what if his right hamstring tore away from the bone as he made a sliding catch against San Francisco last Aug. 4, the day he started in right field for the first time? So what if he had to undergo two hours of surgery, three titanium screws and countless hours of excruciating rehabilitation?

“No different from any of the other ones,” he said of his rehab. “What you put into it is what you get out of it. You go into it with the mind-set of, ‘I’m gonna give 100 percent, or I’m not gonna be back.’ My mind-set is this is my career. This is what I do.”

Griffey had been through this sort of thing before. Since 2000, he has torn his right hamstring twice (not counting the big injury) and his left once. He ripped an ankle tendon and a patella tendon and dislocated his shoulder. Voted baseball’s player of the 1990s and the youngest member of the All-Century team, Griffey put up unreal numbers, made dazzling catches and shared the Seattle Mariners outfield with his father. With 438 home runs after the 2000 season, his first in Cincinnati, he figured to have a real shot to break Hank Aaron’s career record.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he would have broken it had he stayed healthy,” said Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who, as the Reds’ GM, acquired Griffey from Seattle. “This guy was one of the greatest players in the game, along the lines of Barry Bonds. And he got hurt.”

Griffey played in 145 games, hit 40 homers and drove in 118 runs in 2000. Then everything fell apart. He had been seriously hurt only once before, missing all but 72 games for Seattle in 1995 because of a fractured wrist. But from 2001 through 2004, he played in just 317 of a possible 648 games for the Reds. He never exceeded more than 111 games in a season.

“People think I left the game,” he said. “I’ve just been hurt. It’s one of those things that happened. I just go out and do what I’m supposed to do, and if I didn’t love the game I wouldn’t return. That’s the one thing I have. I love baseball, and I want to be part of it.”

Last night’s game was No. 117 for Griffey this year. He has missed just nine. He is hitting .294 with 29 home runs and 85 RBI, on pace for his highest batting average since 1997 and his most homers and RBI since 2000. No wonder he was in a good mood, bantering with reporters. But even during the sour times, when he was booed and criticized by Reds fans, he maintained a sunny disposition inside the clubhouse.

The optimism warded off the frustrations. But there was more to it, a molten resolve bubbling underneath.

“He kept persevering,” Casey said. “The toughest thing was when people were bashing him, when he wasn’t even playing.”

“Junior has an incredible ability to focus at the time that he needs to be able to focus,” said former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who works as a special assistant to Bowden. “That’s the thing that makes Junior Junior.

“He’s not ever physically gonna be where he was. He has to adjust his game and do well with what he has. Whether it’s his hamstring or his shoulder or whatever, he’s made adjustments in his approach.”

And yet, despite the good health and production and the “feel-good” nature of the story, the trade rumors hang in the air like a pop fly that stays up forever. Griffey and his big salary ($12.5 million a year, much of it deferred) to the Chicago White Sox was the latest. Chicago media and fans clamored for the deal, which reportedly was quashed by Reds CEO Carl Lindner. Griffey supposedly has cleared waivers, which would facilitate a trade. The deadline is Aug. 31. Who knows?

Not Griffey, who has the right to veto any deal. He sits in front of his locker, his new Nationals jersey hanging above, and remains blissfully oblivious to the chatter.

“I play baseball,” he said. “Ownership has yet to talk to me. I’m a Red. OK? That’s it.”

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