Not a happy home

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 20, 2003

CINCINNATI - As an entire city went giddy, Ken Griffey Jr. slipped on a Cincinnati Reds' cap and explained why he had come home.

''It's where you'll be happy, and Cincinnati is the place I thought I'd be happy,'' Griffey said, a few hours after the Reds got him from Seattle in a 4-for-1 trade in February 2000.

On that evening full of promise, the all-century outfielder was convinced things would work out in his hometown. After all, he had grown up with the Big Red Machine, darting through famous players in the clubhouse.

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His father was a star on those title teams. His family was still in town. Fans were in love with the idea that he passed up millions of dollars to make the move. It seemed a perfect place to finish a Hall of Fame career.

Instead of happiness, he's found horror.

Griffey is out for the season after tearing a tendon in his right ankle, his sixth major injury during his four years in Cincinnati. Fans wish the Reds could trade a 33-year-old player who has been little more than a strain on the payroll for four years.

They've hardly known the Junior who wore his cap backward and seemed ready to topple the record books on the West Coast.

''They've seen him on TV when he was in Seattle,'' said shortstop Barry Larkin, his closest friend on the team. ''Ever since he was here, it's been one thing after another.

''I know the people here are disappointed in the fact that he's injured and he's unable to do some of the things he's capable of doing. The fans are frustrated, and I know the organization is frustrated. He's doing what he can.''

Fans got a brief glimpse of it his first season, when he hit 40 homers and drove in 118 runs. They also got a glimpse of what was to come - he tore a hamstring near the end of the season.

It was the start of a mind-numbing series of injuries for a player who was a mainstay in the lineup during his 11 seasons at Seattle. The next spring training, he tore the hamstring again while rounding a base.

It was the same in 2002, when he tore a tendon in his knee during the first week of the season and later tore his other hamstring. This year, he dislocated his right shoulder while trying to make a diving catch in the first week. After a 5 1/2-week layoff, he returned and tore a tendon in his right ankle, sending him back to surgery on Friday.

It always seems to be something.

''He's older than he was when he was at his superstar height,'' said Dr. Timothy Kremchek, who operated on Griffey. ''I think with every athlete that's played on turf and has a pounding day to day, we see the muscles break down.

''But I think a lot of it is bad luck. I think there's a lot of bad luck involved.''

At first, the club thought Griffey merely needed to intensify his offseason workouts, paying closer attention to keeping his legs strong. He did that, and has still gotten hurt in strange ways.

Few athletes fall so far, so fast.

''It's like with Grant Hill or Albert Belle,'' general manager Jim Bowden said. ''There are some things in this game you just can't control. Injuries are one of them.''

Griffey has started an average of only 82 games a season in Cincinnati. After those 40 homers in his first season back home, Griffey has hit a total of 43 in the last three.

Even when he played, he was usually only a faint impression of the old Junior. He often held back when he ran, trying to prevent another leg injury. His swing was out of whack because of all of the time on the disabled list and the lingering effects of his latest injury.

It sapped him of what made him special.

''Injuries do change us as players,'' said Larkin, who also has struggled with muscle injuries the last few years. ''It affects our mind-set, what we're doing and how we try to protect ourselves. I don't think anyone's the same player that they were before the injury.''

Griffey was batting .247 with 13 homers and 26 RBIs in 53 games before he was injured.

There's a growing unease that Griffey may never be the same again. The Reds tried to cut their losses in the offseason, working out a deal with San Diego, but Phil Nevin blocked it by invoking his no-trade clause.

Now, they're probably stuck with him for five more years - a huge drain on a small-market budget. He'll get $12.5 million per year, with $6.5 million of that deferred with interest until after he completes his $116.5 million deal.

It's not all about the money.

During his first three seasons, the moody outfielder developed a persona in his hometown: the reserved superstar who liked the trappings of celebrity but not spotlight that came with it.

He bristled at fans' criticism and the media's attention. He stewed when former Reds players said his special treatment by management disrupted the team chemistry that carried the Reds to 96 victories the year before he arrived.

Bowden's quiet attempt to trade him last December left him ruffled. When Griffey arrived for spring training, he said little to reporters and was cool toward Bowden and manager Bob Boone, who had tried to persuade Nevin to accept the trade.

Then he started playing like his days in Seattle, running down fly balls with abandon and lashing line drives during spring training games. He also seemed to give up his grudges.

Teammates sensed a change.

''This year in spring training, I felt he was finally comfortable with being in Cincinnati and finally comfortable with this organization and this team,'' first baseman Sean Casey said. ''I think Griff just felt this was a good fit for him.

''I know people get on Griff, but there's nobody more frustrated about what's happened these past few years than him. He's played so many years injury-free, and now he's had these injuries.''

He got jeered from the stands when he dislocated his shoulder while trying to make a diving catch at Great American Ball Park on April 5. He got booed when he limped off the field Thursday night after completely tearing a tendon in his right ankle while running the bases.

Some fans feel sympathy, others enmity. All agree that Griffey's homecoming has been one remarkable disappointment.

''Maybe he's cursed by Cincinnati,'' said contractor Bob Duenne.