Injuries only obstacle standing in Griffey#039;s way

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 22, 2004

ST. LOUIS - If only Ken Griffey Jr. can avoid the injury bug, maybe the next 100 home runs will come a lot easier than the end of his trudge to 500.

That, of course, is a huge if for Junior.

''Knock on wood, he stays healthy,'' manager Dave Miley said. ''He's swinging the bat well, he feels good and that's probably as big a key as anything for him.''

Email newsletter signup

The Cincinnati Reds' star, who on Sunday at 34 became the sixth youngest player to reach the milestone by which sluggers are measured, once was on a fast track to chase down Hank Aaron's record of 755 homers. He was the youngest to reach 350 homers and to reach 400 and 450.

Perhaps the best player of the 1990s, he led the American League in homers three straight years, from 1997 to 1999, and won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1990 to 1999.

Then injuries began taking their toll. He missed more than a month with a torn hamstring that bothered him throughout the 2001 season, spent two long stints on the 15-day disabled list with a torn patella tendon and a torn right hamstring in 2002, then went to the DL twice again in 2003 for a dislocated right shoulder and torn ankle tendon.

The ankle injury ended his season on July 18, limiting him to only 53 games.

After those three lost years, in which he averaged 73 games and 14 homers a season, he entered this year a big question mark.

So far, though, the pressure of No. 500 has been the only thing slowing down Junior. He's among the major league leaders with 19 homers and on pace for 45, more like the old Griffey. And now that that has passed with his sixth-inning shot off Matt Morris, only his second homer since June 6, those closest to him are anticipating more vintage production.

The Reds wrap up a six-game trip with three games in New York starting Tuesday.

''He'll be a lot more relaxed now,'' Ken Griffey Sr. said. ''I'm just thinking about him staying healthy and seeing what happens after that.

''If he stays healthy the next six or seven years, there's no telling.''

In the four seasons preceding his three injury-riddled years, Griffey averaged 50 homers and 137 RBIs. Without all of his woes, he might have reached 500 two years ago.

''An achievement like that deserves a lot of credit and a lot of respect,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ''He has missed a lot of at-bats, or he would have been there sooner.''

But there's no looking back, only forward.

Griffey has no regrets, because his injuries have come from his aggressive style of play. He was injured running the bases in 2001, hurt his knee in a rundown in 2002, and last year he dislocated his shoulder while diving for a ball in April and then hurt his ankle legging out a double in July.

And he could still have several productive years ahead. Barry Bonds hit 73 homers at age 37 in 2001 and Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999, the latter year at age 36.

''I don't worry about the time that I missed,'' he said. ''When you play hard and you get hurt, that's one thing. If I would have done it doing something else, then I could say 'What if?'

''I go out there with one goal, and that's to play as hard as I can. If that means running into a wall, I'll run into a wall. If that means dive, I'll dive. That's just how I was raised, to go out there and play 100 percent and whatever happens, happens.''

Griffey learned this style of play from his dad, a staple of the Big Red Machine of the 1970s but hardly a slugger. Ken Griffey Sr. hit only 152 career homers in 19 seasons.

''That's the person I wanted to be like,'' Griffey Jr. said. ''He was my hero growing up and he's the one that taught me how to play and is still telling me how to play.

''He's there when I need him and sometimes when I don't, but he's always going to be a dad.''

Griffey Sr. accompanied his son during most of the quest and watched from a box seat adjacent to the Reds' dugout when Junior belted a 2-2 fastball from Matt Morris over the right field wall leading off the sixth inning on Sunday.

''I'm glad it's out of the way,'' Griffey Sr. said. ''I just enjoyed every minute of it.''

Junior said he and his dad had plenty of conversations the last few weeks.

''Mainly, just pick out a pitch you can hit,'' Griffey said. ''Still get your base hits, that's the main thing. And as long as you get your base hits, one of them will fly out.

''That's the one thing he said he was proud of, that I didn't look like I was going up there thinking about hitting 500.''