News: Junior Achievement

Cincinnati baseball fans, long snubbed and toyed with by Major League officials, have the last laugh with the Griffey trade

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All is whole again! A great miracle has occurred before our very eyes! The son of a proud warrior for our cause, born in the birthplace of his father and raised by our hand, disciplined by the dangers and victories of his campaigns abroad, a prince, is returning to save our city! Behold, the second coming of Ken Griffey Jr.!

Hear, ye! Hear, ye! The prince heard the call of his homeland in distress, extricated himself from his captors, declined more lucrative opportunities in other lands and returned to our rescue! He has made us proud and hopeful! He has lifted our hearts and restored our shifting cosmos! He has made us again what we truly are, a baseball-loving people!

Oh, God! The joy of it all! Are we not a chosen people? A people of destiny! Are the origins of our people and the origins of professional baseball not one and the same? Were we not raised on the same ground?

And, yet, the lords have forsaken us, insulted us, demoralized us! They have turned against us, destroyed our comforts, compromised our traditions and exiled our people!

The lords have condemned our greatest warrior, the Hit King, to infamy! They have forbidden his entrance to the Pantheon! They have defiled our worship, the festival of the Opening Day! They have intrigued to cast out Marge Schott, born and bred within our walls! They have enraged us by canceling a World Series for their own demented purposes! And they have stacked the rules against our people, so the price of the best players is more than we can pay!

Or so they thought! For a great warrior prince is returning to rescue our city! And our moment has come! We are resolved not merely to accept baseball, but to reclaim it! Are we not a people of destiny?

Are we not a people of singular virtue? Are we not precisely the people who have raised a prince with the strength and ferocity to conquer in all lands, all the while remembering fondly his bonds with us and returning to our side in this time of distress? Does this not show our decency and loyalty for all the world to see? And this can only happen to us, because of what and who we are!

The greatest players will be our people! We are back!

Stripped to its barest baseball elements, the Ken Griffey Jr. deal means the Reds have added a slugger to their batting order in exchange for nothing they will miss. This, in itself, is not a tiny matter — provided you're a baseball fan.

But the Reds have played that incredible story routinely under Jim Bowden's influence, and it's no longer very suspenseful. One way or another, given a tiny bit of rope, he'll pull Kevin Mitchell or Ron Gant off the scrapheap, or he'll trade players he doesn't want for Greg Vaughn or Dante Bichette.

Inevitably, the slugger comes through, the Reds rush into contention and it's shown that the club from the little market can find competitive players just by being a bit smarter and more resourceful. It's always a wonderful story.

But it's not a wonder in which the people of Cincinnati have often shared. For five years leading up to the final day of the 1999 season, the Reds and Cincinnati endured a painful estrangement, due largely to the Reds' unfortunate association with Major League Baseball, that angry destroyer of Cincinnatians and their comforts.

Today, those wounds are healing. For now and for years to come, the Reds' acquisition of Junior is the feel good story of the century. The real beauty of the story, though, isn't any particular manner of interpretation, but the varieties of interpretation it invites.

All over the country, people are struggling with the meaning of Griffey's transfer to the Reds. In some corners, Griffey has emerged in a time of increasing rancor toward dissolute pro athletes to take a big pay cut and return home, making his baseball and personal lives whole while giving a small market club a fighting chance.

Under that light, Griffey is a precious exemplar of traditional values. In other corners, though, he's been a petulant child, manipulating his rights in such a way as to force his former club, the Seattle Mariners, to bloody itself with a bad deal.

The trade certainly is Bowden's masterpiece, but he had plenty of help. Mariners Chairman Howard Lincoln, by some accounts, moved the deal along by telling his people to get the matter finished. At the press conference, Lincoln said there are times in baseball, as in life, when it's just time to move on. How true.

The only interpretation that's patently absurd has been pushed via WLW-AM and, of all places, the morning paper. Both have attempted to paint the Griffey trade as an act of selfless heroism by Reds owner Carl Lindner, as if Griffey's pursuit of Henry Aaron in Cincinnati for less than $13 million per season weren't an outrageous bargain. If anything, Lindner's reticence to deal for Griffey over salary makes one worry that he'll have no inclination to deal in July for that one player who can put the Reds over the top.

That said, Reds fans gave Lindner real cause for concern last season, when they largely ignored an enchanted ball club that won 96 games. Surely, though, he could have predicted that if there were any cure for the baseball malaise in Cincinnati, it must have been Griffey.

And that's the happiest and most beautiful interpretation of this story. The way the Reds have been drawing, it's entirely plausible that, with all its implications for local pride and baseball history, Griffey's arrival was the one and only event that could have reconciled the Reds with their fan base. And it was the player, of all people, who cheerfully waved off $50 million in future earnings and played every card in his hand to make it happen.

And if Griffey didn't worry too much about helping the Mariners get their best deal for him, neither did he worry much about getting the best deal for himself. Of all the local parties in this trade, only Griffey made any kind of a real trade-off. By signing a nine-year deal in Cincinnati, he has already made his legend, regardless of how his career turns from this day forward.

A newcomer to Cincinnati 15 years ago found a society of baseball fans: References to the Reds were on every corner; the Reds came up easily in conversation; the walls in living rooms hung Reds memorabilia; your host might pull out an album of Waite Hoyt rain delay stories; and 30,000 people went to the ball park regularly. One could feel the Reds on his skin, like the sun or the wind.

But the last 10 years have been cruel. Local hero Pete Rose was discredited and banished, soon to be followed by Marge Schott, though not before she mismanaged the club into a stupor. Baseball sold out Cincinnati's treasured Opening Day tradition for cable television money. And Cincinnatians have been slower than most to forget their outrage at the 1994 players strike.

Local fans have been hurt and angered by all of this. The ball park on the riverfront lost all of its electricity. Cincinnatians kept the Reds at arm's length. Increasingly, in the birthplace of professional baseball, the natives disparaged professional baseball. Many, who went so far as to say they would never buy a ticket for another Major League game, have been true to their word.

Today, a lot of those people are standing in line for tickets at Cinergy Field. They're buying tickets because the best player in the game has shown them loyalty and made them feel like they matter.

Ken Griffey Jr., almost by himself, has returned Cincinnatians to the love of baseball that had become their forgotten heritage. Here's hoping they enjoy the game.

SPORTS is sports, in this space every week. Contact Bill at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., #617, Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail him at [email protected]

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