EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey.
CINCINNATI — When Brian Goldberg decided to help up a fellow University of Cincinnati student back in 1978, he had no idea it would change his life and further down the road lead to probably the biggest transaction in Reds history.
It was 1978. Goldberg was fresh out of Walnut Hills High School in his first quarter of classes at UC. He saw a familiar face among the students in one of his classes: Ken Griffey Sr.
Goldberg met Griffey after the class. Nine years later, Goldberg would be the agent of Griffey’s son, Ken Jr. Skip ahead another 13 years, and Goldberg would be instrumental in the trade that brought Junior to the Reds.
His latest duty: Help prepare Junior’s Hall of Fame speech to be delivered Sunday in Cooperstown.
But back to that chance meeting.
“It was Intro to Interpersonal Communications. The second week of classes was the first time I saw him,” Goldberg said. “It made sense: The Reds had ended the season the week before. It took me a while to recognize him.
“I was a big baseball fan, but it wasn’t like I had to go up to him and talk. No one really recognized him. There were about 30 people in the class. After class, he walked out and was looking around. He looked kind of lost.
“I went up to him because I could see he didn’t have the book. So I said, ‘Hey, man, are you looking for the bookstore?’ He said, ‘As matter of fact, I am.’ I walked him over to the bookstore, and when I got there, he said thanks and stuck out his hand.
“He said, ‘What did you say your name is?’ I said, ‘I’m Brian.’ He goes, ‘Well, I’m George.’
"I looked at him and he said, ‘You who I am?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘My real name is George. If people recognize me, fine, but don’t pass it around.’”
The seeds of friendship were planted.
‘He’s going to get picked high’
The relationship continued after Goldberg graduated from UC and went on to law school at the University of Toledo. Griffey was with the New York Yankees by then, and Goldberg would travel to Detroit or Cleveland to see him play.
Goldberg had lunch with Griffey in Detroit shortly before he graduated from law school. Goldberg had secured a job with a small law firm in Cincinnati, and he was thinking about getting into the agent business as well. He summoned the nerve to ask Griffey for some help.
“I was going to ask him if he could introduce me to some minor-league players next spring training and show me around. Maybe I could carve out a side career as an agent,” Goldberg said. “I was getting ready to ask him, and he must have sensed it. He said, ‘Hey, Brian aren’t you graduating in a month? You’re what, 25, single, no kids? In your spare time, why don’t you let me introduce you to some people in baseball and next spring training come and hang with me.’
“He totally took it off my shoulders.”
That was 1985. Goldberg started representing players in the spring of ’86.
“I didn’t really entertain anyone after I signed with Brian. For me, it was how loyal he was. I’m not a needy person. I don’t need to be handheld and things like that. From Day 1, Brian let me be me. I think a lot of agents out there don’t let their players be who they are.
— Ken Griffey Jr.
It was about that time that Ken Jr. was building a reputation as quite a player himself at Moeller High School. Goldberg was about to get the client that changed his life.
Senior has been represented by Tom Reich, one of the better known agents at the time.
“I didn’t want to step on any toes,” Goldberg said, “but Junior seemed to like me. I watched him play. He was going to ask if he’s picked high if there’s any chance I could represent him. The same thing happened. Senior says to me: ‘Hey, Brian, I’m leaving for spring training in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you come over at the house and have dinner, and we’ll talk about some things.’
“So I go over the house for dinner maybe in mid-February. Senior says, ‘Tom Reich has done a good job for me. You’re not stepping on his toes. He’s on to the younger guys. I really don’t feel bad about this. Junior likes you. The scouts have been coming over. He’s going to get picked high. I don’t know how high. You know I don’t get to see him play because I’m still playing.’”
When Senior did get to see Junior play, Junior did not play well. That may have kept father from knowing how good his son was. Griffey was the No. 1 pick overall in the 1987 draft.
The first thing Goldberg negotiated for Griffey was the $189,000 signing bonus he got from the Seattle Mariners.
No. 1 picks don’t always pan out, and, in the case of high-schoolers, rarely quickly. Griffey was the exception. He made the Mariners in spring training of 1989 as a 19-year-old. By 1990, he was an All-Star. By 1993, there was talk than he was the best player in the game.
A Seattle teammate famously said high school cost Junior four years of service time.
Griffey’s smile, style of play and skill set made him one of the games most recognizable stars. Endorsements poured in. Griffey became the face of Nike’s baseball line.
Goldberg had much more than a side job as an agent. Representing Griffey became a full-time undertaking. Goldberg wasn’t a high-profile agent. He had only a handful of clients; one of them just happened to be the best player in baseball.
Letting Junior be Junior
Some of those high-profile agents would have loved to steal Griffey. Goldberg admits he thought about that in the early years.
“The rules were more lax back then,” he said. “Now, the players’ union is a lot more strict about who can contact who. To borrow a phrase of one of the lawyers at the players union back then, it was like the wild, wild west. I was a little nervous.
“Junior was just loyal to a T. I was a little nervous for a couple of years, but he tried to put me at ease.”
Griffey says he never considered switching agents.
“I didn’t really entertain anyone after I signed with Brian,” Griffey said. “For me, it was how loyal he was. I’m not a needy person. I don’t need to be handheld and things like that. From Day 1, Brian let me be me. I think a lot of agents out there don’t let their players be who they are.
“Brian was like ‘I’m not here to change you.’ We’ve always had a relationship where I could bounce things off him. Day or night. His phone was always on. There’s been times when I’ve called him at 2 in the morning.”
The fact that Griffey’s agent was in Cincinnati and had grown up a Reds fan played a role in Griffey’s ending up in the Queen City.
Griffey’s contract with the Mariners was running out in 2000. Seattle had another superstar, Alex Rodriguez, with a contract about to come due as well.
The Mariners knew they couldn’t sign both.
“In 1999, the Mariners wanted to get out in front,” Goldberg said. “They said, ‘We know Alex is going to leave unless we’re the highest bidder, and we’re probably not going to be the highest bidder. Can we sign Junior to an extension?'
“Junior said: ‘Let’s do this. Let’s work on something. I’m sure the money won’t be an issue. But you’ve got to tell the Mariners I’m not signing anything. This is all contingent on how the last six weeks of the season go.’”
The conditional contract that Goldberg and the Mariners worked out was for eight years and $138 million, he recalled.
Life affected baseball at that juncture. Griffey had built an offseason home in Orlando in 1995. His oldest son, Trey, was starting kindergarten in Orlando in the fall of ’99. Griffey wanted to see how it went playing in Seattle with his family in Florida.
“Junior was miserable,” Goldberg said. “Anything people think of Junior, true or not true, he’s a huge family man, a mama’s boy. He was miserable because he saw Melissa and the kids two three-day weekends over the last six weeks of the season.”
Goldberg and Griffey met with the Mariners in Florida following the 1999 season. Griffey said he no longer wanted to sign long-term because of his family situation.
The Mariners asked if they could trade him. As a player with 10-5 rights, he could reject any trade. He gave the Mariners a list of teams. Goldberg said the new Seattle general manager, Pat Gillick, kept trying to negotiate with teams not on the list.
Griffey was adamant about going only to a team on his list. He was willing to sign a one-year extension, though, that would keep him with the Mariners through 2001 — softening the blow if Rodriguez left after 2000.
“The Mariners kicked that around long and hard,” Goldberg said. “It was basically a split decision. The club president, Chuck Armstrong, has always been in Junior’s corner. He was all for it. But the CEO, Howard Lincoln, was not for it. He said they were too far down the road. That’s how the trade came about.”
Injuries, but no regrets
The Reds were willing to make the deal — contingent on Griffey’s taking less money. He signed for $116.5 million over nine years to facilitate the trade.
“What Junior did beyond that is basically, he took half of the money in salary, and the other half was deferred,” Goldberg said. “But it was a win-win on the contract because Junior was able to get interest on the deferred money, so he was able to recapture some of that present-day money.”
It was a win for the Reds because they paid Griffey $6.5 million in salary, and they put away $3.5 million a year and let it grow to get to the amount he was due in deferred money.
Griffey’s time in Cincinnati did not turn out like anyone expected. After a relatively healthy first year, he missed more games than he played over the next four years. The injuries kept him from being the player he was in Seattle. And the team didn’t win.
Goldberg says Griffey has never regretted the decision.
“He wishes things had gone better with the injuries,” Goldberg said, “but he’s never regretted it.”
Goldberg still represents Griffey.
When Griffey Sr. was asked if he was going to help Junior with his Hall of Fame speech, he said no. “That's Brian Goldberg’s job,” he said.
Goldberg says he’ll leave the speech mostly to Junior.
“I won’t do any hardcore writing, word-for-word,” Goldberg said. “I just gave him bullet points like I did when he went into the Seattle Hall of Fame. He used them, but he put them in his own words.”
When Griffey delivers those words, Goldberg will be in the audience listening. His mind will probably wander back to 1978, when that chance meeting changed his life.