CINCINNATI – It was like Christmas on Feb. 10, 2000, when Ken Griffey Jr. came home.
Excited Reds fans gathered at Lunken Airport to greet him when he arrived on team owner Carl Lindner's private jet. They cheered and waved as Lindner drove his white Rolls Royce, with Griffey in the front seat, through the gates. Then police led a motorcade, followed by limousines carrying Griffey's family and Reds officials, to Cinergy Field for a news conference.
It was like Santa Claus coming to town in a flashy sleigh, bringing the World Series trophy to Cincinnati.
The Reds had traded for "The Kid."
The city nearly burst with excitement – and pride – much moreso than when the Reds traded for Tom Seaver in 1977 to try to breathe new life into the end of the Big Red Machine era. It wasn't just because Griffey was baseball's biggest star of the 1990s, just named to the All-Century team. He had his roots here – his father was part of the Reds' glory days - and Reds fans had watched with envy as the Moeller High grad, playing in faraway Seattle, captivated the country with his home-run power, rifle arm, ability to leap outfield fences in a single bound, and youthful wear-your-cap-backward exuberance.
“Well, I'm finally home,” Griffey said at a Thursday night news conference as excited city officials and Reds execs crowded into camera's view behind him. “This is my hometown. I grew up here. It doesn't matter how much money you make - it's where you feel happy. Cincinnati is the place where I thought I would be happy.”
Reds General Manager Jim Bowden, who had tried for years to get Griffey, pumped his fist in the air as Griffey put on his Reds jersey and cap.
“Feb. 10, 2000 will go down in Reds history - major-league history - when one of the biggest trades in our sport took place, when the Michael Jordan of baseball came home to Cincinnati,” Bowden said.
Griffey had demanded a trade from Seattle, saying he wanted to be closer to his family now that his oldest son was entering kindergarten in Florida. Griffey was going to be a free agent after the 2000 season – sound familiar? - so the Mariners' hands were tied. The Atlanta Braves were closer to Griffey's home and appeared to have the best chance in the Griffey Derby. But Bowden plugged away.
For a time, Lindner had second thoughts at opening the vault for Griffey, and the Reds backed off. In December, the Mariners traded Griffey to the Mets, but Griffey had veto power and killed the deal.
With spring training near, Griffey's Cincinnati-based agent, Brian Goldberg, stepped in and got permission from the M's to negotiate a long-term contract with the Reds. That made the deal.
Griffey took far less money than his market value - about half, some estimated. He got the richest contract in baseball history - nine years, $112.5 million with a $4 million buyout clause. But the average was the seventh-highest. Even the Mariners had offered more: $148 million for eight years.
But Griffey got what he wanted – stability - plus a chance to play for his dad's former team, in the town where he grew up, in the clubhouse where he hung out as a kid, more than 2,000 miles closer to his family.
“As you can see by this contract, it was never about the money," Griffey said. "I didn't want to move around. I didn't want to be here one year and have to go somewhere else. I wanted to be able to stay put."
"The main thing is, it made him happy," Goldberg said. "That was the key: it made him happy."
The Reds did not have to pay a king's ransom for The Kid. The Mariners had insisted on getting first baseman Sean Casey in a package deal, but they eventually settled on center fielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Brett Tomko, and two minor leaguers - pitcher Jake Meyer and infielder Antonio Perez.
As for the Reds, they had won 96 games the previous season, losing a wild-card playoff game to the Mets, and ownership expected Griffey to help them win championships as they moved into Great American Ball Park, and for years after that.
“We wanted a permanent superstar in our city to open our new stadium,” Bowden said.
WATCH Griffey's first homer with Reds:
But as we know, that didn't happen. The Reds never went to the playoffs in Griffey's eight-plus seasons in Cincinnati. Manager Jack McKeon, who said the Reds needed pitching more than they needed a superstar center fielder, proved to be right.
"Everybody knows that the Reds' higher-ups above the baseball people misled Junior and I about the team that would be put around him," Goldberg was quoted in an excellent Bleacher Report article by Scott Miller.
WATCH: Griffey's 500th homer:
Wayne Krivsky, Reds GM from 2006 to 2008, said: "I wish we could have had a little more pitching. It would have been a real nice story had he come home and the team went on to win the World Series. But it wasn't to be."
Griffey, who was 30 when he came to the Reds and on the back side of his career, had a few good years in Cincinnati but, not surprisingly, didn't match the numbers he put up in Seattle. Worse, he didn't live up to owners' or fans' expectations.
WATCH: Griffey's 600th homer:
Griffey's best year with the Reds was his first year when he had 40 homers, 118 RBI and 100 runs. But injuries hampered him after that or he might have broken the all-time home run record. He hit his 500th and 600 home runs as a Red before he was traded to the White Sox during the 2008 season. He returned to the Mariners for 2009 and retired early in 2010 with 630 homers (sixth all-time).
But his legacy as one of baseball's greatest players – he will go into the Hall of Fame with the highest vote percentage ever (99.3) – shouldn't be diminished by the Reds' failures.
No Reds fans will ever say they didn't want Ken Griffey Jr. on their team. Or another Christmas in February.