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FAY: Gruff, sure, but don't let them say Griffey isn't a good guy off the field

My 10 years covering new Hall of Famer
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-13 06:54:18-04

“He was as talented a player as I ever managed. At the time I had him in Seattle, he was the best player in baseball. They talked about Barry Bonds and Junior. Both were great players. But Junior had the added dimension of playing center field, playing it like one of God’s angels. He could hit for power, he could hit for average, he could drive in runs, he could steal a base. He had a great throwing arm. He had spectacular range in the outfield. He was one of the great players of all time.”
– Lou Piniella on Ken Griffey Jr.

CINCINNATI -- I only saw glimpses of that Ken Griffey Jr. in the 10 years I covered him in his years with the Reds. The injuries took their toll. The severity of them, the volume of them were too much for even a talent as great as Griffey’s to overcome.

Griffey, whose Hall of Fame induction will come in July, was great only in flashes during his time here. Reds fans at times felt cheated. But even though the injuries kept Griffey from taking his proper place in baseball history -- he was on a trajectory to be in the top five or so of all time -- Griffey always refused to get into the what-if debate.

Only once do I remember Griffey even getting upset with one of the injuries. He got hurt when the team was in Anaheim, California, playing the Angels. He was nearly in tears after the game.

“Why does this keep happening to me?” he wondered aloud.

But it did keep happening.

It says something that Griffey was a lock to go in on the first ballot, and there was talk he could have been the first unanimous pick even though the second half of his career fell well short of his own lofty standards.

I don’t have much to add to what’s been written and said about Griffey the player. The insight I can add is about Griffey the man. Covering a baseball beat is the one job in sports journalism where you get to know the people you’re covering, see them every day from February to October. You stay in the same hotels. You eat in the same restaurants.

Griffey developed a reputation of being surly and hard to deal with. He was that at times with me. We clashed at times. But my lasting impression of him is he’s a genuinely good guy.

He was a superstar who just hated talking about himself. Interviewing Griffey almost always went like this for me: He’d be sitting on his black equipment trunk (I don’t know all of what was in it, but I guarantee a collector would pay $1 million for it), bat in hand, taping it.

He did this perfect zip-zag job with a roll of athletic tape, which he would split down the middle. We’d start talking about something – scuba diving, flying, cars, golf or kids. He loved talking about his kids: Trey, Taryn and Tevin. Family was really first for Griffey.

This would go for a while, sometimes a long while. Then I’d steer the subject toward baseball to get what I needed for my stories. The conversation would slow to a crawl, particularly when the subject became Griffey.

It wasn’t out of modesty; he knew exactly how good he was. He just abhorred talking about Ken Griffey Jr. the baseball player, especially when he was approaching milestones.

Some players like adulation. Griffey visited sick kids all the time. He never took a camera crew.

When Griffey was in town to be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame, he spent a lot of his time at the ballpark chatting up the clubhouse guys. He would have skipped his reception to bust chops and tell stories with the clubbies. Griffey was among their favorites for his generosity and how he treated them.

My pop psychologist take on it was Griffey was basically pretty shy. He was loud and wielded a mean needle in the clubhouse, right out of the Big Red Machine tradition, but off the field and away from the clubhouse, he didn’t let a lot of people in.

A lot of big stars have entourages. Griffey had Big Frank – his best friend Frank King, who died of cancer at 38 in 2009. King was like a brother to Griffey; the two met in junior high when Griffey was living in Mount Healthy.

In the early days of social media, someone purporting to be Griffey’s friend posted something about him. We asked Griffey if it was true and if the guy was a friend.

“Frank is my only friend,” he said.

I was certainly not a friend of Griffey’s, but away from the field, he’s always been friendly to me.

Once, when the Reds were in Fort Lauderdale and staying at a hotel on the water, I heard Griffey had brought his yacht down. So my wife and I went to check it out. I knew it was named “The Chosen One.”

We were snooping around like tourists when Griffey spotted us. He waved us onto the boat, and we got the full tour and ended up talking to him for an hour or so. He could not have been nicer.

Every time I’ve seen him since he left the Reds, he asks me how my wife is doing.

My other Griffey moment came in 2008. I had just returned to covering the team after the death of my brother. I was coming out of the team hotel in San Francisco. Griffey was on his cell phone when he spotted me.

He hung up the phone and told me how sorry he was for my loss.

When Griffey goes into the Hall, my guess is you won’t hear a lot of talking heads say he was as good a guy as he was a player.

But, if you got to know him, you’d know that really he was.

You can watch and read ESPN's special report here: Recounting Junior's 24 years in The League.