Back in January, Ken Griffey Jr. scored a record-breaking 99.3 percent of the vote to glide into baseball’s Hall of Fame. The Kid, who’ll be feted this weekend along with Mike Piazza, made earning enshrinement in Cooperstown seem as graceful and easy as everything else he did on the diamond. In 11 years with the Seattle Mariners, Griffey made 10 All-Star games, won 10 Gold Glove awards in center field, and led the league in home runs four times. Unfortunately, I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan. Griffey’s homecoming to my team in 2000 was Earth-shattering, or at least ESPN-shattering, news—a stunning and heartwarming story that felt like the perfect ending for Griffey, the Reds, and baseball itself. But by the time he left, in 2008, Griffey’s experience had morphed into a cautionary tale. Ken Griffey Jr. is the Bizarro LeBron James. His homecoming didn’t redeem him or elevate his hometown. Instead, it brought out the worst in Junior and in the city he loved.
Given that it ended so badly, it’s easy to forget the excitement that surrounded Griffey’s Cincinnati return. By the end of the 1990s, Junior had established himself as an all-time great, an elite hitter and fielder who’d already smacked 398 career home runs—at the time the most ever by a player before his 30th birthday. That offseason, Griffey decided he was done with Seattle and demanded a trade. Eventually, he narrowed that demand, insisting that the Mariners send him to the Reds, the team his father starred for in the 1970s. After a few months of stop-start negotiation—haggling that in retrospect seems less like brilliant brokering and more like an omen of the dysfunction and cheapness that defined Cincinnati’s front office—the Reds got their man. The price was seen as absurdly low: the outfielder Griffey would replace (Mike Cameron), a pitcher (Brett Tomko), and two minor leaguers (Antonio Pérez and Jake Meyer). One baseball exec’s one-word review: “wow.”
On Feb. 10, 2000, the Reds held a press conference to announce the move. At the time, the team was owned by Carl Lindner, a local billionaire and philanthropist, and Lindner brought Griffey home in style, flying him to Cincinnati on a private jet, then personally driving him to the press conference in his Rolls-Royce. It was a smooth trip, since Lindner had convinced the city to coordinate a stretch of traffic lights so that he and Griffey didn’t catch a single red.
The press conference aired live on ESPN News and all four of Cincinnati’s network affiliates. Griffey was clearly giddy. He was thrilled to play in front of family members who still lived in Cincinnati, including his grandmother. He was thrilled to be closer to his own wife and kids, who lived in a gated community in Florida, near the Reds’ spring training facility. He was thrilled to join a promising young team. More than anything, Junior just seemed thrilled to be coming home. “I really don’t know what to say,” he said that night. “This is something you dream of as a little kid and I finally did it. I’m finally back in the hometown where I watched some of the great players play.”
He was talking, of course, about the Big Red Machine. While Griffey was born in Pennsylvania, he moved to Cincinnati as a toddler when his dad, Ken Griffey Sr., became the right fielder on those mythical mid-1970s squads. Everyone in Cincinnati idolized the Big Red Machine. My own dad was a teenager back then, and he attended the same private school as Junior, something he’ll tell you with only the slightest provocation. They overlapped for just one year—my dad a senior, Griffey in kindergarten or first grade—but each afternoon, while everyone waited on their parents to pick them up, they played in an unruly game of parking lot Wiffle ball. Griffey, who even then sported a big, sassy smile, insisted on competing with the older kids. “There was no showing him to hold that bat or any of that,” my dad says. “He was flapping his elbow, doing the Joe Morgan thing. He knew what to do.”
The kid was not yet the Kid, which meant the main attraction was still Ken Griffey Sr., who would swing by to pick up his son whenever the Reds were in town. But it wasn’t long before Junior became a Cincinnati baseball legend, hitting 380-foot homers as a 13-year-old, throwing no-hitters on the mound, and ultimately starring in center field at Moeller High School. Scouts from every major-league team trekked to Cincinnati to watch Griffey play, though it quickly became clear that he was out of their reach. In 1987, the Mariners grabbed him with the first overall pick. In 1989, he made his major-league debut. The next year, he and his 40-year-old father suited up together in Seattle and hit back-to-back home runs.
Reds fans couldn’t help but think the Griffeys should’ve reunited in Cincinnati. Junior’s ancestral connection to the Big Red Machine explained a lot of the fervor over his eventual homecoming. Just as important was his star power, which transcended his sport in a way that doesn’t really happen in baseball today. (Try to imagine local news helicopters tracking the homecoming of, say, Dallas-born Clayton Kershaw.) Griffey had endorsement deals with Pepsi, Nabisco, and AOL; he had a hugely popular video game; he had a sprawling relationship with Nike, seen most famously in the ads that pushed “Griffey for President.” And yet, in an era when TV money had not yet semileveled the playing field, baseball’s most famous player chose to go to Cincinnati, one of the game’s smallest markets. To make that happen, Griffey agreed to a team-friendly extension: a nine-year deal for $112.5 million that made him just the seventh-highest-paid player in the game (And that didn’t even account for the fact that more than half of the money was deferred.) “If the player owns a Rolls-Royce and he chooses to sell it at Volkswagen prices, that’s his right,” agent Scott Boras groused. The contract’s details reportedly moved Bud Selig to the verge of tears.
But the biggest reason for the Griffey hype was that he was really freaking good. He was joining a good team, too—the Reds were coming off a 96-win season and looking forward to a new taxpayer-funded stadium that would open in a couple of years. On Griffey’s first day of spring training in 2000, more than 100 reporters showed up to document him riding in a golf cart and taping the handles of his new bats. Once the real games started, the Reds got off to a slow start, with Griffey battling a sore hamstring and hitting .212 through the end of May. Griffey ended up hitting 40 home runs—his lowest full-season total since 1994—for a squad that slipped to 85 wins. Based on Griffey’s impossibly high standards, both totals seemed a little disappointing. After the season, Ken Griffey Sr., who was then the team’s bench coach, sensed that this sweet story was already going sour. “It’s like everybody started nitpicking,” he said, “finding things wrong with him.”
That year was Griffey’s best by far in a Reds uniform. Though he’d had only one major injury in Seattle, over the next few seasons Junior suffered a broken hand, a sprained foot, a dislocated toe, and a separated shoulder. He tore a tendon in his ankle and a tendon in his knee. He tore his hamstrings multiple times. As he struggled with his health, Griffey’s demeanor toggled between sensitive and surly. He hunted for criticism in every form of media, monitoring ESPN, listening to talk radio, and reading voraciously on sportspages.com. “I’m in a Catch-22,” he told Sports Illustrated after several injury-shortened seasons. “If I don’t go after a ball, I’m lazy, I’m not giving it 100 percent. If I do dive for the ball—which I did, and blew out my shoulder—it’s, Why did I play it so hard?”
Cincinnati’s front office didn’t help matters. Other than that first year, the Reds never managed a winning record with Griffey. This was partly the result of its star player’s many absences and diminished skills. (Despite all the initial reports that they’d been fleeced, the Mariners unquestionably ended up winning the Griffey trade.) But it also reflected the team’s own incompetence. The Reds frequently screwed up on the field, stocking their rotation with rookies and retreads. They also blundered behind the scenes. Just before moving into that new stadium in 2003, they tried to trade Griffey in a Lindner-ordered salary dump. The Reds initially lied about this, to both Griffey and their fans. When the team finally admitted that trade talks had commenced, it did so at a fan festival—while Griffey was in attendance, signing autographs for little kids.
The fans contributed to the misery, too. They—OK, we—bristled at each of the franchise’s failings. One year, when Lindner showed up for Opening Day, the entire stadium booed him. (Lindner would sell the team in 2005.) But Griffey always got the worst of it. He did everything we said we wanted modern stars to do—skipped steroids, avoided off-field drama, took less money, and never stopped talking about how much he loved his kids. But Reds fans never gave him the benefit of the doubt. I was a teenager when the team acquired him, about the same age my dad was when he and Junior were schoolmates. Looking back, I’m amazed at how quickly I turned on Griffey—at how quickly he went from hero to disappointment to punchline. And the thing is, Griffey felt it, too. At that first joyous press conference, he said things like, “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.” By 2007, he was saying, “My home’s in Florida. I work in Cincinnati.”
The next year, the Reds finally traded Griffey, and he ended up finishing his career in his real baseball home: Seattle. It’s no surprise he’ll be wearing a Mariners hat when he goes into the Hall of Fame.
Junior’s bid to be a hometown hero cost him something beyond mere sports. When everything went bad in Cincinnati, his hometown stopped being the place where he went to high school and played Wiffle ball and watched his dad star on one of baseball’s greatest teams. It became, instead, a place to work. The last time I saw Griffey clock in was 2015, when he threw out the ceremonial pitch for that summer’s Home Run Derby. After the announcer’s introduction—“We welcome home …”—the crowd greeted Junior with polite cheers. The reaction was noticeably warmer for his ceremonial catcher, Ken Griffey Sr., a player who was never as good as his son but who never tried something as risky as coming back home.