I’ve sat courtside and watched Michael Jordan dunk.
I was standing a few feet away when Tiger Woods hit perhaps the greatest shot of his career.
I was behind the mic when Tim Tebow ended his legendary college career by throwing for 482 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.
But the coolest thing I’ve ever watched in sports was a news conference.
(photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Enquirer)
It was February 9, 2000 and the Cincinnati Reds had just pulled off what appeared to be one of the greatest trades in baseball history by acquiring Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime.
I have never seen a city more excited about anything.
The Reds had won 96 games the year before without Griffey, and didn’t have to part with any of their most important players to get him (although Mike Cameron became an All-Star). Additionally, Junior agreed to a new nine-year contract for considerably less money than he had been offered by the Seattle Mariners.
“Well, I’m finally home,” Griffey said that night as cameras clicked. “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.”
Unfortunately, injuries prevented Junior from staying on the field, and Cincinnati fans rarely got to see the player who was among the greatest outfielders in history during his first 11 years with Seattle.
Between 2001 and 2004 when he was between the prime ages of 31 and 34, Griffey missed 331 of a possible 648 games. And yet, he still finished 6th on the all-time home run list with 630 – without any suspicion of steroid use.
I feel privileged to have gotten to know Junior when I hosted the Reds pre-game show on Fox Sports Ohio and he ranks among my favorite people to cover. He’s smart, hysterically funny, and has the memory of an elephant.
Some reporters found him difficult to deal with, but I think that was only because Junior didn’t like talking about himself. If the subject was his teammates, baseball history, other sports, or his kids – especially his kids – Griffey would chew your ear off.
And he loved playfully jabbing the media.
Once after Junior had jogged to first base on a hit that probably should have been a double, Cincinnati’s Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman ripped him on the radio for his lack of hustle. That led to verbal spat between the two that ended with Brennaman barking, “I was here before you were here and I’ll be here after you’re gone.”
The next day, Junior approached Marty and asked him when he started broadcasting Reds games. Brennaman answered, “1974.”
Griffey smiled and produced a photo of himself in a Reds uniform at age 4 with his father in the Reds annual Family Day game. It was from 1973.
Another time, I was standing next to Junior when we noticed a member of the media pulling out all of the stops in an attempt to impress an attractive woman. Suddenly, Griffey began loudly chanting, “Let’s go Hoyas, Let’s go Hoyas.”
When I asked why, Junior said, “Remember when Georgetown had that suffocating full-court press under John Thompson in the 80’s? That was nothing compared to our boy right now.”
I have three favorite Griffey stories of my own.
One winter, Griffey allowed me and videographer Kent Weaver to spend time with him at his home in Orlando for a series of “At Home with Junior” stories. One of the things we did was attend one of his son Trey’s football games, and when we got to the stadium, I was surprised to see three TV cameras already there. As it turned out, Griffey hated missing his children’s sporting events so much that he hired a TV production crew to professionally videotape every one. We went back to his house that night and watched the game again.
If you think Junior had a big smile on his face at the bottom of the celebration after scoring the winning run in that playoff game against the Yankees in 1995, you should have seen him beam after a long touchdown run by his son.
* * * * *
I’ve told the story in more detail before, but I jokingly take credit for one of Griffey’s best seasons in Cincinnati. In May of 2005, my wife Peg was sent to Rome by WBZ-TV to cover the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the papal succession.
Junior was off to a slow start at the time, so he asked if my wife could bring back a Pope T-shirt for good luck. This is what she brought back:
For the rest of that season, Junior had it proudly displayed in his locker. After big games he would find me in the clubhouse with a huge grin on his face and simply say, “Pope t-shirt!”
From May 1st until the end of the ’05 season, Griffey hit .313 with 34 HR and 83 RBI in 85 games and was named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year.
* * * * *
Just before leaving Cincinnati to work for the PawSox, I got a call on my cell phone from an unlisted number. When I answered, the person on the other end assumed that I knew who it was, and I was too embarrassed to say, “Excuse me, but who the heck is this?” It was Griffey, and he called to wish me good luck and find out exactly what I was going to be doing. Just before we hung up, I finally realized who it was and wasn’t really able to tell him how much I appreciated the gesture.
So thanks for the phone call Junior.
And 22-years of thrilling baseball.
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