CINCINNATI — Home runs never defined Ken Griffey Jr.
The backward cap. The can-you-believe-it smile. The Gold Glove that turned flyballs into mesmerizing outs. The arm that made runners think twice. He’s always been much more than that short, sweet swing.
Now that he’s on the verge of a very powerful number, nothing has changed.
The Cincinnati Reds outfielder opens the season Monday only seven homers shy of 600. The countdown started late last season, and will occupy fans for the first few weeks of the new one.
Griffey? He’s got other things in mind.
The 38-year-old all-star has never doted on personal statistics. In his mind, numbers don’t define what he does or why he does it. That part isn’t changing.
Griffey is still living in the moment.
“It’s just a number that’s coming up,” he said. “But that’s not the biggest number.
“The biggest number is the next one (No. 594) and then the next one after that. You can’t look at something that’s dangling out there when you have something in front of you that you have to get first. You get that one, then worry about the next one.
“It’s like a pitcher. You can’t worry about the guy on deck when you’ve still got a guy (at the plate) who’s a hitter.”
When he arrived from Seattle before the 1990 season, Griffey was ahead of Hank Aaron’s home run pace. Barely 30 at the time, he was already an All-Century outfielder and one of the game’s most popular players.
A whole generation of young fans turned their caps backward and tried to be like Junior. His hometown was already daydreaming about glory years.
There hasn’t been a whole lot of that.
During his second season in Cincinnati, Griffey tore his left hamstring. For the next few years, he was defined more by injuries — torn patella tendon, torn hamstring, dislocated shoulder, torn ankle, another torn hamstring, dislocated toe — than statistics.
He slipped further and further behind Aaron’s pace. By 2006, he had practically slipped out of the conversation about the game’s elite players.
Griffey batted .277 with 30 homers and 93 RBIs last season, when he made the all-star team for the first time in three years. He played in 144 games, his highest total since the year he arrived in Cincinnati.
When it was over, Griffey was only seven swings away from joining Barry Bonds, Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Sammy Sosa with 600 career homers. It’s a short list indeed.
“With certain things if you play long enough, good things will happen,” Griffey said. “I think that’s the beauty of anything, if you do it long enough.
“Obviously you’ve done some good things to be able to do it for a long time.”
As he approaches the mark, it’s the other things that stand out.
“People change over time,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Basically, he’s still the same Junior I remember when he signed. He’s not jaded. He still enjoys the game. He still has a good time.
“A lot of times as we get older, you lose that fun and innocence of youth. But Junior is still the same Junior I knew a long time ago.”