When Junior brought baseball back to the Queen City

Still going through the nuggets in Hal McCoy’s new book, available to the hoi polloi next month, and wanted to mention this one about when the Reds traded for Ken Griffey Jr., then signed him to a new nine-year, $116.5 million contract (that was a lot of money back then!) …

General manager Jim Bowden, the man who made the trade, was beaming, his face aglow with a permanent smile slashed acrsoss his face. When he stood to speak he said, "Baseball is back in Cincinnati." It was a curious statement. Many wondered, "Baseball is back in Cincinnati? Where had it gone? We didn’t know it went anyhere?" At the end of the 1999 season, the Reds missed the playoffs only after losing a wild card tiebreaker game with the New York Mets. They won ninety-six games, finished second, and manager Jack McKeon thought he had the team on the verge of something big. All we need is some pitching," he said.

But Bowden gave up pitching in Brett Tomko and one of McKeon’s favorite players, center fielder Mike Cameron. And through no fault of Griffey, Bowden’s bold statement later became laughable. They won eighty-five games in Griffey’s first year and finished second. But what followed was a forgettable segment of Reds’ history. They went eight straight years without a winning season, never finishing higher than third.

As Dave Cameron pointed out just last year, that trade was a steal for the Mariners and would have been a steal even if Griffey had been productive and healthy for the life of the nine-year contract he signed shortly after joining the Reds.

Which of course he wasn’t.

I couldn’t help wondering what McCoy actually wrote about Griffey when everything went down. Fortunately, the Dayton Daily News is one of the few papers that maintains a free archive going back a significant number of years. So…

For the bargain price of one problem-child pitcher, one .256-hitting outfielder and two low-level minor leaguers, the Cincinnati Reds wedged Griffey, arguably baseball’s best player, away from the Seattle Mariners.

–snip–

Junior realizes the Reds won 96 games last season and came within one game of winning the National League Central championship. He is pleased the club didn’t have to wreck its nucleus to get him.

"These guys did it without me last year," he said. "I just want to help out any way I can, when I can. I want to do the same things I have been doing. The World Series? Soon. I want to get there and wear a ring just like my dad does."

There’s also a long quote from Bowden in McCoy’s column, but nothing like "Baseball is back in Cincinnati." I’m not saying Bowden never said that. I’m just saying I can’t find the quote in any of McCoy’s columns.

Of course the deal didn’t work out, but nobody at the time had any discouraging words. Not among people in Cincinnati who mattered, anyway.

I should mention that there had been some problems in Cincinnati. In 1995, the Reds were stuck with a ridiculous number of empty seats in the playoffs. On the other hand, that same year the Reds ranked sixth in the National League in home attendance, pretty tremendous considering Cincinnati was (and is) one of the smallest markets in the majors. In 1999, the Reds’ raw attendance had actually risen quite a bit, but they’d fallen in the league tables to just 11th.

And in 2000, with Junior? Attemdance jumped more than 25 percent. But the whole league was up, so they improved from 11th to just 10th in the league. And at least some of that raw increase was certainly due to the high expectations after the 96-win 1999 season. But of course they didn’t win with Griffey. And except for a nifty bump in 2003 that I can’t explain, attendance quickly went into the doldrums and stayed there.

Even though it didn’t work out, Griffey’s contract was perfectly fine. With much of the money deferred, he gave his hometown club a huge hometown discount. But trading a young Mike Cameron for a middle-aged (by baseball standards) Ken Griffey didn’t make sense then, even if nobody seemed to realize it at the time.