As soon as word spread that Ken Griffey Jr. wanted to play closer to home, his hometown started buzzing.
Fans flooded sports talk shows with calls wondering if the low-budget Cincinnati Reds have any chance to pull off a trade with Seattle that would bring Junior home.
General manager Jim Bowden is going to try.
"We're interested," Bowden said Wednesday. "We're going to do everything we can to see if we can't be a player in this and see if we can't make a deal for him."
There would be a sentimental symmetry to bringing Junior back to the town where he grew up. His father, Ken Sr., was a star on the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and is currently a coach. The two played together in Seattle, where in 1990 they became the first father-son duo to start a game and to homer in the same game.
The city still considers Junior one of its own. When he showed up at Cinergy Field for some batting tips from his father on an off-day last season, speculation started all over again about him eventually coming home.
Junior rejected a contract offer from the Mariners on Tuesday so he could play for a team closer to his home in Orlando, Fla., which is about a two-hour flight from Cincinnati and a few hours from the Reds' spring training complex in Sarasota.
"The fact he's from Cincinnati, the fact that his dad is on the coaching staff, the fact that there's flights to Orlando and our spring training complex is close all of that is favorable, as it is with other cities," Bowden said.
Griffey Sr. is managing Santurce in the Puerto Rico winter league and didn't return a telephone message Wednesday.
"So many things could jell or not on this trade," Griffey Jr. was quoted as saying by The Seattle Times. "They might not find a trade they like. They told me, `You may not find one you like.' But if there is no trade, I'll be going to spring training with Seattle at my normal time."
He said the deaths of Walter Payton and Payne Stewart triggered him to ask for the trade.
"While my decision was mainly about family, this is what led to my final decision," Griffey was quoted as saying. "Payne missed the cut at Disney (a golf tournament in Orlando). On Saturday, he went to see his son play football his first football game and he caught a touchdown pass.
"On Monday, his wife and daughter kissed him goodbye. Forty-five minutes later, he's not there anymore."
Atlanta is only a one-hour flight from Orlando and the Braves' spring training complex is located just south of the city at Disney World.
Also, the Time Warner-owned Braves have the financial clout to afford a player of Griffey's caliber and enugh talent to make an attractive offer to the Mariners, who surely would be interested in 22-year-old Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones.
Braves president Stan Kasten and general manager John Schuerholz declined to say if the NL champions are interested in Griffey.
For the Reds, the questions are whether they can afford his salary and the Mariners' trade demands. Cincinnati won 96 games last season when its young nucleus developed quickly. Seattle is likely to want pitching something the Reds desperately need as well and top young players.
Bowden said Wednesday that starter Juan Guzman, obtained in a trade with Baltimore on July 31 and now a free agent, is asking more than the Reds can afford.
The club also is negotiating to keep starter Denny Neagle, who will stay if the Reds rework his contract.
Bowden wasn't about to part with either pitching or top young players to get cleanup hitter Dante Bichette from Colorado over the weekend. He'd be willing to raise the stakes for Junior.
"Griffey is completely different," Bowden said. "He's the best position player in all of baseball. He's a franchise player. He's a Hall of Famer. He's a Cincinnati player. This very unique opportunity comes around once in a lifetime."
The question will be whether the Reds have what the Mariners want and whether they can afford the asking price.
"I imagine that whoever they trade with, they'll want good young players," manager Jack McKeon said Wednesday. "They'll want to build up their franchise. It would be tough."
Money also could be a barrier. Junior is signed for next season at $8.5 million, then becomes eligible for free agency.
The Reds had a $35 million payroll last season and aren't expected to increase it substantially until they get closer to moving into a new ballpark in 2003. Their highest-paid player last season was Greg Vaughn, who made $5.75 million and is a free agent. Barry Larkin will make $5.3 million and Neagle $4.75 million next season.
The Reds are so cost-conscious that when Colorado agreed to give them Bichette for outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds and reliever Stan Belinda, Bowden insisted that the Rockies include $1.9 million to offset the salary difference. Bichette will make $6.5 million each of the next two years.
Asked if the price of obtaining Junior will be too high, Bowden said, "I can't answer that. It's too early in the process. We're going to make every effot we can."
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