As fans and reporters flocked to the west coast of Florida to view Ken Griffey Jr.'s first spring with the Cincinnati Reds, Mark McGwire enjoyed a rare respite from the media microscope at the St. Louis Cardinals’ camp on the east coast. He knew it wouldn’t last.
The arrival of Griffey in the National League Central, already the stamping ground of baseball’s two other premier sluggers--McGwire and Sammy Sosa--has turned the division into the game’s hottest ticket.
The former Comedy Central has become a scalper’s delight, a glamour division of marquee names in which the home run race--it’s Home Run Central, of course--figures to overshadow what may be baseball’s most competitive team race, a prospective battle that has already produced a chorus of sniping among the combatants and Barry Larkin claiming a title for his Griffey-buoyed Reds.
But as exciting and enticing as a five-deep race in which only the Milwaukee Brewers, the division’s sixth team, seem without hope, the focus is certain to be on the home run duel among McGwire, Sosa and Griffey. They will face each other in some combination 38 times--a first and last hurrah of sorts since the Reds are expected to be realigned into a new division next year with the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
For the present, Griffey dismisses the suggestion of a homer battle with McGwire and Sosa.
“I’m not at their level,” the former Seattle Mariner outfielder said at the Reds’ camp in Sarasota. “They’re 60 and 70 [home run] guys. I’m a 40 and 50 guy. I’m not here to be the guy who has to carry this team. I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be one of the 25 and help us win. I mean, this isn’t my team, it’s Larkin’s.”
McGwire interprets that as an obvious attempt to deflate the hype and pressure, which he understands.
“I saw Griffey for nine years in the American League, and there is no question he’s the best all-around player in the game,” he said at the St. Louis camp in Jupiter, Fla. “But my battle isn’t with Griffey and isn’t with Sosa. My battle is with the guy on the mound.
“I mean, the media is going to make a big deal of it, and we’re obviously going to be the focal point, but we’re not superhuman; this isn’t ‘The American Gladiators.’ ”
Perhaps not, but at the Chicago Cubs’ camp in Mesa, Ariz., a smiling Sosa welcomed Griffey to the division as another challenge and motivation.
“It’s going to be a lot more exciting now with Griffey, Mark and myself,” he said. “Everybody is waiting for us to go out and put on a show--and there’s no limit to what I feel I can do. I mean, I’m not laying back and relaxed because I’ve had two great years. I’m still hungry, still feel like I did when I was a rookie.”
Sosa is putting his show on an international stage this week, getting the jump on division rivals as the Cubs open the season with two games against the New York Mets in Japan.
He has hit 66 and 63 home runs in the last two years only to finish second in the major leagues to McGwire, who has hit 70 and 65. McGwire has become the only player in history to have hit 50 or more in three consecutive seasons, raising his total to 522, first among active players.
With the addition of Griffey, who has hit 49, 56, 56 and 48 homers in the last four seasons and will be moving from the challenging dimensions of Safeco Field to the ball-carrying atmosphere of Cinergy Field, the division is so deep in sluggers that Houston’s Jeff Bagwell, who hit 42 homers last season and has averaged 38 over the last four, is almost overlooked.
“Compared to McGwire, Sosa and Griffey, I’m just the throw-in,” Bagwell said at the Astro camp in Kissimmee, Fla. “Those guys deserve the accolades. The numbers McGwire and Sosa have put up the last two years are ridiculous. When you hit 70 homers one year and 65 the next, as McGwire has, you’re on a different planet.”
Bagwell might have been with him, teammate Craig Biggio said, if he hadn’t played 81 games a year in the Astrodome--or as Biggio put it, “the neutralizer.”
“When you talk about home run hitters these days, you’re talking about 50,” Biggio said. “The only reason Bags hasn’t hit 50 is because he’s lost 10 to 12 a year in the Astrodome. I mean, it’s not like Cincinnati or Wrigley Field in Chicago. There were no cheapies in the Astrodome. If Bags had played his entire career in the Kingdome, as Griffey did, he’d have as many home runs.”
Bagwell hit 30 of last year’s 42 homers on the road. He and the Astros are moving into domeless Enron Field this year.
“It’s got to be a better hitter’s park, so I can’t help but be happy about that,” said Bagwell, who is not the division’s only overlooked bomber.
Dante Bichette, joining the Reds from the Colorado Rockies, hit 34 last year. Milwaukee’s Jeromy Burnitz had 33 and almost stole the show from McGwire in the home run contest at the All-Star game. Pittsburgh’s Brian Giles (39) and the Cardinals’ Fernando Tatis (34) had breakthrough seasons, and now former Angel Jim Edmonds joins the Cardinals with a 30-homer resume.
The six-team Central and the four-team American League West were the only divisions in which every club’s spring roster had at least one player who hit 30 homers last year.
San Francisco Giant Manager Dusty Baker reflected on Griffey’s move to the NL Central and said, “I now call that baseball’s black-and-blue division because of the big hitters. Guys like Bagwell and Burnitz almost get overlooked. They may be mini-bombers compared to Griffey, McGwire and Sosa, but they’re bombers to me nevertheless.”
They also resemble bombers to the pitchers in a division short on quality pitching.
The Brewers gave up 213 homers last year and ranked 14th in a 16-team league. The Cubs, hoping for an improvement with the comeback of Kerry Wood and acquisition of Ismael Valdes, gave up 221 and ranked 15th. Three of the six highest earned-run averages in the NL were posted by Central teams.
Does the arrival of Griffey intensify the nightmare for division pitchers? Cincinnati left-hander Ron Villone, who has Griffey on his side, said there’s only one way to look at it.
“I look on it that our bombers are better than yours,” Villone said. “What McGwire and Sosa did the last couple years was incredible, but we now have a guy who’s even better, in the sense that he’s a better all-around hitter and certainly a better defensive player. Besides, Griffey’s presence lifts everybody else.”
The Reds won 96 games last year and failed to make the playoffs, which is a measure of how far the former Comedy Central has come since the Astros won with an 84-78 record in 1997 and four of the then-five teams had losing records. The Cardinals’ acquisition of McGwire in July of that year hastened the transformation, but the Central remains an attendance-driven division of mid- to low-level payrolls, or as Biggio said:
“We’re more like a blue-collar division in that it’s not the West Coast, where the Dodgers have an $80-million payroll, and not the East Coast, where several teams have an $80-million payroll. We’ve added players like McGwire and Griffey and that’s created a lot of glamour and excitement, which is great. It’s always been more fun to play when the park is full of fans.”
Most of the Central parks--and many others--should be filled consistently, particularly when the games involve McGwire, Sosa or Griffey.
The Reds, for instance, had to install 10 new phone lines to handle the ticket rush after getting Griffey.
Their clubhouse is still buzzing.
“It is not a matter of whether we will win the division, it is a matter of by how many games,” Larkin said.
Cardinal General Manager Walt Jocketty facetiously considered calling the race after the Reds landed Griffey.
“I thought about contacting the other general managers in the division and issuing a joint statement conceding the division, but I reconsidered,” Jocketty said with a smile. “After all, in some ways Griffey is joining a club similar to the one he left in Seattle. The Cincinnati bullpen may be better, but it’s basically a team that will score a lot of runs [but] with suspect pitching.”
So, instead of conceding, Jocketty aggressively improved his own injury-riddled staff by acquiring Pat Hengten, Darryl Kile and Andy Benes for the rotation, Dave Veres to close, and second baseman Fernando Vina to bat leadoff.
“I called Walt during the winter to tell him he’d done a great job,” McGwire said, even before the addition of Edmonds. “He hasn’t been given enough credit. We can play with anybody in the division.”
The Astros are similar believers and have three straight division titles to support their optimism and the National League’s best record in the seven seasons since Drayton McLane became the owner.
“The Reds got a terrific player in Griffey, but he was a terrific player in Seattle and they had mixed results at best,” Astro General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said. “The Dodgers were printing World Series tickets after signing Kevin Brown, and the Reds are probably doing the same, but I’ve always believed one player isn’t the difference between winning and losing.”
Hunsicker’s Astros are a case in point.
They won in ’98, despite the departure of Kile as a free agent. They won again last year, despite the departure of Randy Johnson as a free agent and the loss of Moises Alou to injury.
Alou is returning, but they will have to get along after losing their ace, Mike Hampton, and two leading run producers, Carl Everett and Derek Bell, in deals motivated by the imminent free agency of Hampton and Everett.
Jose Lima, who gave up 30 home runs last year and figures to give up more in Enron Field, moves into Hampton’s role. Pitcher Octavio Dotel and outfielder Roger Cedeno were acquired from the New York Mets in the deal for Hampton, the Cy Young Award runner-up.
In their championship run, Hunsicker, said the Astros have been able to sustain a contending team only through deficit spending, borrowing against the revenue they expect to generate in their new park.
“It’s like spending a tax refund before you have it,” he said.
Said Biggio, referring to the Astros’ $47-million payroll, “We don’t get much respect or recognition, but we’ve been the best bargain money can buy.”
In the Grand Central, of course, it has been all about McGwire, Sosa and Griffey, but it should be noted that it has been 20 years since the major league home run champion played on a World Series-winning team. Mike Schmidt did it with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980. Only twice in the ‘90s did a league home run leader’s team make the playoffs.
“Everybody is going to score runs and hit homers,” Bagwell said. “Whoever pitches the best is going to win.”
Sosa hit 63 homers last year and the Cubs lost 95 games. McGwire hit 65 and the Cardinals lost 86.
Griffey experienced similar frustrations in Seattle and is aware that his new team has been scouring the trade mart, hoping to supplement a rotation of Denny Neagle, Pete Harnisch, Steve Parris and Villone.
“I think we’ll have enough offense and defense that, barring injuries, our pitching will be good enough to keep us in contention,” Red Manager Jack McKeon said.
Perhaps, but for now, the Central appears to be the Big Bang division. With the arrival of Griffey, even Big Mac believes he can “blend in” as the new Red slugger “goes through what I went through with the media the last two years.”
In fact, said McGwire, it will be nice to see someone else experience it.
“He’s going to find that dealing with all the attention is a lot tougher than changing leagues and coping with new parks and pitchers,” McGwire said. “It’s almost like I’ve passed the torch, and what’s weird is that I hear myself when I hear him say that home runs don’t matter, winning does.”
McGwire, of course, may insist that his battle is with the guy on the mound, that the home run title means nothing to him, but he would probably find it hard to deny that there isn’t a new challenge, thanks to the new kid in the neighborhood.
McGwire, in fact, bristled when it was mentioned that Griffey, at 30, comes to the Central Division with 398 homers and is Hank Aaron’s pick to break his record of 755.
“Everyone claims he has the best chance of breaking Aaron’s record, but I’m the guy who’s first in line [with 522],” McGwire, 36, said. “It’s premature to put a big emphasis on it, but I feel there’s a realistic chance that I can do it because I continue to improve as a hitter every year. It’s all about mental toughness, about the brain being the most powerful muscle in the body.”
Amid the rampant power in the Home Run Central, there is the distinct possibility that brain power will decide the race within the race.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
NL CENTRAL: HEAVY HITTERS
Last year’s top three home run hitters now reside in the National League Central Division. Their home run totals for the last four years:
Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs
Mark McGwire, St. Louis Cardinals
*with Oakland/St. Louis
Ken Griffey Jr., Cincinnati Reds
Home run leaders by division (1999 statistics using projected 25-man rosters):
1. Shawn Green, Dodgers 42
2. Jay Bell, Arizona 38
3. Larry Walker, Colorado 37
4. Todd Helton, Colorado 35
4. Matt Williams, Arizona 35
1. Chipper Jones, Atlanta 45
2. Vladimir Guerrero, Montreal 42
3. Mike Piazza, New York 40
4. Robin Ventura, New York 32
5. Mike Lieberthal, Philadelphia 31
1. Mark McGwire, St. Louis 65
2. Sammy Sosa, Chicago 63
3. Ken Griffey Jr., Cincinnati 48
4. Jeff Bagwell, Houston 42
5. Brian Giles, Pittsburgh 39
1. Rafael Palmeiro, Texas 47
2. Alex Rodriguez, Seattle 42
3. Matt Stairs, Oakland 38
4. John Jaha, Oakland 35
4. Ivan Rodriguez, Texas 35
1. Greg Vaughn, Tampa Bay 45
2. Carlos Delgado, Toronto 44
3. Albert Belle, Baltimore 37
4. Jose Canseco, Tampa Bay 34
5. Raul Mondesi, Toronto 33
5. Vinny Castilla, Tampa Bay 33
1. Manny Ramirez, Cleveland 44
2. Juan Gonzalez, Detroit 39
3. Dean Palmer, Detroit 38
4. Jim Thome, Cleveland 33
5. Richie Sexson, Cleveland 31