CINCINNATI -- Junior has come home.
Following three months of often deadlocked trade talks, the Cincinnati Reds reunited Ken Griffey Jr. with his father and his hometown Thursday by sending four players to the Seattle Mariners.
The final piece of the deal came when Griffey agreed to a nine-year contract worth $116.5 million, the richest package in baseball history. The pact covers from 2000-08, and the Reds even have an option for a 10th season.
"The last time I put on this uniform, I think I was 8 -- for a father-son game," Griffey said, pulling on a Reds jersey at a news conference.
"This is something I dreamed about as a little kid, being back in my hometown where I watched so many great players," he said.
Griffey was picked up in Florida by a private plane belonging to owner Carl Lindner, and flown to Cincinnati, where about 200 people greeted him at the airport. Earlier, euphoric fans honked horns on the streets, put up "Welcome Home" signs in their yards and reveled in the team's most celebrated trade since Pete Rose returned as player-manager in 1984.
"His name comes up like Pete Rose's name as far as Cincinnati," said coach Ron Oester, a native who played for the Reds. "That's the magnitude he's at for Cincinnati fans."
And for all of baseball, too.
Widely regarded as the best all-around player in the game, the 30-year-old Griffey is considered a threat to break Hank Aaron's career home run record of 755. Junior already has hit 398 with his sweet, left-handed swing, and was voted onto baseball's All-Century team last fall.
Perhaps never before has such a great player been traded in his prime. Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Frank Robinson are others that come to mind.
Cincinnati is the only place the 10-time All-Star center fielder wanted to play. And when spring training begins later this month, his trademark backward hat will have a "C" on it.
"I didn't want to move around," he said. "I wanted to be able to stay put."
Pitcher Brett Tomko and outfielder Mike Cameron were sent to Seattle for Griffey, along with a pair of minor leaguers: infielder Antonio Perez and right-hander Jake Meyer.
"It's like being traded for Jordan or something," Tomko said.
Indeed, Griffey could be his sport's Michael Jordan. No wonder the Mariners were so reluctant to lose him.
"We hope that Ken decides to go into the Hall of Fame as a Mariner," Seattle president Chuck Armstrong said. "We might not have baseball here except for Ken, and we might not have Safeco Field."
The Mariners, though, had little hope of keeping him after this season. He was eligible for free agency, and said he wanted to be closer to his home in Florida.
He eventually limited his list of eligible teams to one -- Cincinnati, where he grew playing in the clubhouse during the days when his father, Ken Sr., was part of the Big Red Machine.
Ken Sr. is now the Reds' bench coach and a candidate to eventually succeed manager Jack McKeon, who has a one-year contract. The son put in a plug for the father.
"He's been around baseball for 20-plus years. He knows what it takes to be a manager. I hope he gets the chance," he said.
Griffey turned down an eight-year, $148 million contract extension last summer with the Mariners, and trade talks with the Reds heated up during the winter meetings in December. Along the way, Griffey blocked a trade to the New York Mets.
As recently as Tuesday, it appeared the Seattle-Cincinnati deal had bogged down over the Reds' financial concerns -- they didn't think they could afford him beyond 2000, the last year on his contract.
The Mariners resolved the impasse by giving agent Brian Goldberg permission to talk to the Reds, a move that may have violated baseball's rules against tampering.
Assured that Griffey would accept less to play in his hometown, the Reds went ahead and completed the five-player trade on Wednesday night, then asked the commissioner's office for a 72-hour window to negotiate a long-term deal with Griffey.
A contract that includes a lot of deferred payments was agreed upon Thursday afternoon, according to a source speaking on condition he not be identified.
The trade involved only Cincinnati and the Mariners, and was the first big move by Carl Lindner since buying the Reds from Marge Schott last fall. There had been speculation a three-way deal including Anaheim was in the works.
Reds fans immediately began daydreaming of Griffey playing center field at Cinergy Field, and even a new ballpark in the new future. No telling if he'll continue to wear No. 24 -- it belonged to Tony Perez, elected last month to the Hall of Fame.
Griffey is a lifetime .299 hitter with 1,152 RBIs in 11 seasons, all in Seattle. He has won 10 straight Gold Gloves.
The acquisition gives the Reds, who lost a wild-card playoff to the Mets last season, a fearsome top of the lineup. Griffey will be surrounded by Barry Larkin, Sean Casey and Dante Bichette, who was obtained from Colorado last October.
The trade also weakens an already suspect rotation. Although Tomko struggled through 1999, he remained the best young starter on the staff. Bowden tried to trade him to Cleveland for Jaret Wright during the winter meetings in December, but the Indians refused.
And, the deal brings together the game's top sluggers in the same division. With Mark McGwire in St. Louis and Sammy Sosa playing for the Cubs, maybe the NL Central should take on a new name: Home Run Central.
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