It was billed as an all-time heist. The real story of Griffey to the Reds

22 years ago, Cincinnati landed its hometown Kid

February 10th, 2022

Jim Bowden was sitting in the back of a limousine heading to the Anaheim Marriott Hotel on December 10, 1999. With the day’s Los Angeles Times in hand, he skimmed the news as he rode to his destination: Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, his eighth as the general manager of the Reds.

But this one was going to be different. In a matter of hours, Bowden was set to close the deal on one of the biggest blockbuster trades in baseball history.

“I knew we were going to make a deal and go to the podium,” Bowden said. “The discussions were that advanced. 

“I was about to become a rock star and trade for Ken Griffey Jr.”

Ken Griffey Jr.: More than just a great player. More, even, than one of the greatest players of all time. He was the face of baseball. He transcended the game in ways no one else had before him. He was a cultural icon -- a baseball player with his own shoe line, his own video game, his own slice of the American sports fan’s psyche. 

Having just turned 30 years old three weeks earlier, Griffey was two home runs shy of 400 for his career, with a swing so aesthetically pleasing that its beauty is considered unmatched in baseball lore. He was already a 10-time All-Star and a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner in center field. He had a real shot at breaking Hank Aaron’s then-record of 755 career homers.

And he was on the verge of being traded by the only franchise he had ever known.

It was a franchise he played a central role in reviving, as evidenced by the brand-new ballpark it had moved into just months earlier. It was a franchise for which he was the cornerstone for more than a decade, a superstar of the highest order.

How could the Mariners trade away this legend? 

Let’s leave our confident Reds general manager for a moment and rewind a bit.

A ‘gut-wrenching’ conversation

“This all started in either 1994 or ’95,” said Brian Goldberg, Griffey’s agent. “The Mariners had just called up Alex Rodriguez and there was some disagreement back and forth in the front office about whether to bring him up or not. Long story short: They brought him up, he sat, and he didn’t play a lot, but he got credited for Major League service time. 

“Then you jump ahead to the offseason between 1998 and ’99. The Mariners had some friendly talks with me about extending Junior. He had just turned 29 and had two more years on his contract left. Part of the premise for the Mariners talking then instead of the next offseason was because they kind of miscalculated and never intended Junior and Alex to become free agents in the same year.”

Rodriguez was undoubtedly going to test the free agency waters. He would be just 25 years old following the 2000 season, and with his immense talent was looking at a potential record contract (he ended up signing a then-record 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers). So the Mariners knew they’d have to outbid all others on the open market to retain their young shortstop.

Seattle wanted to explore a contract extension with Griffey in 1998 to get ahead of things and prepare for the A-Rod sweepstakes. Griffey was game, and by the summer of ’99, the two sides had agreed on a framework for an eight-year extension in the neighborhood of $140 million (about $227 million today). But Griffey wasn’t going to sign on the dotted line just yet.

“He told the Mariners that this would all hinge on the last six weeks or so of the season,” Goldberg said. “Because his oldest kid, Trey, was going to be in full-time school [in Orlando, Fla.] for the first time, and so his family was going back home to Florida in mid-August, and the plan was to see Junior over two three-day weekends. He wanted to see how that went, so we kind of held this contract in abeyance.”

Griffey was “miserable” during those last six weeks of the season because of how little time he was able to spend with his family, Goldberg said. He wanted to play closer to his Orlando home.

Following the end of the 1999 season, Mariners general manager Woody Woodward retired. The club’s new GM, Pat Gillick, and president and chief operating officer Chuck Armstrong flew to Florida to meet with Griffey and Goldberg. 

“It was gut-wrenching for both sides,” Goldberg said. “They basically said, ‘Look, we really hope you’ll sign this extension, but if you can’t, can you let us know now so we can explore trading you?’ Because they didn’t want to get into a position where they could lose both Griffey and Alex for just some [Draft] compensation. They wanted to plan ahead, get out front.”

It was a hard conversation. Armstrong is, to this day, “like an uncle” to Griffey, Goldberg said. And that was just one of many close ties that Griffey still maintains within the organization -- he’s even a part owner of the franchise.

As difficult of a discussion as it was, it was one that had to take place. Griffey wasn’t ready to sign the extension given his family concerns, so he gave his OK for Seattle to pursue a potential trade.

‘When are you going to trade me Griffey?’

About a month after the conversation between the Mariners and Griffey took place, Bowden was ready to capitalize for Cincinnati. 

The Queen City was, after all, Griffey’s hometown and the place where he grew up running through the Reds’ clubhouse while his father, Ken Griffey Sr., helped the “Big Red Machine” win back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and ’76. The elder Griffey was even the Reds’ current bench coach. And, crucially, it was much closer to Florida. It seemed like a slam dunk, to mix sports metaphors.

As he neared the hotel hosting the Winter Meetings, Bowden was reading the L.A. Times’ sports section. He chuckled after reading the quote he gave the paper the day before, now printed underneath the headline “Holiday Shopping.”

“I’m not coming to Anaheim to go to Disneyland,” Bowden had said before leaving Cincinnati for Southern California. “It’s no disrespect to Disney, but I’m not interested in Goofy. I’m coming to get Griffey and bring him back to his hometown, where he belongs.”

Bowden was justifiably confident. And giddy for reasons beyond the obvious coup a Griffey deal would represent.

“When Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted [in 1987], he was clearly one of my favorite players,” Bowden said. “I would call Woody [Woodward] every week and ask him what it would take to get Junior. 

“He kept saying to me, ‘Jim, I keep telling you: I am not going to be the GM who trades Ken Griffey Jr. I would resign before I trade Ken Griffey Jr. I’m not going to trade him.’”

Bowden estimates he called Woodward around 60 times over the course of Bowden’s tenure as Reds GM regarding Griffey.

“When I go back and look at my notes, I laugh,” Bowden said. “I was driving Woody absolutely crazy. I was relentless. I just kept calling and asking, ‘When are you going to trade me Griffey?’”

Woodward kept his word -- he wasn’t going to be the one to trade Griffey. That task fell to his successor, Gillick, and Bowden vowed he would not leave California without getting a deal done to bring Griffey to Cincinnati.

As Bowden’s limo pulled up to the hotel, his phone rang.

After a brief conversation, he pocketed the phone and stared at the hotel in disbelief.

“I was devastated,” Bowden said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Bowden was instructed, at the request of Reds ownership, to back out of any Griffey negotiations. Cincinnati wasn’t going to be able to shell out something in the neighborhood of $150 million for an extension to retain Junior after his current deal expired the next year, Bowden was told.

Meanwhile, inside the Anaheim Marriott, another team on the fringe of the Griffey talks but considered a longshot with Cincinnati in the mix was now firmly in play.

‘Junior, you have 20 minutes’

“We didn’t think [Griffey] wanted to go anywhere but Cincinnati,” said Jim Duquette, who was in the front office with the Mets and on the verge of becoming assistant general manager at the time. “When Cincinnati backed out, that’s when we jumped in.”

The Mets were one of four teams that Griffey, who had full no-trade rights as a result of reaching 10 years of Major League service time, including at least five straight with his current club, listed as destinations he would consider. In addition to the Reds and Mets, the others were the Braves and Astros, each of whom had Spring Training facilities close to Griffey’s home in Orlando. But while Cincinnati was in the mix, New York figured it didn’t really stand a chance.

Suddenly, just when Griffey to the Queen City seemed inevitable, Griffey to Queens was back on the table.

“We were talking to the Mariners, and we were so confident that we had a conversation with another free agent, Todd Zeile, who wanted to play first base for us, and we told him that we would ordinarily be interested but we felt really confident that we were gonna get Griffey,” Duquette said.

“Zeile was close to signing with Texas and he told us, ‘I wanna sign with you guys,’ knowing Griffey was gonna come and with Mike Piazza being a good friend of his. So he was ready to restructure his contract so we could do both.”

Within three days, the Mets and Mariners came to an agreement, in principle, on a trade package for Griffey: New York offered outfielder Roger Cedeño and relievers Octavio Dotel and Armando Benitez. 

Now, the question was: Would Griffey accept a trade to the Mets?

Armstrong called Goldberg, and what ensued was something Goldberg said Griffey and both Mariners and Mets front office executives from that time laugh about to this day.

“It was put to Junior that he only had a little while, something like 20 minutes, to make a decision,” Goldberg said. “But here was the disconnect: the Mets had no intention of only giving Junior a few minutes. But let’s just say the Mariners’ brass was in Hawaii and about to go out to dinner. And one of the higher-ups said, ‘No, if this happens within the next 15-20 minutes, fine. But Junior’s got to let us know.’”

Griffey said no to the proposed trade. Later, Armstrong said the 20-minute window wasn’t meant to be a hard deadline for Griffey to make the decision about New York.

Years later, Griffey and Goldberg were at Citi Field shooting a television program with MLB Network and they ran into then-Mets owner Fred Wilpon.

“As we were underneath the stadium, we all came up and said hi,” Goldberg said. “And we all joked about the miscommunication of, ‘Junior, you have 20 minutes.’”

Even though Duquette, general manager Steve Phillips and the Mets weren’t able to land Griffey, the episode remains one of Duquette’s favorites.

“It’s one of my favorite stories because even though we didn’t get him, I’ve told Mets fans the Mets side of the story a couple of different times, and people are fascinated by it,” Duquette said. “They’re like, ‘What?! Are you kidding me? We almost had Griffey?!’"

Not trading for Griffey? ‘Over what player?’

Bowden still had to get through the Winter Meetings. Publicly, talks between the Reds and Mariners regarding Griffey broke down over Seattle’s insistence that middle infielder Pokey Reese be included in the deal (quite possibly as a backup plan in case Rodriguez signed elsewhere in free agency).

Privately, Bowden wasn’t deterred.

“When I left the Winter Meetings, I just said to myself, ‘We can’t let this opportunity get away,’” Bowden recalls. “It just doesn’t make any sense. You can’t have an opportunity to get a player of this magnitude and not follow through and make the deal.”

Though it was an ownership decision, Bowden was taking the blame from Reds fans.

“When the deal didn’t happen, yeah, I might’ve gotten the hate initially,” Bowden said. “But as the GM, you separate yourself from that. You don’t listen to that because you know what the truth is. The fans don’t know, but you don’t beat yourself up when you know the only reason is the owner.”

Soon enough, the criticism began falling on ownership anyway. This was Ken Griffey Jr. they were talking about. He was from Cincinnati’s Moeller High School. He was the son of one of the great Reds in history, and he was now an all-time great himself. This was a guy who, according to Johnny Bench, still hadn’t returned one of the legendary catcher’s masks that Griffey took from his locker as a child all those years ago.

“The organization took such a hit,” Bowden said. “The owner had some tremendous pressure. You’ve got a chance to trade for Griffey and you don’t do it? Over what player? You’re not gonna make the trade over what, Mike Cameron or Pokey Reese or Brett Tomko? I mean, tell us. And the owner felt that pressure.

“I wasn’t commenting because I just figured at some point the right thing was going to happen. Junior wanted to be in Cincinnati. The Mariners wanted to do it and move forward. It just made too much sense. We just had to have patience until it worked for everybody.”

The day it worked for everybody was Thursday, Feb. 10, 2000.

“We just kept going back and forth, and then early in Spring Training I get the call that the owner wants me to move forward with the deal,” Bowden said.

Now that approval from ownership had been granted, the matter of players who would be going to Seattle remained. Gillick and the Mariners continued to insist on Reese being included, but Cincinnati had the leverage -- Griffey wanted to be traded there, which pretty much closed all other doors given his no-trade rights.

In the end, the Mariners got center fielder Mike Cameron -- who, incidentally, shares the same name as Griffey’s high school baseball coach -- right-hander Brett Tomko, Minor League right-hander Jake Meyer and Minor League infielder Antonio Perez.

While the popular consensus at the time was that the Reds had just pulled off the steal of the century in the new century’s first year, things turned out quite well for the Mariners.

“We made a deal that was fair, and really, it worked out for Seattle as well,” Bowden said. “They broke that record, I think, the next year, for most wins in a single season.”

The biggest boon from the deal on Seattle’s side was Cameron, who was entering his age-27 season while coming off a year in which he hit 21 home runs and stole 38 bases for Cincinnati. He posted an .803 OPS with 19 homers and 24 steals in his first season with Seattle, and then had a breakout campaign in 2001, launching 25 homers, swiping 34 bases and driving in 110 runs to help the Mariners win an MLB-record 116 regular-season games.

'I'm finally home'

Meanwhile, Griffey’s homecoming in Cincinnati began with a grand entrance.

“It was really fun,” Bowden said. “Junior and I flew back on [majority owner and CEO Carl Lindner’s] private jet to Cincinnati. We landed and Mr. Lindner was there with a Rolls Royce and limos for everybody, and helicopters that followed us to the Crosley Room at the ballpark to make the announcement. It was a really special time in Reds history.”

Upon putting on a Reds cap and jersey, Griffey spoke to the significance of the moment.

"I'm finally home," he said.

Unfortunately, the warm feelings lasted only so long before injuries marred much of Griffey’s time in a Reds uniform. His 2000 season was what you’d expect -- he smashed 40 homers with a .942 OPS in 145 games despite a slow start at the plate. But he only played in more than 100 games once in the next four years, a span that took him to age 35.

Still, Griffey had some big moments in a Reds uniform, including career home runs No. 500 and No. 600. He also had some vintage performances from 2005-07, when he posted an .876 OPS and belted 92 homers.

“The time in Cincinnati was what it was,” Goldberg said. “There was disappointment. Number one, there were the injuries, and then number two, there was also a lack of surrounding him with other players. And that wasn’t Jim’s fault, it was more of a budget thing.”

The Reds had a good lineup on paper. Bowden had recently added veteran slugger Dante Bichette, and Cincinnati already had future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin along with Sean Casey and Dmitri Young. But pitching was the issue, with four of the club’s starters finishing the 2000 season with ERAs around 5.00. 

The 2000 team finished 85-77, but with Griffey’s injuries and other factors, Cincinnati never finished above .500 in any of the remaining seasons Griffey was on the roster.

The 'House that Griffey Built'

Flash forward seven years.

“I’ll never forget it,” Goldberg said. “Around March of 2007, I get a call from our old friend from the Mariners, Chuck Armstrong. And Chuck said, ‘Hey, Brian. I got permission from the commissioner’s office to give you a call, and the reason is that with the Reds coming here for a weekend during Interleague play, we want to have a night to honor Junior.'”

Goldberg was excited about the prospect of seeing Griffey honored in Seattle and brought the development to his client.

“He was caught off guard,” Goldberg said. “He said, ‘They really want to do that for me? I mean, I know what I did there, but they really want to do that?’”

Goldberg assured Griffey that this was a real request from the Mariners. Griffey’s reaction was one of great humility, but he also had a seemingly strange fear about it all.

“He’s like, ‘Man, that sounds great, but I don’t wanna go back there and get booed,’” Goldberg said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’”

On June 22, 2007, the Reds visited Safeco Field in Seattle for a three-game series, marking the first time Griffey returned to play his former team since the trade in 2000. Prior to the series opener on Friday night, the Mariners held a special ceremony for Griffey, and when Armstrong took the podium, he made it clear that without the man standing just behind him, the ballpark in which they stood would not exist.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Armstrong said. “This beautiful ballpark, Safeco Field, is truly the ‘House that Ken Griffey Jr. Built.’ … Junior, you brought so much joy to all of us during your career here in Seattle. We loved watching you play this great game. Whether it was a clutch hit, a game-saving catch, or a burst of speed to score from first on a double down the left-field line, every night we came to the ballpark wondering, ‘What will Ken Griffey do next?’”

If Griffey needed any confirmation about how they felt about him in the Pacific Northwest, he got it that night. As he was introduced and walked toward the podium, former teammate Jay Buhner said to him, “Listen, now you know they love you, brother.”

Griffey’s first words to the 46,340 fans in attendance were:

“Wow. Never did I imagine it’d be like this coming back.”

Griffey went 1-for-5 in his first game against his former team. But two days later, he launched a pair of home runs for old time’s sake in the series finale, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Though it was questionable at the time whether he’d ever get another chance to homer in Seattle, that question was answered the next year.

Home

With the Reds out of contention in July of 2008, the club decided to trade Griffey, now 38. His destination was the South Side of Chicago, where the White Sox were vying for the AL Central title. 

Griffey played in 41 games for Chicago down the stretch, and the White Sox did win the division before losing to the Rays in the AL Division Series.

Nearing his 39th birthday, Griffey had a decision to make on whether he would continue playing or not.

“There’s all this talk about, like, hey, maybe Junior will go back to Seattle and DH for a year,” Goldberg said. “And Junior was like, ‘Well, I’m not sure what I want to do, where I want to play, if I want to play,’ that sort of thing.”

Armstrong called Goldberg during that offseason and said that the Mariners weren’t able to offer Griffey a contract to return to Seattle right then and there because new GM Jack Zduriencik was going to put the roster together and see where things stood first. However, he said the franchise would love to see things work out so that Griffey could retire in a Mariners uniform.

“So it comes down to early February, a couple weeks before Spring Training,” Goldberg said. “And Junior says to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you come down to Florida for a couple days, we’ll hash this out.’"

It ended up becoming a choice between retirement or playing for the Braves or the Mariners after Armstrong called again with an offer for Griffey to return to Seattle.

Armstrong met with Griffey and Goldberg during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament in which Griffey was participating. Two weeks later, on Feb. 18, 2009, Griffey signed a one-year contract to return to where his storied career began.

It was a little different this time around, though.

“He was a great mentor to the young kids on the team," Goldberg said. "The writers all loved having him around. And on the last day of the season, the whole team hoisted Junior and Ichiro on their shoulders and did a lap around the stadium.”

The night before, Griffey connected for the 630th and final home run of his incredible career. It was his 1,190th career extra-base hit, tying him with Lou Gehrig for seventh on the all-time list. 

The homer was also Griffey’s 417th as a Mariner, and it came 20 years, five months and, fittingly, 24 days after his first, which he hit on April 10, 1989.

If you told someone who watched the 19-year-old phenom rounding the bases at the Kingdome that some two decades later, he’d hit his final home run in Seattle, that person would probably have assumed it was a Hall-of-Fame career spent with one team.

The route wasn’t a straight line, but Griffey ended his career in the right place. And the trade that sent him to Cincinnati 22 years ago remains one of the most significant transactions in baseball history. 

It was also one of the most stunning given the caliber of player involved.

“It’s like Willie Mays being traded in his prime, or Hank Aaron being traded in his prime,” said Duquette, whose Mets were a close second in acquiring Griffey. “It’s that level of player.”

Any baseball fan who was alive the day Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to the Reds remembers it well. It was the day, as Bowden said while announcing the deal, that "the Michael Jordan of baseball" returned home. 

Home. It's a word that holds many connotations. Griffey was "finally home" when he arrived in Cincinnati in 2000. But upon his return to Seattle as a visiting player seven years later, he said that Seattle would always be home.

Where is home? Is it where you grew up and your dad became a star baseball player? Or is it where you became an all-time great yourself, creating unforgettable memories and lifting the fortunes of an entire Major League franchise?

The month of February, both in 2000 and '09, demonstrated that the answer to those questions for Ken Griffey Jr. is: Yes.