CINCINNATI – Fishing is an activity best left to fathers and sons, a lesson Ken Griffey Jr. learned in the woody recesses of southern Ohio. His dad, Ken Griffey, the All-Star outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds, would drag Junior out to stocked ponds just to see the look on his son's face when he caught one. Family traditions being what they are, Griffey Jr. saw fishing as a birthright for his sons, a chance to give them the same sense of success his father gifted him.
He did it out of selflessness, the Golden Rule embodied, with no pretense that he'd get anything in return.
"And then, one day, my 4-year-old, Tevin, is reeling his line in, and it's moving kind of funny," Griffey Jr. said. "There was no way anything is on there. And there it is. A puffer fish, no bigger than 5 inches, on a 30-pound test line. You couldn't even make a sandwich out of it. On a half piece of bread.
"But he held the fish up. Because he caught it."
What does it mean to be a dad? Moments like those, contends Ken Griffey Jr., father of three and one of his generation's best baseball players, if not the finest. It's not as much about Old Spice and underwear, his annual present to his dad on Father's Day, as it is the 364 other days of the year when the real fathering is done.
Like earlier this week. Tevin woke up at 4:40 a.m. He wasn't satisfied being the only one awake, so he shook dad from his slumber. Not Trey, his 12-year-old brother, and not Taryn, his 10-year-old sister, and not his mom, Melissa. Dad.
Because baseball limits time with him to the winter months, generally, and the six-week respite during the summer when the Griffey clan comes to Cincinnati is for catching up. It's the same drill Griffey Jr. grew up with, the one familiar to Barry Bonds and Aaron Boone and David Bell and Moises Alou, pro ballplayers themselves, and all of the sons and daughters orphaned during the big-league season.
The first half of his life, Griffey Jr. was regarded as his father's son. Then, quickly, he became a Hall of Fame player. And now, at least in his eyes, he still might be a son, still might be a ballplayer but, above all, he's a dad.
For all the time Griffey Jr. spent in the offseason fishing and hunting pheasant with his father, scant few days were around big-league ballparks. In fact, the first time Griffey Jr. watched a game from a big-league dugout was when Seattle took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft.
"My dad didn't believe in bringing me around," Griffey Jr. said. "I was his son, and he wasn't going to force me into anything I didn't go to naturally. Trey loves football. My daughter loves basketball. If Tevin plays baseball, my whole year will be complete. I'll get me the Madden bus and just tour the country."
Junior thinks over that plan.
"Hell, naw," he said. "We'll fly. It's faster."
Already Griffey Jr. tries to bridge the distance in season. Melissa tapes Trey and Taryn's games and uploads them onto the computer when she gets home. When he's done at work, Griffey Jr. plops himself in front of his LocationFree TV or computer and watches what he missed.
"And they don't like it," he said. "That's part of being a parent, you know? I want them to have fun, but I also want them to get better. If there are things I see, I make suggestions on how they can improve. I try to tell them, I play every play like it's my last, because you never know. If you play hard and get hurt, you get hurt playing hard, and that's OK."
Griffey Jr. scheduled a family vacation to the Bahamas during the All-Star break. Then the balloting emerged and he found himself in third place, with Carlos Beltran catchable in second, and his flight likely heading to Pittsburgh instead of the Caribbean.
"We started this thing a couple years ago where we'd spin the globe and that's where we go on vacation," he said. "We let my daughter spin it, and you'll never guess the first place she hit. I could say there's a whole lot of ruins there now."
"Iraq," Griffey Jr. said. "She just spun it and pointed. And Melissa's like, We're going to make this real easy here,' because the next place Taryn spun was Iceland. Between these two lines,' she said, and she pointed to somewhere warm. We ended up in the Bahamas."
Getting the chance to go back would be an excellent Father's Day present to complement the one he already got, a stuffed bull shark painted with purple and red flames to match his apartment's accent colors.
Though the best gift he's ever seen is the one he gave two years ago. For a full week, Griffey Jr.'s family had traveled hoping to see him hit his 500th career home run. Finally, in St. Louis, on June 20, with Trey and his grandfather sitting along the third-base line, Griffey Jr. blasted a homer to right field.
"I hit it, and as I got to second base, I could see them," he said. "I wanted to start laughing. Because a good thing happened on a good day. My son, my dad – I couldn't ask for a better day for it to happen than on Father's Day."
Some things are just meant for fathers and sons.