They were all there. The manager. The general manager. When Ken Griffey Jr. saw the owner, too, worry set in. "I thought I was in trouble," he said.
They told him to sit down, Dusty Baker and Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini, the Cincinnati Reds' brass. They apologized for interrupting his lunch. They had something to tell him. They wanted to trade him to the Chicago White Sox. They needed to know if he would approve.
Griffey smiled. If there's anything prettier in Ken Griffey Jr.'s world than his swing, it's his smile. It's got different incarnations: the reserved one follows a home run, the joker one after a particularly good knee-slapper, the beaming one after a good deed by one of his kids. This was the classic one, the one made famous on his 1989 Upper Deck card, the one that, even though he's pushing 40, reminds us that he is and always will be The Kid.
Finally, after 8½ seasons in Cincinnati – 8½ eminently frustrating years in which the Reds never surrounded Griffey with the players they promised, and Griffey never stayed healthy enough to deliver the kind of performance they expected – he was off to a team in contention. Pending his approval, which meant the approval of his wife, Melissa, and that wasn't too difficult a sell.
"She understands why I'm still playing," Griffey said. "I have enough money to take care of my family for generations. I'm still playing because I love baseball. I still have something to accomplish."
Griffey lounged into a black leather couch. He didn't need to say that his fingers remain naked after 20 major-league seasons. No ring, let alone a World Series appearance. Everything – 600 home runs, $150 million in contracts, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, one faux Presidential campaign and the respect and admiration as the greatest presumably clean star of his generation – except a championship chance.
So, yeah, even before consulting with Melissa, he had a good idea that he'd need to call his broker to find a place in Chicago. Griffey went back to the lunch table and sat down nonchalantly. This smile was sly, the sort Griffey often used when talking with Adam Dunn, his best friend on the Reds.
"I got traded," Griffey said.
Dunn's response, G-rated: No you didn't.
"I got traded," Griffey said again, and this time, Dunn could tell he was serious.
He wasn't quite sure how to respond, either, because Griffey's name had come up enough times in trade talks that you'd think he had his own article in NAFTA. No deal ever worked out, a combination of Griffey's hefty contract and the waning impact of his bat.
Still, White Sox general manager Ken Williams saw Griffey as the final bat to push his pitching-rich team into the playoffs, even if his .432 slugging percentage is his lowest since his rookie season in '89. Gears don't move as well as they used to. It's part of aging, Griffey joked. In his teens, he could start training for the season in February. In his 20s, it was January. Now? November.
Which makes him wonder: Is it worth it? For now, the answer is yes. Griffey is looking forward to hitting the free-agent market for the first time in his career, even if it was undeniably rude to late-30s, Hall of Fame-caliber talent this offseason. He's got plenty of time to watch his eldest son, Trey, race souped-up go-karts, and see his daughter, Taryn, play travel-team basketball, and encourage his baby, 6-year-old Tevin, in tackle football games.
"Trey tells me I should keep playing until he goes to college," Griffey said. "Because he knows that as long as I'm playing, I'm not around to enforce the rules. He's a smart kid."
Retirement is a dirty word to Griffey. It signals the end of something: for him, a great career that should have been even better, and for an entire generation that wore its hats backward in tribute to Griffey, a simpler time right before steroids turned baseball into Byzantine mess.
Nick Swisher, who will share time with Griffey in center field for the White Sox, grew up with posters of Junior on his wall. He sat across from Griffey on the couch, punching the buttons of his PSP, talking trash in a tennis game with pitcher D.J. Carrasco.
"A couple of ballplayers playing tennis," Griffey said. "Look at that."
Swisher laughed. Ken Griffey Jr. was ripping him. How cool.
For the rest of Griffey's career, however long it is, such sentiment will trail him. As much as he wants to live in the present, his past remains so woven in baseball's fabric that differentiating the two is difficult, unless Griffey can unlock his power stroke one more time and push the White Sox past pesky Minnesota and a Detroit team that won't die.
It's rather odd, as it is, seeing him in the White Sox uniform. The images are so indelible, him as a superstar in a Mariners uniform and an aging star in a Reds one, that anything different takes some getting used to.
And, really, that's for all parties involved. Griffey talks about how he played with Dewayne Wise and knows Jermaine Dye – and then remembers playing against Ozzie Guillen, his manager, and Williams, his boss. He sidles into center field nightly, for the first time since 2006, aware that he doesn't move like he used to – and then does it, because he wants to believe he can play the position. He swings and misses on a 90-mph fastball – and then turns on one that clocks in at 92 and thrashes a single to right field, just to remind everyone that some bat speed remains.
Junior runs to first base, rounds the bag and smiles, the classic one again. He's on a baseball field, in a pennant race, fighting for that jewelry, The Kid reborn.