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Sam Donnellon: What-ifs don't bug Ken Griffey Jr.

THE MOST COMPLETE ballplayer of the pre-Chase Utley era came to town yesterday one home run shy of 600, feeling a little banged up, a little old, too, but by no means feeling sorry for himself.

THE MOST COMPLETE ballplayer of the pre-Chase Utley era came to town yesterday one home run shy of 600, feeling a little banged up, a little old, too, but by no means feeling sorry for himself.

"You can't wallow on what-ifs," Ken Griffey Jr. was saying as he held court in the Reds' clubhouse last night. "That's something I try to teach my kids. Don't be a what-if. Whatever you do, whether you win or lose, as long as you give me the effort."

Junior's defiance is still there. A father of three, now 38, the days of wearing his hat backward during batting practice are gone, long gone, as gone as those seasons of 40-plus home runs and a zillion runs batted in, those seasons when he ran down everything within his ZIP code, and ran into things, too.

These days, the defiance appears within those what-ifs, within the ponderings over his choices and over his luck.

What if that team had been kept together in Seattle, the one with Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner? Would he have a ring? Two?

What if he went to New York as a free agent instead of his hometown 9 years ago? Would he have a ring? Two?

What if he played the game with a little less zest, chasing after balls more like Bobby Abreu than a hyperactive golden retriever? What if he played first, third, or even shortstop? Would he have stayed healthy? Played more games? Be chasing down his 700th or 800th home run right now instead of his 600th?

"Some people are luckier than others," he said. "That's the way I look at it. Some people have a horseshoe that they find. Maybe I'll get mine, but I don't really worry about it. It's not going to affect me going out there and doing what I'm supposed to do and that's help this team win."

Actually last night Griffey sat, sidelined with what was officially described as "general soreness" but what is mostly a cranky left knee. It's the latest injury in nearly a decade's worth of misfortune, a minor irritant, really, considering what he has been through. Torn left hamstring, torn right hamstring, patellar tendon, dislocated right shoulder, a weird ankle injury, a weird knee injury - if he ever finds that horseshoe, he might rip up some body part trying to pick it up.

OK, a cheap joke at the expense of a player whose misfortune is paradoxically connected to his approach. From his first day as a major leaguer to last night's congenial conversation with a group of reporters, Griffey has disdained talk of his statistics and embraced conversations about his glove. "I have 27 chances to make a difference," he said. "But I may get four at-bats. That's one of the things as a kid my father said: Take pride in your defense. That's how you stay around for a while."

The paradox is that some of those 27 chances have made him disappear for a while, plopped him on the disabled list, stalled a statistical march on all kinds of records, most notably home runs. After missing just eight games in his final three seasons with Seattle, Griffey missed 348 games in his first five seasons with the Reds.

Since then, he has battled through a lot of little stuff, even managed to play 144 games last season, when he hit .277 and 30 home runs. Last night was only the fourth game he has missed this season, but the numbers he has posted so far have been, well, pedestrian. A .255 average, six home runs and 27 runs batted in - and his age - all suggest that 700 will soon join that long list of what-ifs that already surround his name.

There's one missing, though, and in this day and age it's an important one. Griffey has produced his numbers without even the taint of suspicion, without even the innuendo of steroid use. Asked about it last night, he said, "My thing was don't embarrass your teammates, the organization or your family."

Besides, he said, he never wanted to break Hank Aaron's career home-run record, or Roger Maris' single-season record.

"My dad was the guy I wanted to be like," he said. "The guy who looked like me, acted like me, took care of me. That's who I wanted to be like. Didn't think I'd be better than him. He said I would be and I was like, 'Right.' I was 14 when he said it. Sometimes dad does know best, but when you're 14 you don't want to hear it. I'm going through it with my 14-year-old now."

Dad is supposed to be here this week, probably today. Because of that, Junior conceded, he will celebrate the 600th, deem it significant, savor the names of some of those historic names in that tiny club he will join. Aaron . . . Ruth . . . Mays.

"It's just . . . weird," he said. "It's overwhelming at some points. Embarrassing sometimes. Because I never would have dreamed I would be in the position I am." *

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