When image is almost everything


ATLANTA - Maybe Sammy Sosa is just an act. Maybe Ken Griffey Jr. is just misunderstood.

In an age in which perception is reality, does it even matter?

The modern superstar is celebrated for his entertainment value as much as his athletic ability. And if the contrast between Sosa and Griffey wasn't obvious before, it certainly became obvious at baseball's All-Star festivities.

It wasn't Griffey's name that fans at Turner Field chanted during the Home Run Derby. And it wasn't Griffey's smile that lit up Atlanta and put a happy face on the sport.

The past two days belonged to Sosa, and not simply because Griffey was unable to play in last night's All-Star Game due to a nagging knee injury.

Griffey once was considered a latter-day Say Hey Kid, turning his cap backward and playing with childlike joy. The image was never quite accurate. And now it belongs to someone else.

Which slugger broke into broad grins after each of his successful swings in the Home Run Derby? Sosa. Which slugger finds it easier to endure media intrusions, trade rumors and contract squabbles? Sosa again.

Griffey's Cincinnati homecoming was the feel-good story of the off-season, and his decision to sign a below-market value contract drew almost unanimous praise.

But midway through his first season with the Reds, Griffey still hasn't found happiness. And even though he forced his former team into a horrible trade, the Seattle Mariners are in first place.

Griffey no longer is 'The Kid" - he turns 31 in November. Yet, his flashes of immaturity seem to be coming in more rapid bursts, and his trademark smile has been replaced by a world-weary stare.

You should have seen him at his media session Monday, speaking in an almost inaudible monotone, looking as if the weight of being Ken Griffey Jr. was just too much to bear.

Griffey denied a report that said he called ESPN to complain about the network showing too many Jim Edmonds highlights. And he failed to portray his participation in the Home Run Derby as proof of his obligation to the game.

"Day in and day out, everything I do is negative or not good enough," Griffey said. "I don't do something that someone thinks I should and I get cheap-shotted. So what happens if I didn't show?"

Well, Mark McGwire didn't show, and hardly anyone said a word. But Griffey had to be shamed into competing in the 1998 contest by fans who booed him at Coors Field. So now, people are suspicious of his motives.

Such is life as a superstar - it isn't always easy, and it isn't always fair. But Sosa just went through a period in which he drew criticism for one-dimensional play, bickered with Cubs manager Don Baylor and nearly was traded.

His response was classic Sammy:

What, me, worry?

"You can never give up, no matter what is happening to you," Sosa said after winning the Home Run Derby. "I know I have people behind me who support me and love me."

Maybe Sosa has figured out that fans can't help but love a player who is grateful to be playing a little boy's game in the greatest country on earth. But his exuberant personality is so refreshing, only a total cynic would label him a phony.

And yet, Sosa, too, is not as happy-go-lucky as he appears.

His agents recently informed Cubs management that Sosa would exercise his right to block any trade, but their position likely will change this winter if the team fails to offer him a contract extension.

Sosa is decidedly high-maintenance. He travels with an entourage, seems to play by his own rules and has gained weight in recent seasons, reducing his outfield range and base-stealing ability.

Thus, he's a classic modern player, the antithesis of "The Oriole Way" that Baylor grew up with. The Cubs might be perfectly justified if they decide that he isn't worth a long-term investment at $20 million per season.

But can anyone imagine Sosa pulling a Griffey and turning into Sammy Sour?

Griffey reportedly was envious of Alex Rodriguez in Seattle and dissatisfied with the dimensions of Safeco Field. He allowed the Mariners to trade him to only one team, and seemed likely to sulk through the final year of his contract if they failed to meet his demand.

The Reds have no other superstar. Their new park, set to open in 2003, will be power-friendly for left-handed hitters. And their fans embraced Griffey the same way that St. Louis Cardinals fans embraced Mark McGwire.

What more can a player want?

True, Griffey got off to a slow start, and his batting average is still only .238 even though his power numbers are at their usual levels. But that's no excuse for his season disintegrating into one controversy after another.

Griffey tried to wangle No. 24 after the Reds had announced it would be retired for Tony Perez. He yelled at his father, Reds coach Ken Griffey Sr., after coming out of a game. And then he supposedly called ESPN about Edmonds.

Maybe Griffey is misunderstood. Maybe Sosa is just an act.

But image is everything these days.

And a smile is always preferable to a scowl.

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