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Tributes pour in from around league
06/20/2004 11:14 PM ET
Alex Rodriguez, now the Yankees' third baseman, was walking toward the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium when he was told that his old friend Ken Griffey Jr. had just hit his milestone 500th homer on Sunday to lead off the sixth inning against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Rodriguez and Junior, of course, were teammates in Seattle with the Mariners and parted ways when Griffey was traded to Cincinnati after the 1999 season.

"I'm very happy for him. It's very exciting," Rodriguez said hours before the Yankees were scheduled to take on the Dodgers. "I think 500 is a nice feat, but I still believe he's going to go to 600 and 700 next. I really do. His injuries are behind him. I think he's still young enough. I think deep inside he really wants to make a run at something significant. That's my thinking."

Griffey -- 34 years old -- had been hampered by injuries over the last three seasons, when he played 252 games out of a possible 486 and hit just 43 homers. After his first season with the Reds, Griffey was only 68 homers away from the 500 mark. He became the 20th player in baseball history to do it Sunday when he homered off Cards' right-hander Matt Morris on a 2-and-2 pitch, his 19th of the young season.

Lou Piniella, Griffey's manager in Seattle and now skipper of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, said he noticed that Griffey had a real purpose when he saw him in Florida during Spring Training.

"When I had him in Seattle, he was one of the top players in the game. The only question was his health," Piniella said on Sunday in Phoenix, where the Devil Rays were playing the Diamondbacks. "But I saw him this spring and he had that look, like, 'I'm healthy again and ready to get after it.' I'm happy for Junior. He deserves it."

Pinella is currently managing Fred McGriff, who has 493 homers and could become the 21st player to reach 500 later this season.

"Junior's a tremendous player. And he could easily have had 550 or 600 home runs if he had stayed healthy," McGriff said.

More Griffey tributes
Houston's Jeff Bagwell: "Hell of a feat. I hear people nowadays, they're always saying how 500 home runs is diminished. I'm not one of those people that believe that. That's a hell of a lot of home runs. "He's been through some injuries the last few years and I'm happy for him. I understand what it's like to go through injuries and things like that. A lot of people were down on him, to come back and have a good year and get 500 home runs that's quite an accomplishment."

Houston's Craig Biggio: "Five hundred is a huge number. He's been a great player for a lot of years and it's nice to see him be able to stay healthy and come back and get that number. I'm happy for him."

Kansas City manager Tony Peña: "The kid worked hard. Just to see what he's done this year coming back from an injury, I'm happy for him."

Atlanta's John Smoltz: "I never got the opportunity to pitch against him when he was healthy in Seattle, but I can only imagine that it would have been a great challenge. It had to be like pitching to Barry Bonds now. There were managers who treated Griffey with that same kind of caution. Now he's healthy again and you can see why people considered him to be the best player in the game for so long."

Detroit's Dmitri Young: "That's awesome. I talked to him yesterday. He was a little nervous. He had his family and all his friends in St. Louis. They'd been traveling for the last two weeks. It's good for him to finally get that monkey off his back now. We'll just wait until the end of 2005. In 2005, he should be around 560, 570, approaching 600. He's back."

Toronto's Miguel Batista: "You're happy for him, in a lot of ways. He was a guy that dominated the league for so many years. Amazing talent, nice and easy swing. It's good to see that players still perform and entertain people. Babe Ruth is gone, but we've still got Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire was here for years, but we've still got Sammy Sosa. Heroes will always prevail in this game. Hopefully, as young as Griffey is, we can hope that he'll last another 10 years and take his shot at the record. The whole world buys the papers and watches the news, and that's what we try to do in that game: Entertain people."

Griffey is the fourth active player to have crossed the threshold in recent years following San Francisco's Barry Bonds, the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro.

"I love it. I'm proud of him," Bonds said in San Francisco on Sunday where the Giants defeated the Red Sox, 4-0. "He'll start hitting them in bunches now and get on a roll."

Bonds has 18 homers this season, is third on the all-time list with 676, and is chasing Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755).

"Hitting 500 homers is still a tremendous achievement. It has to be," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "I know home runs have been cheapened by a number of things. They're making ballparks smaller, the pitching isn't as deep and all that stuff. Still, hitting 500 is pretty impressive. What's remarkable about Junior: he was going to be the youngest one to get there. Even though he's had all the injuries the last few years, it's still big time."

Meanwhile, tributes to Griffey came pouring in from all over Major League Baseball. Griffey earned high praise from Expos manager Frank Robinson, who hit 586 homers during his 21-year playing career that ended in 1976 and is fifth on the all-time list.

"I'd like to congratulate him on the tremendous accomplishment," said Robinson, whose Expos defeated the Chicago White Sox, 4-2, on Sunday at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. "If not for the injuries he has had the last two or three years, he would have been at 500 long before now. It's nice to see him playing again, having fun and producing."

Sosa, who has 10 homers this season and just passed Mike Schmidt to go into ninth place on the all-time list with 549, offered all his best wishes.

"Congratulations, Griffey. It's very nice that another guy hits 500," said Sosa, whose Cubs beat the Oakland A's, 5-3, at Wrigley Field. "He's been hurt a lot of years, and now he has a chance to enjoy the 500 club. I'm so happy for him. It's great. It's a big thing, 500 home runs. All the best to Junior and I hope he can continue."

Philadelphia's Jim Thome, who recently hit his 400th tater and may one day join Griffey in the 500 Club, says Griffey has "the prettiest left-handed swing." Dodgers slugger Shawn Green, who's in his 12th season and has hit 261 homers, said he knows how tough it must be to reach 500. Green has hit only eight this season.

"He's one of the best of his era and he's had a lot of injuries, so it's nice to see him healthy again," said Green, who hit four homers in a single game as a Dodger two years ago. "Five hundred is a ton of home runs. I realize how great a feat it is after having a tough year last year (19 homers, down from 42 in 2002). I've had some good years and I'm only halfway to his level, having had a few glitches in the road."

Jack McKeon, the manager of the defending World Series champion Florida Marlins now, was Griffey's manager in Cincinnati during the 2000 season when Junior hit 40 homers. Like Rodriguez, McKeon thinks that Griffey has some big things left in him.

"(Barring injuries) he'd probably be around 550 right now," said the 73-year-old McKeon. "When they built that stadium in Cincinnati a few years back (Great American Ball Park), they figured he might be the one to do it (challenge Aaron). They didn't make right field too big. I think that plateau, 500 home runs, is automatic for the Hall of Fame. He will probably end up with 600, at least, before his career is over. Depending on how long he plays, he might get 700."

Edgar Martinez, who went to the playoffs with Griffey (1995 and 1997) when they both played for the Mariners, said his former teammate hasn't lost his ability to sting the ball.

"After a couple of years of being hurt, he has bounced back this year and he never lost his swing," said the 41-year-old designated hitter, now in his 18th season. "Impressive at his age to already have 500. He always said he wasn't a home run hitter, but now that he has 500, tough to say that. He controls the bat really well and has a great swing."

Another former Seattle teammate, Phillies pitcher Paul Abbott, remembered his first camp with the Mariners in 1987.

"Griffey is hitting balls to the opposite field like it's nothing. Getting to see him up close and personal, and see how he plays on both sides of the ball, to see how hard he plays. He carries himself like a superstar, it's easy to forget how hard he plays. There are grinders on every team who can get the job done. Then there are the special guys who make it look easy. Griffey makes it look easy."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.