Healthy Griffey eyes redemption

Editor's Note -- Joe Morgan will take your questions in an ESPN.com chat on Friday at 10:30 a.m. ET.

More from Joe Morgan: Junior Griffey's near-miss hit

I wish I could say that I expected the Cincinnati Reds to be in first place in early June. I've always pulled for my former team, and I thought the Reds could be a good ballclub this year if they stayed healthy. But I'm as surprised as anyone that the Reds lead the NL Central over the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals.

And while first baseman Sean Casey is having a fantastic year, I still believe that Ken Griffey Jr. is the key for the Reds.

When Griffey is healthy, he is still one of the most complete players in the game, if not the most complete. His presence in center field takes the pressure off Cincinnati's other young outfielders, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, which can help them to develop into the stars I believe they will become.

Griffey invited Kearns and Dunn to work out with him this past offseason near his home in Florida. Griffey told me before Opening Day that he was hopeful they all would have great 2004 seasons because the offseason had gone well and they had developed such a good rapport.

While Griffey is the key for the Reds, the key for Griffey is staying healthy. Injuries have been at the root of his troubles in Cincinnati.

Homecoming Love?
After Griffey spent the first 11 years of his career with the Seattle Mariners, a trade brought him home to Cincinnati after the 1999 season. Griffey's father, Ken Griffey Sr., won two World Series as a member of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine clubs in the 1970s.

I've been asked if Griffey will ever be loved by Reds' fans the same way they've embraced those Big Red Machine stars. The answer right now is "no" -- because of the way his career in Cincinnati has been derailed by injuries and because he hasn't been part of a championship team.

But I think Griffey will be loved by Reds fans if he's able to stay healthy and simply plays his game in his remaining time in Cincinnati (he's under contract through 2008). If the 34-year-old leads the Reds to the playoffs or to a World Series victory, he could achieve the status of some of the other stars in the Reds pantheon.

Staying injury-free has been Griffey's biggest challenge the past three years. He was healthy in 2000, his first year in Cincinnati, and he hit 40 home runs with 118 RBI and 100 runs. But the Reds finished second in the NL Central and missed the playoffs -- and that failure fell squarely (though unfairly) on his shoulders.

Since then, injuries have hit Griffey hard. In 2001, he hurt his hamstring in spring training and was limited to 111 games. In 2002, Griffey injured his right knee (torn patellar tendon) and tore his right hamstring, so he played in only 70 games. In 2003, Griffey dislocated his right shoulder and played in just 53 games.

The bottom line is that Griffey is now in his fifth season with the Reds, and the franchise has yet to reach the postseason since their franchise player arrived. While this isn't his fault, of course -- you can't produce when you're on the disabled list -- the public perception is that Griffey has become the problem rather than the cure.

Lack of Support
But I'm less concerned with the fans' view of Griffey -- fans tend to be fickle anyway -- than with the way the Reds organization has handled his injury situation. In my opinion, the front office has not given Griffey the support a player of his caliber deserves.

For instance, the Reds were working on an offseason trade that would have sent Griffey to the San Diego Padres for Phil Nevin, and the potential deal became public before all the details were finalized. But the organization should have made sure this was a done deal before anything was leaked to the press.

That news leak made it appear that the Reds would rather have Nevin than Griffey. To Griffey, that must have come across as a slap in the face.

Think about it: Griffey has nearly 500 home runs (498 and counting), he's been one of the most dominant players of his era and he's the the only active everyday player to be named to the All-Century Team (Astros starter Roger Clemens is the only active pitcher).

To me, there's no doubt that Griffey was the best player of the 1990s and still can be one of the best (if not the best) today. Nevin is a good player, but he's now in his 10th year and he's hit 154 homers. Nevin for Griffey? I don't think so. As I see it, the problem is not so much the Reds fans as it is the organization's questionable handling of Griffey's difficult situation.

I predicted before the season started that if Griffey stays healthy, he'll hit 40 home runs this year. And with 17 homers in two months, he's on pace for 40.

Also, if he's able to play a full season, I expect Griffey to win another Gold Glove this year to add to the 10 he already owns (10 straight from 1990-99 with Seattle). I'm surprised at people who think Griffey's defensive skills no longer warrant Gold Glove consideration.

Renewed Joy
I believe Griffey will get even better as the season progresses, because when an athlete returns from an injury, the tendency is to be cautious at first rather than go full-bore. As he regains confidence, we'll see the Griffey of old -- a guy who plays the game the way it's supposed to be played.

When Griffey was with Seattle, what always impressed me was that you could see he enjoyed being on a baseball field. His love for the game has reminded me of Willie Mays. Griffey made it clear that he wouldn't want to be anyplace else.

In recent years, that's been missing due to the injury factor and other circumstances that have been beyond his control.

For his sake, I hope Griffey can recapture the joy he had in Seattle. I hope he can find enjoyment in being on the field everyday. Forget about the chase for No. 500 and the other impressive numbers -- my wish for Ken Griffey Jr. is that he'll truly enjoy playing baseball again. If he does, everything else will fall into place.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.