Star pupil learning from the best

Star pupil learning from the best

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Aspiring painters who want to learn about the best of their chosen crafts might visit the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel or the Guggenheim. Smart aspiring comedians watch Richard Pryor tapes or seek out Jerry Seinfeld backstage.

And when a top prospect like Jay Bruce wants advice about hitting and playing the game, why not ask the best? Especially when that person is a baseball Library of Congress like Ken Griffey Jr., who is located just a few feet from your locker in the Reds' clubhouse.

Like many from his generation, the 20-year-old Bruce idolized Griffey as a kid.

"I had his shoes and tried to hit like him," Bruce said.

In his first big league camp with the Reds as he is fighting to become the everyday center fielder, Bruce hasn't squandered the chance to learn from Griffey. The Texas native isn't afraid to pepper the veteran with questions, and more questions.

"I just kind of get his feel on things," Bruce said. "I try not to seem like a pest. He's been great. He's answered everything I need. He talks to me a lot and he's a great leader by example, too."

Reds manager Dusty Baker came into the Majors with the Braves and had legend Hank Aaron to learn from in the late 1960s and early '70s. Baker had conversations with Griffey over the offseason, and he urged him to be a source of leadership for younger guys.

Griffey broke into the Majors in 1989 with the Mariners, and as a Reds player since 2000, he has more tenure with Cincinnati than anyone in the clubhouse. The 38-year-old seems to have embraced the opportunity to give back to the next generation, not just Bruce. He welcomes questions and tries to help players with advice about hitting and playing in the big leagues.

"As a player, I'm not the future of this organization," said Griffey, who is entering the final guaranteed season in an eight-year contract signed in 2000. "I'm not the jealous type. I'm going to give. He's a young kid that wants to ask questions. I've been around. If I don't know the answer, I'll say, 'I don't know the answer.'

"Someone may tell him something he wants to hear or tell him something that could get him more messed up. Everybody is here to make this organization the best organization. I'm part of that. If a young kid asks me a question, I have to answer it. I was one of those young kids."

Bruce is Baseball America's No. 1 prospect in the game for 2008, but he has been ready and willing to listen. A frequent target of veteran teasing, he knows his place and readily accepts it.

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That's why Bruce has been all ears when Griffey speaks. And he's all eyes when the superstar walks through the clubhouse or up to the plate. Want to know what to expect from a certain pitcher or situation? Ask him. Want to know how Griffey goes about hitting vs. that pitcher in that situation? Watch him.

"I learn from him, on and off the field," Bruce said. "[Both] the way he carries himself and handles himself. He's been doing it for close to 20 years and is still as professional as can be. He's never late. He gets here on time and gets his work in. He's been great to me so far. Anything I need to know, I can ask him. He's great about telling me."

Despite being off to a solid start this spring, batting .400 (6-for-15) with three RBIs, Bruce still has his hands full. He started out trying to beat out Norris Hopper and Ryan Freel for the center-field job. But another prospect, Chris Dickerson, has really impressed Baker, and the Reds recently signed Corey Patterson to a Minor League deal with a camp invite.

Bruce also missed the previous five days with a mild left quadriceps strain. He returned to the lineup as the designated hitter on Saturday vs. the Braves and went 0-for-3 with a walk and one RBI.

While Bruce attempts to give Baker and the Reds' front office possibly the hardest roster decision of spring, Griffey has advised the prospect not to become wound too tight about the position battle.

"I think he has to just play, no matter where it is," Griffey said. "If it's here, he's going to play. You're not going to have a 20-year-old sit on the bench. If it's at Triple-A, he's going to play. He just can't worry about trying to impress the guys up here. He has to play and get as much experience up here while he's here. If he succeeds, he stays. If he doesn't, he can't get down and think it's a demotion. It isn't.

"He will be here. That's a given."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.