Seven home runs shy of becoming the sixth-youngest player to hit 500, Ken Griffey Jr. may be baseball's most forgotten player. After missing more than 250 games in the past three seasons because of injuries, Griffey finds himself having to rehabilitate his athletic reputation as well as his body.

As Griffey approaches the milestone, there may be a public tendency to mourn rather than celebrate, to place an R.I.P. on a career that might have been the greatest ever but wasn't, rather than appreciate how much Griffey may still have to give. Instead of coming to bury him, it may be time to praise him again.

At 34, an age when Barry Bonds hadn't even begun to do his best work and Roger Clemens was catching a second wind for three more Cy Young Awards, Griffey is a mystery, even to himself. Ahead may lay a revitalized career, even the pennant he cherishes. Or, given his past injuries, his career could be fading.

In either case, the most complete, breathtaking and graceful center fielder since the days of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle has reached what will probably be his last major crossroads. The path, from here, will probably slope steeply up or down. No one, certainly not Griffey, knows which it will be.

In the last week, Griffey has erupted on one of his trademark slugging streaks and is now on pace for 41 homers and 132 RBI. Last winter, teams such as the Baltimore Orioles wouldn't touch him in a trade. Now, he's helped the Cincinnati Reds into first place in the talented NL Central.

Few players are more beloved and respected within their own clubhouse, yet less known in any depth outside it. Above Griffey's locker, in large print for public consumption, is a sign: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be misquoted and used against you." Inside his locker, in small print, for his own consumption is -- the same sign.

Yet, if you look closer into the back of that same locker, you find the real Griffey. There is a photograph of Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, autographed by the teammates. "We miss ya buddy," they've inscribed on the photo, given to Griffey during one of his trips to the disabled list. Why would two young players feel comfortable boosting the spirits of a rich old star? Look in their lockers. Find out who gave them autographed photos when they were injured or on the verge of being sent to the minors.

"To AK, Stay Strong. You're Gonna Make It," reads the message from Griffey in Kearns's locker.

"Keep your head up. All the best," Griffey wrote on the photo in Dunn's locker.

"I think he signed it 'Ken Giraffe,' " Dunn says, squinting at the signature.

"Last year, when I came back from the hospital with my foot in a [surgical] boot and my arm in a sling," Griffey said, "those two guys came to my house to cheer me up. You know who your friends are by who comes to see you when you're down."

With his hat still backward and a grin that doesn't appear as often as it did when they called him "The Kid," he seems at once resolved to recapture his place in the game and resigned to accept whatever comes.

"I still have a lot to offer," he said. "The last three years have been tough. As frustrated as people are [with me], that's nothing compared to how frustrated I've been. This is my life. They can't imagine how I've felt."

The Injury List

In the last two seasons, he hit only eight and 13 homers, totals he once surpassed in a month. Will he ever get back to something approaching his old celestial level? Has he, in fact, already started the process with 12 homers before May is done?

"I hope so," he said. "I've always loved the sport, and none of my injuries has been the kind that can't be overcome. I broke my wrist in 15 places, had a [four-inch] plate and [seven] screws in it. But I had my best years after that.

"Last year, I got six pins in my shoulder -- five in the back, one in the front. But it's not my throwing shoulder so it's not so bad. Two years ago, I tore my patellar tendon [kneecap off the bone] but not all the way [40 percent].

"It's the torn hamstrings [both of them, one twice] that have been the hardest to get over," he says. Every time he sprints after a ball in center field, where he has won 10 Golden Gloves, or goes for an extra base, which he refuses to stop doing, one of those hamstrings might blow again.

Griffey doesn't bother to mention his other wrist, also broken, or his hip flexor miseries. He doesn't list the times he plays hurt, including two months in '03 with that dislocated shoulder. For a moment, he even forgets the ankle surgery that ended last season. It hasn't permanently altered his game. He thinks seven months of rehabilitation has healed him up pretty well.

Then a memory jumps at him: "One night I took a step onto the ledge onto my balcony. It's only two inches high. I heard a 'pop.' I said, 'Not again.' But it was only scar tissue breaking down."

He laughs at himself, at this fear of tiny ledges. But it's not the indestructible laugh of youth he had for so long.

"If you came to see me the last few years, I wasn't even here was I? People who can't do something they love, that's when they start missing it. I'm the worst at watching things I can't do. Everything in me says, 'Let's go have some fun.' If I can't, I've got to get away. Send me home," said Griffey. "And every year [for the last three] I end up at home. You never get used to it. But you just accept it. My view is that I did it doing the thing I love to do. And I did it giving my best."

As Cincinnati has held its breath this spring, Griffey has played in all but three games.

"He's got that smile again," NL batting leader Sean Casey said. "Just having him back does so much for us. He got through March and April. Those have been his bad times."

Setting Himself Apart

Almost every Griffey injury has come while he was making the kind of play that the stat seekers shy from. He tore his hamstring trying to score in a spring training game. Spring training? He torn up his knee in a rundown. What slugger past 30 risks injury in a rundown? "They told me not to do that no more," Griffey says sarcastically. The shoulder was dislocated trying for a game-saving catch. Last year's ankle blew while trying to turn a single into a double. And so forth.

No modern player has loved the highlight film play like Griffey. For years he felt it was his responsibility to give "boring old baseball," as he calls it, the glamour appeal of the NFL and NBA. The acrobatic injury-defying catch, the hook slide into home plate and the 500-foot home run -- like the first ball ever hit off the B&O Warehouse in Baltimore -- were his passion the way some players pursue statistics. He once broke his wrist simply by swinging so hard.

"For me, his defense set him apart," Houston Manager Jimy Williams said. "The way he could go up over the fence almost set the tone for the plays that we have seen from other outfielders in recent times. They want to 'Be like Griffey.' "

However, if baseball is lucky, perhaps Griffey won't try so hard or so often to "Be like Griffey." He has spent his whole career hearing baseball insiders tell him he shouldn't play quite so hard or so recklessly while listening to outsiders, who only saw his "effortless" style, say that he should try harder, charges that drive those who know him nuts.

"People don't have a clue he's one of the first here and one of the last to leave," Reds coach Jerry Narron says.

But Griffey is usually too proud to try to set the record straight.

"People say, 'He doesn't care enough. He's not taking the game seriously.' The problem with me here [in Cincinnati] sometimes in the past has been that they've seen me with that backwards hat having fun," says Griffey. "They don't know that I'm only loud from 2 [p.m.] to 5 [p.m.]. Then I start getting serious. I am a split personality. And I like both of them."

Can Griffey stay intact, while sticking to his code of playing the game "the right way?" Can there be a Last Act for the veteran, held together with pins, plates and screws, who bashed down the big league door at 19 with the nickname The Kid? "If it gets better, it gets better," Griffey says, stoically. "But I'd sure love to stay well and make somebody else miserable."

Like Mantle, who was held in awe but not embraced until his physical frailties diminished his brilliance, Griffey deserves to become better known and more valued as a person as he approaches the finish line. Griffey draws a line and keeps most outsiders on other side of it. Out of self-preservation, he has carved out his own code, though he never advertises it.

First, he would play the game as hard and recklessly as he learned from his father and teammates such as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. "If I don't, I know the first phone call will be from my father," he said again this week.

Second, he would, also like his role models, milk every drop of loony fun from his clubhouse life.

And, finally, Griffey decided to ignore all outside judgments and standards. No fan or critic or statistical record or award would define him. His backward hat became his symbol. He played for fun, for the game itself, for teammates, not for numbers, for awards or to live up to the label of "the best prospect in the history of baseball" and then given Willie Mays's number.

"I don't like people touching me," he once said privately. He didn't claim it was the right way, just his way.

A Shift in Game

His way took him to the top of his sport. Just six years ago at the all-star game, Cal Ripken said, offhandedly, "Ken Griffey Jr. . . . he is the game." Then, the ground shifted. In '98, as in '97, Griffey hit 56 home runs. Yet few noticed. Each season, players with suspiciously large and quickly acquired muscles began to amass homer totals that equaled or even greatly exceeded his. The sport became so jaded about performance-enhancing drugs that some players joked Griffey wouldn't take steroids because it hurt his golf swing.

If anybody should feel short-changed by the game's cheaters, it's Griffey. But those are just numbers, so at least publicly, he professes not to care.

"It's too much work," he said of steroids. "You've got to take a shot, then keep going to the gym to maintain your weight. Just be happy with who you are. Work on that."

Fans, especially in Cincinnati where Griffey's salary has been as much as a third of the team payroll, sometimes bridle at the combination of his injuries, the smile and that hat. "The injuries make you an easier target," Griffey said. "But this year it may have changed. I've gotten a lot of support, people saying, 'We really want to see you out there for 150 games.' "

To be sure, the sport is full to the brim with those who wish the same. "With the desire and dedication that he has," says Narron, "he can come back. No question he can do it."

Whatever the final chapter, Griffey will play it out along his own "P.I." lines, laughing when he's outside the lines no matter what anybody else thinks, and driving himself to the edge when he's inside them, even though some wish he wouldn't.

It's Sunday morning and the clubhouse is filling up. Dunn and Kearns show up.

"So, did you have a good time on Saturday night?" Griffey asks loudly. "I'm an old married man. I live through you guys."

"You should," says Dunn, getting a bigger laugh.

"I just wish I could go around on your backs," Griffey says, "and look over your shoulders."

The threesome break out a deck of cards and, of course, start insulting each other. The Reds room reflects their tone -- loose, laughing, loving the life. The rock 'n' roll plays in the background. Griffey deals the cards. His time's not over yet.

"Somebody," Kearns bellows, "turn that music up."

Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., on pace for 41 homers and 132 RBI, has the Cincinnati Reds in first place in the difficult NL Central.Ken Griffey's injuries are often a reflection of the way he plays, once dislocating his shoulder while trying to make game-saving catch.