Danny Graves is barely five minutes into a conversation with a
clubhouse visitor when the abuse from his Reds' teammates begins.
"Tell him how you're the heartthrob of every teenage girl in
Cincinnati," coos outfielder Michael Tucker. "You're going to be
the new 'N Sync."
"I can hear them from the outfield," Ken Griffey Jr. chimes in
from across the room, his voice a squeal. "Danny! I love you,
Good luck finding a National League hitter who feels the same
way. In his second full season in the majors the boyish
Graves--teammates call him the Baby-Faced Assassin--has become the
main man in Cincinnati's deep bullpen. Through Sunday he was 6-0
with a 2.08 ERA, had converted all seven of his save
opportunities and was leading the league in swooning adolescent
admirers. "My fan base is basically 12 to 17 years old," says the
26-year-old Graves, whose clean-shaven face and dyed-blond streak
in his spiky black hair make him look far younger than his years.
Graves, who was born in Saigon, became the first Vietnamese-born
major leaguer when he debuted in 1996. His mother, a Vietnamese
who worked at the U.S. embassy, and his American father, a
mess-hall sergeant in the U.S. Army, moved to the United States
when Graves was 14 months old, and the family eventually settled
in Florida. After a stellar three-year career at Miami, Graves, a
5'11"righthander, was a fourth-round pick for the Indians in the
1994 draft. He sat out the '94 minor league season while
recovering from a knee injury but then rocketed through
Cleveland's farm system, making his big league debut after only
131 minor league innings. Desperate for a seasoned starter during
their '97 playoff drive, the Indians traded Graves to Cincinnati
as part of a six-player deal for veteran lefthander John Smiley.
The Reds second-guessed the deal soon after Graves's arrival. "I
absolutely sucked that year," says Graves, who had a 6.14 ERA and
11 walks in 14 2/3 innings in 1997. "My shoulder was killing me,
but I didn't want to say anything." After the season Graves had a
slight tear in his rotator cuff and labrum surgically repaired,
and in '98 had a 3.32 ERA in 62 games as a setup man. He
blossomed last year, sharing the closer's role with Scott
Williamson and going 8-7 with 27 saves. Opponents batted a
major-league-low .162 with runners in scoring position against
him. "He's a little guy, but the ball gets on you quicker than
you think," says Cubs first baseman Mark Grace.
Graves's fastball hovers in the 91- to 94-mph range but has
deadly sinking action. Through Sunday he had an unintimidating 14
strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings this season, but 47 of his 77 other
outs had come on ground balls. He's also relying more on a sharp
curve and slider, both of which he throws for strikes. "Last year
he threw close to 90-percent sinkers," says Reds pitching coach
Don Gullett. "Now he's learned to get guys out without limiting
himself to one pitch."
Graves's social circle contributes as much to his teen-idol image
as his coiffure. He hangs with professional wrestler The Rock and
with Nick Lachey, the lead singer of boy band 98 Degrees. "Nobody
believes I'm married, that I'm old enough," says Graves, who wed
his wife, Andrea, in 1996; the couple has three children. Surely
that news will devastate his juvenile fans. Says Graves, "They'll
have to find another baby-faced assassin somewhere."
COLOR PHOTO: SUE OGROCKI/REUTERS