Happy Graves ready for Vietnam trip

Happy Graves ready for Vietnam trip

CLEVELAND -- Danny Graves sat in the Indians clubhouse Friday and sized it up in his head.

He noticed a few slight differences in the place since he had last occupied it in 1997. A missing ping-pong table here, a new couch there. Overall, though, it looked very much the same.

It was the differences in himself, Graves thought, that were really striking.

"A lot of tattoos, piercings and longer hair," he said with a smile.

But Graves, who was in town to take a physical and prepare for a trip to his native Vietnam for the first time since he was an infant, isn't looking for differences in physical appearance. He wants to see changes -- drastic ones -- in his performance on the mound.

After a 2005 season that saw him knocked around with the Reds, released, picked up by the Mets and used sparingly, the 32-year-old Graves said he felt more like 44 when all was said and done.

But when the Indians -- the organization he was originally drafted by and grew up in -- signed him to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training last month, he said he felt 24 again.

"I'm a born-again baseball player," Graves said. "I feel like a kid again. I feel like a rookie."

He's no rookie, of course. Graves is a veteran who has seen it all the last few years.

The Reds tried to convert the right-hander into a starter in 2002 -- an experiment that messed with his arm and his head. By the end of 2003, his shoulder was inflamed and his confidence was badly bruised after a 15-loss season cut short by the injury.

Graves returned to the bullpen in 2004 and churned out 41 saves and an All-Star appearance. But his trusty sinker let him down in 2005. Though he converted 10 of 12 save opportunities for Cincinnati, he compiled a ghastly ERA of 11.00 in 10 appearances in May.

And when Graves got into a nasty verbal encounter with a fan during a game against the Tribe in late May, his nine-year tenure with the Reds was brought to a close.

The Mets took a chance on Graves but only used him in 20 games over the course of four months. He never really felt like a part of the club.

Although he's technically not a part of the Indians just yet, Graves said he feels at home so far. He was working Thursday with head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff, who also used to be with the Reds, and he's always kept in close contact with general manager Mark Shapiro, who was the Tribe's farm director when Graves was in the Minors.

"When I was traded in '97, Mark told me that if he was ever a GM and had a chance to get me, he would," Graves said. "He's a man of his word."

While Graves' return to Cleveland comes with its share of sentimentality, it's his upcoming return to his native Vietnam that's especially intriguing.

Graves, the son of an American serviceman father and Vietnamese mother who worked in the U.S. Embassy, was born on a military base in Saigon in 1973. The family moved to the States shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Graves was 14 months old, and he hasn't been back since.

But as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's efforts to promote healing and understanding between the two countries, Graves, his wife, Andrea, and his mother, Thao, will be departing for Vietnam on Sunday and returning Jan. 25.

Graves will be spreading the word about baseball to a country that knows very little about the sport.

"They know absolutely nothing about baseball," Graves said of the Vietnamese. "I'm supposed to spend a few days with the kids and teach them about baseball, and they'll use it in their PE classes."

Graves' visit will include a baseball demonstration at the National University for Sports and Physical Culture, a baseball clinic he'll put on at Le Loi High School and a family reunion in Ho Chi Minh City.

Graves said he's curious to see what his native land is like.

"I was born there, but I know nothing about it, besides what they show on TV," he said.

Graves is excited about the trip for a lot of reasons, but one particular reason that came to mind is he finally knows what team he'll be representing overseas.

"Now I know I can bring Indians stuff over there," he said with another big smile.

It'll be a familiar affiliation in an unfamiliar land.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.