Bringing Up Junior

Young Ken Griffey Jr., son of a baseball star, is already the kind of player that candy bars are named after
Young Ken Griffey Jr., son of a baseball star, is already the kind of player that candy bars are named after
May 06, 1990

You kind of want to put the whole show under glass and preserve it forever, before it changes, the way people wanted to do when Willie Mays first came up and the Say Hey Kid won everybody's heart. Now there's this kid: Junior. It's more than just the breathtaking baseball skills you want to capture—his great arm, his fluid stride, his viperlike upper-cut swing. It's the whole darn affair: The 40-year-old father, in his 18th major league season, catching a plane on a day off to watch his namesake make a dazzling over-the-wall catch that reminds everyone of a catch he, the father, made five years earlier in the very same stadium. The teammates on the Seattle Mariners who thrill to his exploits and bear him no jealousy. The nickname, Junior, and how he still calls home every night—collect—to tell his mother, Alberta, about the game. The pure joy that the kid derives from playing, which, on a good day, can be felt in the far corners of the stands. The way he turns this big-buck, high-pressure business called baseball back into a playground game.

You want to keep all that for posterity. But there is a problem. You also want to fast-forward the calendar so you can see Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime. You kind of want to find out just how great a player he will someday be when he actually gets serious about baseball. Not serious like Will Clark-serious, walking around with an I'm-looking-for-the-cure-for-cancer expression wrinkling his brow. Just, you know, serious. Like, paying attention to who's pitching. Learning the names of some of the opposing players, so he can position himself in the outfield. Watching relievers warm up before he faces them for the first time. Little things.

Unless, of course, that's the whole secret to the 20-year-old Griffey's success: that he doesn't unnecessarily complicate the fundamentally simple concept of hitting the ball with the bat and catching it with the glove. Hitting the bejesus out of the ball, as a matter of fact, as no 20-year-old player has hit it in the major leagues since Al Kaline batted .340 at that age to win the 1955 American League batting title. Making running catches with his back to the plate, which draws inescapable comparisons to Mays. And, as long as we're mentioning Hall of Famers, making throws from the outfield that are of the same general caliber as the cannon shots of Roberto Clemente. It's almost as if Griffey were born to do this kind of work.

And he's still the youngest player in the major leagues. Same as he was last year. Thai's the scary part. "People are comparing him to Jose Canseco," says Seattle pitcher Matt Young. "He's only 20 years old. Jose was 22 when he made it in the major leagues."

"He's a big kid, a baby," says Gene Clines, the Mariners' hitting coach. "When he finally buckles down and gets serious about this game, there's no telling what kind of numbers he will put on the board."

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A big kid who, truth be told, is still growing. Everybody swears it, though the Mariners' media guide lists him this year at 6'3", 195, same as last.Griffey himself claims to have added "about two pounds," shrugging off observations that he seems to stand a full inch taller and that his chest, hips and thighs have all filled out. Says Clines, "I don't think anybody's ever been that good at that age. He's in his own category. He is a natural."

Capitalize that: a Natural. The kind of player after whom babies and candy bars are named.

Last Thursday night's game in Yankee Stadium can serve as a case in point. In a 6-2 Mariners win, Griffey went 2 for 4 and scored a run. Nothing new there. He hits to all fields with power and has been swinging a hot bat since spring training. As of Sunday he had hit in 13 of his last 14 games; he led the American League in hitting with a .395 average and was among the league leaders in hits (30), total bases (49), home runs (5) and RBIs (17).

But the play that had everyone buzzing, which even brought Yankee fans out of their seats, was a catch Griffey made on a ball hit by Jesse Barfield that robbed the Yankee rightfielder (if only for a couple of innings, as it turned out) of his 200th career home run. Starting from his position in straightaway center, medium depth, Griffey took off toward the left centerfield wall as Barfield's shot sailed into the night sky.Griffey hit the warning track full tilt, gauged the wall at a glance, and, like a long jumper marking his takeoff, sunk his cleat halfway up the foam padding on the wall and leapt. From the bullpen, which in Yankee Stadium is beyond the nearly eight-foot-high center-field wall, the Mariners pitchers could see only an arm flying over the top, as if disembodied. Then the arm whiplashed back, out of sight, and the ball, which had appeared so briefly, vanished with it.

"As I jumped, I thought, I got a chance," Griffey said afterward, calling it the best catch he had ever made. "That's the first one I've caught going over the wall, in practice or in a game."

The catch was the third out of the inning; Griffey landed as if still in stride and headed for the dugout as part of a single continuous motion. He glanced over at Mariners leftfielder Jeffrey Leonard, who threw his head back and rolled his eyes in disbelief. Griffey cracked up. He came sprinting back to the infield with the biggest grin anyone's seen in Yankee Stadium since Morganna was patrolling the place. When he got a look at Barfield standing between first and second with an angry expression on his face, Griffey cracked up again. "That's why I like playing defense," he says, "because it's the only time I get to see somebody else but me get mad."

In the stands a woman tapped Ken Griffey Sr. on the shoulder—it was just the third major league game he had ever seen Junior play—and asked, "Is that your son?"

Griffey Sr. nodded.

"Jesse Barfield's my husband," Maria Barfield said.

As Junior loped in, still grinning, the Yankee fans rose to applaud him, the Yankee brass upstairs got to their feet, and the Mariners poured onto the field to greet him with high fives. "He shared that catch with all of us," Seattle coach Julio Cruz said later. "It pumped us all up."

Everyone, friend and foe. It was one of those great baseball moments. The next time Barfield came to bat, he homered seven rows deep to right center, and as he crossed the plate he told Mariners catcher Scott Bradley, "If he'd caught that one, I'd have had his urine checked."

After the game Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre ran down an already impressive checklist of Junior's alltime greatest plays. There was the catch he made last year in Fenway while crashing into the Green Monster, taking an extra base hit away from Boston's Wade Boggs. And the time, also last season, when he threw out Robin Yount trying to stretch a triple, firing a strike on the fly to third from the 375-foot sign in right center. For pure beauty, there was the Mays-style back-to-the-plate bases-loaded snag of a shot by Oakland's Rickey Henderson on April 15. But that was a game the Mariners ultimately lost. For game-savers, Lefebvre had only to look back 24 hours, when Griffey preserved a 2-1 Mariners lead by making a diving backhand spear on a fifth-inning drive to the gap by Yankee shortstop Alvaro Espinoza and then scrambling to his feet in time to double Steve Sax off first.

"Every time he makes one of those plays, you think, He'll never top that one," said Lefebvre. "You can't believe how much it picks up the entire club. He's going to be one of the real marquee players in this league. That's one thing his father, as great as he was, never was."

While this conversation was going on, Griffey Sr.—or Mr. Griffey, as his Cincinnati Reds teammates call him—came into the Mariners locker room to congratulate his son. "Junior!" he called, seeing the kid disappearing into the showers. To no avail. "He ignores me now that he's bigger than me," Mr. Griffey said. While he waited for Junior's return, longtime Yankee reporters asked Senior to recall the time in 1985 when he was playing for the Yanks and he had similarly robbed Boston's Marty Barrett—"I think I got higher than Junior did"—and whether he was surprised by the exploits of his namesake. "I'm in awe the same as you guys are," Griffey said, putting the kidding aside. "Yes, I'm a very proud dad."

Junior's voice, disguised in a Long Island lockjaw accent, suddenly rang out above the din. "Yes, Father?" he said.

Senior grinned at this manchild he had begotten. "Hey, that was not a bad...." But he thought better of it. Any more praise and his son's head might explode like a hormone-fed pumpkin. "Oh, I'm not even going to tell him," he laughed, turning away.

The Griffeys became the first father and son to play in the major leagues at the same time when Junior made the Mariners last season at 19—a year ahead of the team's timetable and a year behind his own. Junior, the first player selected in the 1987 amateur draft, used to tell his Bellingham (Wash.) teammates in Class A, short season, "I'll be here one week, then move to San Bernardino [Class A, full season], then Double A the week after that. I gotta be in the Show when I'm 18, because I got no money left."

"That was when I was young and dumb," says Griffey, whose rise through the minors was only slightly less meteoric than he had boasted it would be. After playing 53 games in Bellingham, he split the 1988 season between San Bernardino and the Mariners' Double A team in Vermont.

Griffey was expected to spend the '89 season playing Triple A ball in Calgary, but he hit .359 in spring training last year, setting Mariners' records with 33 hits and 21 RBIs. He stole bases, played great defense and generally gave the team no choice but to keep him. When Lefebvre told Griffey, "You're my starting center-fielder," Griffey tried to put the moment in perspective for Seattle reporters. "Those probably are the best words I've ever heard," he said. "At least in the top three." The other two? " 'You can keep the BMW,' and my parents telling me, 'I love you.' "

You can keep the BMW? "He's a teenager, and I don't want him to lose that," Lefebvre said. "He relates more to the batboys than to the players."

Once he stepped onto the field, though, the kid seemed to relate best to destiny. From the start he showed an almost preposterous flair for the dramatic. He doubled in his first official big league at bat. He hit an opposite-field homer on his first swing before the hometown fans in the Kingdome. He hit a game-winning two-run homer in his first pinch-hitting appearance in May. And on Ken Griffey Jr. Poster Day, June 4, the Boy Wonder hit a game-winning home run against Charlie Hough of Texas, the first time he had faced a knuckleballer. One Seattle columnist suggested that the Ken Griffey Jr. candy bar, of which some 800,000 were sold last year, was hardly enough for the lad. Boeing, he wrote, should name a plane after him.

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Growing up as the son of a major league star obviously didn't hurt Junior's development. "When he was a kid, he wasn't hanging around with just any baseball team," says Bradley, who, like the rest of the Mariners, watched Griffey's progress with wonderment. "He was hanging around one of the best teams of all time: The Big Red Machine. Pete Rose. Tony Perez. Johnny Bench. So when he comes to the Seattle Mariners, he's supposed to feel like he doesn't belong?"

The remarkable thing was that Griffey was burning up the major leagues without the vaguest knowledge of the pitchers he was facing, or even what pitches they were throwing him. The first time Griffey went to bat against Bert Blyleven, one of his teammates warned him about Blyleven's backdoor curve. "Thanks," Junior said, walking away. Then he came back. "Is Blyleven a lefty or a righty?" he asked.

Some of the writers asked him one day if he figured he would be in the lineup against the Tigers' lefthander, Frank Tanana, a 17-year big leaguer. Griffey, who batted only .212 last year against lefties, replied, "Why wouldn't I play? Who's Tanana, some rookie?"

Mariners outfield coach Rusty Kuntz remembers going over the Orioles' lineup with Griffey, instructing him to play certain hitters to pull and other hitters away. "I told him to play [Cal] Ripken here, [Craig] Worthington here," Kuntz recalls. "And he said, 'O.K.' Then he comes back a minute later and asks, 'Which guy's Ripken again?' To this day, he probably doesn't know who Cal Ripken Jr. is. So I thought, Hmmm. O.K., we'll try it this way. Play all the white guys to pull, and all the black guys away. That seemed to work. He's not stupid, he's just not a student of the game."

Griffey's speed made up for a lot of his positioning gaffes, and he finished the year with 12 assists and six double plays, the latter tops among American League outfielders. He seemed to be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year honors until he broke a bone in his left hand in some sort of off-field mishap. There were reports that he hurt himself pounding a table after an argument with his former girlfriend, but Griffey denies that and says the accident occurred when he slipped in the shower in his hotel bathroom. Whatever, the injury put him on the disabled list from July 24 to August 20. When he returned, he was a different hitter. "He was trying to catch up with the other Rookie of the Year candidates with one swing," says Lefebvre. "Pretty typical for a 19-year-old kid, really. He lost his poise."

"I was worrying about hitting the ball 700 feet," says Griffey. "I just wanted 20 home runs."

He placed third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, finishing the season with 16 homers after hitting 13 before the All-Star break. He hit just .181 in September and October, dropping his average for the year to .264. Still, for a 19-year-old who had never played Triple A ball, his 61 RBIs, 61 runs and 16 stolen bases in 127 games made for a titillating debut.

So far this season he hasn't disappointed. If he keeps mashing the ball the way he has in the past two weeks, Griffey may eclipse his 1989 totals by July. "The difference between last year and this year is night and day," says Clines. "He's better now. More disciplined."

Disciplined? Junior? You would never know it from watching him laughing and clowning during batting practice—at least until a reporter comes around. Griffey was shell-shocked by last year's media crunch: The story of the first father-son tandem in the big leagues was done by all the major newspapers, sports magazines, morning talk shows, PEOPLE, Newsweek, Nightline. When he is interviewed, he becomes a completely different person: He is curt, vague, distracted and fidgety. It is the one part of his job that he suffers rather than enjoys. Other than that, the major leagues are a lark, and around his teammates Griffey is about as happy-go-lucky as they come. "He has so much fun out there that he completely forgets what's going on," says Clines.

Which is what happened last Thursday when the Yankees brought in rookie reliever Alan Mills to face Griffey with runners on first and second and two out in the seventh inning. As Mills warmed up, Griffey was joking in the on-deck circle with Mariners first baseman Pete O'Brien, looking around the stands, laughing. Then he strode to the plate, worked the count to 3 and 1 and smacked a fly ball to deep center, albeit into the glove of centerfielder Roberto Kelly for the third out. Says Bradley, "We had no scouting report on Mills, no one had ever faced him, andGriffey didn't even bother to check out his motion. Then he steps in and has a great at bat. One thing you know about him, he's not going to outthink himself."

"It just adds more pressure to know what a guy throws," says Griffey. "You start looking for this or that, and all of a sudden he's snuck a 37-mile-per-hour fastball by you." Consequently, Griffey eschews studying videotapes to try to pick up a pitcher's patterns and does not keep a little black book on pitchers' strengths and weaknesses. Keep a book? Good heavens. He can't even keep their names straight.

"I still can't tell you who's who," Griffey admits. "I don't know who's pitching tonight. I don't even know the schedule. How am I supposed to know who's pitching? I couldn't care less. He's still got to throw me something I can hit."

And, for Junior, that is when the fun really begins.