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Griffey, Ken Jr. 1969—

Ken Griffey, Jr. 1969

Professional baseball player

The Apple Fell Close to the Tree

Fast Track to the Majors

Centerpiece of a Franchise

Its Never Work

Sources

His teammates like to call him Junior, but Ken Griffey Jr.s talents are anything but minor. A hard-hitting center fielder for the Seattle Mariners, Griffey has been a significant force behind that teams emergence as an American League division champion in recent years. He can dominate on offense or defense, and his engaging personality has brought him widespread fan approval in a time when most major league baseball players are perceived as spoiled and arrogant. Atlanta Journal and Constitution reporter Terence Moore has called Griffey the Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente of our time, and Sports Illustrated correspondent E. M. Swift described Griffey as the kind of player after whom babies and candy bars are named.

Tagged as a top-level prospect when he was only 17 years old, Griffey joined the major leagues in 1989 at the tender age of 19. Baseball was in his genes: his father, Ken Griffey Sr., was a baseball superstar in his own right and was still an active player when his son joined the American League. The Griffeys have made history as the first father-son tandem to play major league baseball simultaneously. Their fame in this regard reached a peak in the 1990 season, when they both worked for the Mariners. As if that publicity werent enough, Griffey Jr. has taken his place in the games upper echelon by virtue of his personal accomplishments. Swift, for one, praised Junior for his great arm, his fluid stride, his viperlike uppercut swing, as well as the pure joy that the kid derives from playing, which, on a good day, can be felt in the corners of the stands. The reporter concluded that Griffey draws attention for the way he turns this big-buck, high-pressure business called baseball back into a playground game.

The Apple Fell Close to the Tree

The same year George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was born, his father signed to play baseball with the Cincinnati Reds organization. In fact, Ken Jr. was born during the autumn after his fathers first season of play in the Reds minor league system. The family then lived in the Griffey home town of Donora, Pennsylvania, but as Ken Sr.s career took off, Junior and his brother moved with their parents through a series of minor league towns.

At a Glance

Full name George Kenneth Griffey, Jr.; born November 21, 1969 in Donora, PA; son of Ken (a baseball player) and Alberta Griffey; married, wifes name Melissa. Education: Graduated from Moeller High School, Cincinnati, OH, 1987.

Professional baseball player, 1987-. Signed with Seattle Mariners as first choice in first round of 1987 amateur draft; minor leaguer in Mariners system, 1987-89, reached parent club as non-roster player, 1989; starting outfielder for Mariners, 1989.

Selected awards: Finished third in balloting for 1989 Rookie of the Year; member of American League All-Star Team, 1990-94, named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, 1992; Golden Glove awards, 1990, 1991, 1992.

Addresses: Home Renton, WA. Office c/o Seattle Mariners, P.O. Box 4100, 411 1st Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98140.

Their travels came to an end in 1973 when Griffey Sr. made the parent club, which happened to be one of the best major league baseball has ever seen-the famed Cincinnati Big Red Machine.

The demands of major league baseball are not necessarily compatible with fatherhood. Baseball players travel frequently and pursue their trade at odd hours. They work weekends and evenings. Nevertheless, Griffey recalled in the Chicago Tribune: My dad was a dad first and a baseball player second. The elder Griffey taught his sons to hit a baseball as soon as they could hold a bat. He took them to Reds batting practice, where they hobnobbed with the likes of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez. When the Reds played in the World Series in 1975 and 1976, young Griffey looked on from the best seats in the stadium. I watched my dad play for years, he told People. I talked to him every day about the game. There isnt one thing Ive seen so far that he hasnt told me about beforehand.

When Ken Griffey Sr. was traded to the New York Yankees in 1981, his wife and sons stayed behind in Cincinnati. The separations were even more prolonged and difficult than they had been before, and in the odd moments when Griffey Sr. could catch one of his sons Little League or school games, he was mobbed for autographs and pictures. Father and son never let the circumstances alter their relationship, however. Griffey Jr. told Ebony: If I needed to talk to [my father], I would call him after the game, and wed talk. If I did something wrong [on the field], hed fly me to New York and say, You cant do that! Then he would send me home the next day, and Id play baseball. Interestingly enough, the younger Griffey recalled in the Chicago Tribune that he often played at his worst when his father was in the stands. I was always trying to impress him by hitting the ball 600 feet, he said.

It was talent, and not family connections, that enabled Griffey to join Cincinnatis competitive Connie Mack League, a summer amateur program composed mostly of high school graduates. Even though at 16 he was among the very youngest of the players, Griffey was such a success in the league that his team advanced to the Connie Mack World Series-and he hit three home runs in the championship match. He also played high school baseball and was such a good running back with the Moeller High School football team that he was offered a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. He turned the scholarship down and made himself available for the 1987 baseball draft. Defending his decision, he told the Chicago Tribune that baseball is a lot safer and you last longer.

Fast Track to the Majors

Griffey was the number-one pick in major league baseballs 1987 amateur draft. He was chosen by the Seattle Mariners organization and signed with a $160,000 bonus. In a show of youthful bravado, the 17-year-old player announced that he would make the major leagues within two or three years. No one expected him to live up to that boast-even his father had spent four-and-a-half years on farm teams. Nevertheless, the exuberant Griffey Jr. began his professional career in Bellingham, Washington, batting .320, hitting 14 home runs, and completing 13 steals.

The sailing was not completely smooth, however. Griffey experienced adjustment problems when faced with the pressures of professional baseball. He was far from home, and his father was busy with his own career. Years later Griffey revealed that he attempted suicide by swallowing more than 270 aspirin tablets one night during that rookie season. I got depressed, Igotangry. I didnt want to live, he explained in Jet magazine. The aspirin thing was the only time I acted. It was such a dumb thing.

Griffey found his stride during his second minor league season when, despite injuries, he was voted the top major league prospect in the California League. As the 1989 spring training season began, Griffey was determined to find a spot on the Seattle Mariners roster. Serious and determined, he studied the opposing pitchers, practiced his fielding diligently, and wound up batting .359 with two home runs and 21 runs batted in during spring training games. Sure enough, he earned a place on the team. When he took the field for his first major league game, he was 19-one of the youngest men ever to make the majors.

Newspapers and magazines seized upon the Griffey family story. While Ken Jr. was making his debut with the Mariners in Seattle, his father was returning to the Reds and marking his twentieth anniversary in professional sports. It was a historic moment for baseball, surpassed only in 1990 when the two men both played for the Mariners simultaneously. The extra attention might have proven difficult for some rookie players, but Junior took it all in stride. Once he stepped onto the field, Swift wrote, 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 [1989]. The correspondent added: 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. Only a late-season injury robbed Griffey of the statistics necessary to earn Rookie of the Year honors. He finished third in the balloting.

Centerpiece of a Franchise

Griffey put the Mariners on the baseball map in 1990, batting .300 and earning his first of three consecutive Gold Glove awards. He also became the second youngest player ever to start an All-Star Game. That same season saw both Griffeys playing for the Mariners-an historic first for baseball that may never be repeated. Griffey Sr. joined the Mariners late in the season after being released by the Reds. Jim Lefebvre, the Mariners manager at the time, told the Los Angeles Times that the teaming-up of the two Griffey stars was a great day for baseball. Lefebvre commented: Here he is a father, a veteran player ending his career, and the son is a brilliant young talent, just like his father was when he was first starting his career, and theyre both going to be out there together.

By 1992 the days of father and son playing for the same team were over, and the era of Ken Griffey Jr. had begun. In 1992 Griffey batted .308, hit 27 home runs, and was named Most Valuable Player at the All-Star Game after turning in a three-for-four evening with a home run. He also charmed fans and the media alike with his willingness to grant interviews and his obvious love for baseball. Not surprisingly, observers began to predict a Hall of Fame career for the young star. Griffey made light of these predictions, telling Sport magazine: I just want to go out there and contribute. No matter what happens, you got to be lucky to get in the Hall of Fame. You got to have a long, healthy career.

Hall of Fame prospects are also boosted by post-season play. During the early years of Griffeys major league career, his talents seemed wasted on a struggling team like the Seattle Mariners. That is no longer the case. The Mariners have become contenders, with the perennially strong Griffey leading the way. The team took off in the spring of 1995, showing playoff possibilities under the new divisional rankings. Ironically, Griffey almost missed the post-season show. On May 26,1995 he broke both bones in his wrist when he crashed into the Kingdome wall while chasing down a fly ball. The injury required the installation of seven screws and a 4-inch metal plate in his left wrist, and he was expected to miss at least three months of play. Nevertheless, he returned to the lineup August 15 and, after struggling through the seasons later weeks, found his stride again in time for the divisional and league playoffs.

The 1995 American League Divisional Playoffs-the first of their kind-pitted the Mariners against the Yankees in a best-of-five series. It was during the fifth and deciding game that Griffey had his defining moment as a potential baseball immortal. The game went into extra innings, and the Yankees took a five-to-four lead in the top of the 11th inning. When the Mariners came to bat, Griffey hit a single with a man on base to place runners at first and third. Then Edgar Martinez hit a hard shot into the left field corner. The man on third scored easily to tie the game, but Griffey was not to be denied. Turning on the base-running speed for which he is known, he streaked around the diamond and slid across home plate just in front of the outfielders throw. Griffeys feat brought the Mariners their first divisional title and the right to meet the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 American League Playoffs.

Its Never Work

Griffey signed to play for the Mariners through the 1996 season, and he has expressed little interest in leaving Seattle. He and his wife live there all year around, and they are frequently visited by other members of the Griffey family. Many major league players are obsessed with their statistics and their salaries, but Griffey is the exception to that rule. He wants to do well, but he also intends to enjoy himself while pursuing that Hall of Fame display. Baseball, Griffey told the Chicago Tribune, is never work. Work is something you have to go do and you dont want to. If you do something thats fun, you cant call it work. The superstar added that his career is sometimes like a dream, one of those dreams that are real good and youre in a deep sleep and you never really want to wake up.

e most Ive done to handle the attention is change my name on the road at our team hotel. He concluded, Hey, its not like Im a rock star or something. They have it much worse. Me? Im just out there having fun.

Sources

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 13, 1994, p. E2.

Boston Globe, October 13, 1995, p. 93.

Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1992, p. C1.

Ebony, September 1989, pp. 78-82.

Jet, April 6, 1992.

Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1990, p. C1.

People, July 17, 1989, pp. 77-78.

Sport, March 1991, pp. 38-45.

Sports Illustrated, May 16, 1988, pp. 64-68; May 7, 1990, pp. 38-42; August 8, 1994, pp. 24-31.

Mark Kram

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