A player like Ken Griffey Jr. rarely comes along, but from the moment he visited Seattle for the first time, to sign his first professional contract in the summer of 1987, anyone could see that Major League stardom was on Junior’s horizon.
Even as a raw 17-year-old, the left-handed swing was pure. His batting practice session at the Kingdome that afternoon was a must-see event. He had been not only the Mariners’ first-round draft selection, but the No. 1 pick overall.
Roger Jongewaard, the organization’s director of player personnel, “edited” his scouting report on Griffey, putting him one point ahead of Fullerton State (Calif.) pitcher Mike Harkey. The story came out later that then-owner George Argyros preferred the pitcher, figuring a more seasoned college player would reach the big-leagues quicker than a kid just out of high school.
That BP exhibition at the Kingdome would be the last time I saw Junior until he drove his black BMW into the Tempe Diablo Stadium parking lot the following spring. The music from his car was loud and definitely not country.
He stepped out of his car and asked if I had the phone number for the executive offices. I didn’t have it, but gave him directions to the offices – located some 50 or so yards away from us.
Over the next 10 years, Ken Griffey Jr. became a huge part of my life – as the Mariners beat reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His rookie season in ’89 was my fourth season on the beat and it did not take long to realize that I would be among the luckiest sportswriters in the business: watching the most talented baseball player of his era strut his stuff on a daily basis.
There would be highs and lows along the way, but never a dull moment with
Many of the highest moments were played Friday on the huge video screen located
directly behind center field at Safeco Field, where Junior was honored at a
luncheon, the first public event leading up to his induction into the Mariners’
Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
It also was his first public appearance in Seattle since May 31, 2010, when he
made a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss to the Twins.
Junior grounded into a force play at second base.
Junior decided it was time to leave and he departed the following night after the second game of the Twins series. As promised, Junior walked away quietly, driving from Seattle to his home in Orlando, Fla. He was somewhere in mid-America when the Mariners announced on June 2 that Griffey had retired.
“Like I told everyone since Day 1, I didn’t want a press conference, I didn’t want to be a distraction,” Griffey said. “When you tell the truth, then it happens but people believe that it’s supposed to happen a certain way, they get upset. I’ve always said that I didn’t want a press conference, I didn’t want the farewell tour — it just wasn’t me. I did it the best way that I thought was easier for everybody, (and that) was to get in a car and drive off.”
More than three years later, Junior had a chance to say “thank you” to fans, friends and former teammates during Friday’s luncheon. He also met with the media during a press conference in the interview room at the facility known as “The House Griffey Built.”
“Am I nervous?” he said. “Yes, I was nervous three weeks ago. I was nervous two months ago when they told me. Having this, I understand the honor that it brings. Am I nervous? Yes. It’s a lot easier to be in center field and stand at home plate than it is to talk in front of thousands of people.”
Griffey becomes the seventh member of the Mariners HOF, joining Alvin Davis, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Dan Wilson and the late Dave Niehaus.
From a personal standpoint, it was a thrill watching Griffey grow from a confident and wide-eyed teenager in to a superstar. His smile was genuine, and his heart was big – though mostly witnessed by his youngest fans: the kids. The Kid was a kid at heart for most, if not all, of his 22-year MLB career.
It was a great experience to watch this tremendously talented baseball player become a first-ballot Hall of Famer — the best player I ever saw in person.
Among the Junior highlights I remember the most:
*His leaping catch over the fence in left-center field at Yankee Stadium, robbing Jesse Barfield of a home run. The smile on Junior’s face as he raced towards the infield, ball tucked inside his glove, was priceless.
*The eight consecutive games he hit at least one home run – tying a MLB record.
*Inviting my young kids, Scott and Katy, to his house in Renton, WA (located about a mile from my house) to play video games one morning prior to a Mariners game that night.
*Having a candy bar “The Ken Griffey Jr. Chocolate Bar” named after him during his rookie season, only to learn later that he is allergic to chocolate.
*Hitting the first regular-season pitch he saw at the Kingdome, thrown by White Sox right-hander Eric King, and sending the ball into the left field seats. It was the first of his 630 career home runs.
*The disappointed look on his face when his rookie season ended suddenly, due to a broken bone in his hand suffered at the team hotel in Chicago. The injury was caused, the organization proclaimed, when he slipped stepping out of the shower.
*Tipping me off in the spring of 1992 that he was going to sign his first multi-year contract with the Mariners, hiking his salary from $700,000 in ’91 to $2.025 million in ’92. His salary with Seattle peeked in 1999 at $8,760,532.
*The phone interview I had with him from his agent Brian Goldberg’s car during the spring of 2009, after the Atlanta newspaper published a story reporting that Junior had decided to sign with the Braves rather than the Mariners. He denied the report and two days later signed with Seattle.
*The “happy retirement”cake he and his agent had sent to the press box near the end of the final MLB game I covered.
*The totality of the 2009 season. Junior seemed to turn the clock back to the beginning, thoroughly enjoying his return to his MLB roots, in 2009. It was so much fun for him, his teammates and anyone around him.
Not so much in 2010.
But now, as Junior is inducted to the Mariners Hall of Fame, the countdown continues to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. — in the summer of 2016. He will be a first-ballot HOF player, and deservedly so.