With all the focus this week on Ken Griffey Jr., the thrills he gave the fans, the feats, achievements and milestones, how should he be remembered? (this sounds like a memorial instead of a celebration).
His limitless natural ability couldn’t help but be noticed – as the record Hall of Fame voting percentage (99.3) attests to his impact on those of us who followed his 22-year career. But along with his skills were his irrepressible and charismatic personality and his humanity. It was his heart you most admired. It was his compassion, sensitivity and empathy for people, particularly kids and the disadvantaged, that defined him.
Junior, more than a generation younger than I am, made me better person for having covered him – for the Seattle Times – during his split 13 seasons with the Seattle Mariners. I can’t think of any other player who comes close the impact he had on me, perhaps Jay Buhner, Henry Cotto, or Omar Vizquel, but Junior was a cut above everyone.
Most importantly, you knew his heart was genuine because much of what he did – and does – was behind the curtain. He didn’t want his name on donor lists. He was uncomfortable with tributes and testimonies. He didn’t relish stories on what a good guy he was, like this one. For him, so much attention to his good works ceases to be charity anymore, it’s PR. He never did it for show.
He especially loved spending the day at the ballpark with Make-a-Wish kids, at times using the writers as foils that he playfully told the kids to avoid. He was singularly responsible for building the now robust Wish franchise in Seattle, emotionally supporting hundreds of children, in various cities. Those kids identified with him and wanted to be as close as they could be to The Kid.
I remember I did a story on him about six years ago, how a Make-a-Wish representative telling me, with tears in her eyes, how selflessly he gives himself to those kids challenged by illness or physical limitations. Those were the home runs no one saw.
“I can’t describe how inspirational he is,’’ she told me.
That attitude carried over into the clubhouse. He never wanted the focus to be on him, even after stellar, game-changing performances. He did post-game interviews infinitely more often after losses than victories. This was his way of absorbing the loss for the team rather than burdening his teammates.
That personality and his heart is a product of two remarkable people, his mother Birdie and his father, Ken Griffey. Junior learned how a carry himself on the ball field from Senior and how to handle himself off the field from both parents. They had their own charitable foundation so Junior started his, 15 years ago, the Ken Griffey Jr. Family Foundation, that has raised millions.
One thing that sticks with me to this day is the way he ended all his phone conversations with his dad and mother or other loved ones. He always said, “I love you.’’ That initially struck me as, maybe corny. Yet quickly I came to admire it and subsequently it’s now part of my family’s routine.
All this is not necessarily the purpose of this story. It just needed to be mentioned up front because who he is is greater than what he did.
What follows are some stories about Junior, more personal and perhaps self-indulgent, weaving in my two-decade connection with him. It’s a stream of consciousness, vignettes, special games I covered and personal stories, in some chronological order, that might offer some insight into the newest Immortal, Mr. 99 percent.
1987 – Before the annual baseball draft that June, flakey and parsimonious owner George Argyros wanted Mike Harkey, a sturdy right-hander out of Cal State-Fullerton who would have come cheap. But the Mariners brass, primarily much-respected scouting head Roger Jongewaard, insisted on Griffey, a 17-year-old out of Cincinnati Moeller High. He successfully argued that Junior was a once-in-a-lifetime prospect, as he turned out to be. The city can forever thank Jongewaard for his persuasive talents. He also becomes the first No. 1 draft choice ever to enter the HOF.
Harkey ultimately was drafted by the Cubs with the fourth pick and finished with a 36-36 record in his eight-year career. Interesting enough, Jack McDowell, taken by the White Sox with the fifth pick, eventually wound up with the Yankees in 1995. He’s the guy who threw the pitch that Edgar Martinez hit for the playoff-winning double, scoring Griffey, in the greatest game in Mariners history.
1989 – Griffey dominated the news his rookie year and it was inevitable that various writers would break stories. For me, one popped up quite unexpectedly, the Ken Griffey Junior Milk Chocolate Bar. I heard that an Edmonds company had signed a contract to produce at least 12,000 bars. So I told another Times writer about it, as he was looking for an off-day story. He passed it back. I even waited a couple days to run it in the Times when we had space. I had totally under-estimated the reaction, buzzing all across the country with all the historic references to Baby Ruths. Junior appreciated the ‘honor’ but, ironically, admitted he was allergic to chocolate. I remember the creator of those bars called to thank me for the huge jump in sales and offered me a bag of them, safe in his freezer. I never picked them up. Hey, if they’re still there, call me, although after 27 years freezer burn could be a factor.
Aug. 31, 1989 – The stars aligned and somehow Ken Griffey, his father, became a Seattle Mariner and would start on this date, hitting second, with his son hitting third. Goosebumps all over when Dad singled to center in his first at-bat and son followed with a single to right. How was that possible? What a special thing for all of us to witness.
Spring training, 1990 – We were in Vegas to close out the spring season and I was committed to a Caesars’ black jack table. Junior, Senior and a Nike rep came by and casually asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. I passed. What was I thinking? The Griffeys, one of the biggest stories in the country at that time – and I declined? Five minutes later, reason returned. I bolted from the table and searched the place for the trio, finally finding them in a remote restaurant.
April 26, 1990 – Racing to the fence at Yankee Stadium, Junior leaped up and stole a home run from Jesse Barfield, running back to the dugout, hi glove held high and flashing that huge grin. Instantly, when I saw that I knew it was going to be his signature catch. And yes, all these years later – 26 years now – it’s there on all the career highlight videos.
May, 1990 – That summer I brought my then 10-year-old son Bobby on a road trip to Chicago. Niketown stores were popping up around the country, including one on Michigan Ave., and Junior was their major promotion. As we were entering, Griffey was coming out. He grabbed Bobby and said, “you need to buy this kid some shoes.’’ He did actually need a new pair but I said flippantly, “you’re the one with all the shoes, you get ‘em.’’
Nothing more was said – and nothing more expected – until about a week later back in Seattle. Griffey asked me to bring my son to the Kingdome clubhouse the next day. When we entered, Griffey saw us and immediately reached into his locker for a box. He had ordered the latest shoe style for him. Bobby, so utterly thrilled, hardly said a word as he put them on. Very thoughtful gesture. He loves making kids happy, even sons of sportswriters. Who knows what happened to those shoes. Knowing my son’s nature, I don’t think he told any of his friends about it and pretty sure once they wore out, he tossed them, treasuring the memory rather than the Nikes.
1990s sometime – Griffey also gave me an unexpected present after one Kingdome batting practice session. When he was finished, he handed me his black Louisville Slugger, saying ‘keep it.’ As credentialed writers, we’re not allowed to seek out stuff, autographs and such. But this was an unsolicited gift. How do you turn that down? That black beauty one day will no doubt end up in possession of my son’s son. I have to trust he won’t toss it.
July 1990 – Griffey made his first of 13 All-Star teams that season and it was my bright idea to have him write a diary for the Times. What an idiot idea. Chasing him down, by phone back in Seattle, amid all the parties and various functions in Chicago was a nightmare. But we promoted the crap out of it; we needed something. Missed calls. Missed callbacks. Distracted and scattered conversations. Yet through all the segues, sidebars and discussions to nowhere, we managed to put together three days of diaries, an exercise in creative writing.
1990s and beyond – Griffey loved to talk on the phone, especially with the beat writers. At any time of day. During his early days in Seattle, he had my phone number. Later in the decade he moved onto other writers. He’d call, sometimes after midnight, and just talk about basically, nothing, in the same distracted style. Looking back, I think he was still just a kid playing with adults. No real agenda, just a kind searching for his place in the game, still harboring a little self-doubt. I think he just needed some reassurance from us. It was a soft side of him that he naturally kept hidden.
Sept. 14, 1990 – It was a remarkable year, that second season, full of memories but nothing before or, for me, after generated such a thrill as witnessing back-to-back home runs by father and son. They both connected off Angels’ Kirk McCaskill in the first inning. Imagine that? Put it in perspective. It’s a game ritually passed down from father to son and here, somehow, they find themselves in the same big-league park, both going deep. Unbelievable. Definitely, one of the greatest singular thrills of my 34 years in the newspaper business.
May 6, 1993 – As good a hitter as he was, many of us believe he was an even better fielder. We all saw so many great catches, such as the Barfield lean-over and the crash off the old Tiger Stadium iron fence, but there’s one that only I saw. It happened on this date during batting practice at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Junior shagged in center and was heading in. On the grass just beyond second base, he bent over to put a ball in a bucket when someone hit a rocket right at him. He was completely exposed, not quite behind the protective screen, and never saw the ball. But he was bent over in such a way that his glove was open and resting on his knee. The ball traveled directly into the pocket. Shocked by the sudden thud, he lifted up his glove and waved it around as if he just found a 100 dollar bill. No one even noticed. Had that line drive had been just a tad higher, or his slightly head lower, he would have sustained a serious injury. As it was, he just smiled, flipped the ball in the bucket and headed into the clubhouse. It just underscored, for me, what a magic carpet ride career he was undergoing.
Jan. 19, 1994 – Sitting in my hotel room in Eugene, Or., prior to covering a Washington-Oregon basketball game, the phone rang. Junior. How did he know I was there? Small talk for about 10 minutes then he gave me the reason for the call. His wife Melissa had given birth to their first child, Trey, just an hour or two earlier. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed so it took me a while to figure out why he was calling in the middle of winter. He wanted to tell the world his son was born and I was the designated messenger, which we splashed to the world next edition.
June 17, 1994 – Huge achievement on this day, in Kansas City. He splashed his 30th home run into the water works in right field. That tied Babe Ruth’s record (later broken) for most home runs before June 30. It was also the day when everyone was preoccupied with the O.J. Simpson Bronco slow chase through the streets of L.A. Also that day, a friend of Lou Piniella’s was on the trip and he boosted about having O.J.’s cell number. We copied it down from his phone directory. So while writing up Junior’s latest feat, fellow writer Jim Street and I divided our time dialing up the Juice in the back seat of that Bronco. He might have been preoccupied.
1999 – Junior was preoccupied in this first final season with the Mariners. He had hit 48 home runs, drove in 134 and hit .285 but was not the same jubilant Kid. He was more withdrawn, almost surly at times. He wanted to play closer to home, which was understandable, and probably fed up watching the team trying to rebuild into contention. He would get his way, with a trade that winter, dispatched to Cincinnati. I remember one of his Reds teammates saying, “it’s not if we win the World Series, but how many.’’ None is the answer. The Reds never went to the playoffs in the nine years he was there. Griff also was impeded by series of injuries and, at least twice when he hit the turf with a serious injury, he was booed by the local fans. He was so pissed that by the time he left, he deferred part of his salary just so the Reds’ would have to continue to pay him for the next two decades. Meanwhile, the Mariners advanced to the playoffs the next two seasons. You wonder now, if he could admit to himself, that he should have stayed in Seattle.
2009-10 – By the time Junior returned to the Mariners, the naked eye could see his reduced skills, a slower bat, not so fleet in the field. But he hit 19 home runs and drove in 57 in 117 games his first season, providing some clutch hits and thrills along the way. In his final 2009 game, he and Ichiro were carried off the field on their teammates’ shoulders. That should have been the way it all ended. Retired with grace. But sentimentality brought in back. We didn’t want to give up, nor did he. Manager Don Watamatsu was caught in the middle. His job was to put the best nine guys on the field each game and Griffey wasn’t one of them. As Piniella said when he came through with the Chicago Cubs that year, “the hardest job for a manager is dealing with an aging superstar.’’ It all blew up on June 4, 2010 when he called President Chuck Armstrong from an Idaho gas station. He was retiring and driving across country to his home in Orlando. Sad ending to a stellar career. He deserved better but after all he has given the city, it washes all away.