COOPERSTOWN, NY — Ever since he was voted, almost unanimously, into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr., has been doing something that makes him uncomfortable — talking about himself.
It was that way during his two stints with the Mariners, the first one beginning in 1989 when he was a wide-eyed teenager, and the second one nearly 21 years later, ending with a quiet exit as a no-doubt-about-it first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Nothing has changed.
“It’s still a little tough to talk about myself,” Griffey said late last week during a conference call with reporters. “My dad (Ken Griffey Sr.) always told me, ‘Do things right and let your play do all the talking’. I think after a while people understood me as far as, ‘Okay, he’s not going to talk about himself, but he’ll talk about everybody else’.”
Junior’s play spoke volumes during his career and the final at-bat of a sensational run is just a few days away – the Hall of Fame Induction Sunday afternoon at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, where Griffey and Mike Piazza will become the 311th and 312th members of the exclusive club.
Of the 440 ballots submitted by qualified senior members of the BBWAA, writers with 10 or more consecutive years of service, Griffey was named on 437, which accounted for 99.3 percent of the vote. It’s the highest plurality in the history of the election that dates to 1936. The previous record holder was Tom Seaver, who was named on 98.8 percent of BBWAA ballots in 1992.
Griffey, the 51st player elected in his first year on the ballot, will be joined on the stage by Piazza, who also surpassed the 75-percent threshold for election with 365 votes (83 percent) in his fourth year on the ballot.
Although my voting privilege soon will end (four more years under the new rules that abolished the lifetime voting provision that existed from 1936), I was thrilled to put an “X” in front of Junior’s name on the latest ballot.
More than 50 Hall of Famers, including former Mariners teammate Randy Johnson, who was enshrined last year, will attend the three-day extravaganza that begin a 10:30 a.m. PT and broadcast by MLB Network. Meanwhile, Griffey said he hopes another former teammate, Edgar Martinez, is among the class of 2017.
“When you have the (Designated Hitter) trophy named after you, you should be in the Hall of Fame,” Griffey said. “I hope he gets in so I won’t feel so lonely there.”
There he goes, saying nice things about others, refusing to get caught up in his own stellar career that produced one American League Most Valuable Player Award, 10 consecutive Gold Gloves Awards, 13 All-Star Game selections and 630 home runs.
Junior undoubtedly will touch all the bases once again in Cooperstown, saying “thank you” many more times than “me, myself and I” references during his induction speech, which is estimated to last about 15 minutes.
“I still haven’t completed it,” Griffey said late last week when asked if his speech was ready. “It’s a work in progress.”
While Griffey remains reluctant to talk about himself, others, including Piazza, can’t say enough good things about him.
“I had my first memory of Ken Griffey Jr. when I first signed with the Dodgers,” Piazza said during a conference call last week. “I knew back then that he was going to be special. He was the first overall pick in the draft and had a famous father (Ken Griffey Sr.) who was a great ballplayer. He was as close to a can’t-miss prospect as you can get.
“It’s a tribute to him because even though he was drafted No. 1 and the expectations were high, he never mailed it in,” Piazza added. “I don’t see how any player who played with or against him could not marvel at his talent and his ability to have fun playing his game.”
He had fun, all right. Griffey’s cap-backwards style became a hit with the youth of America and beyond. Junior became the face of MLB and his ear-to-ear grin just one of his trademarks. Among his many highlights was becoming part of the first — and still only — father-son tandem to hit a home run in the same game. They went back-to-back on Sept. 14, 1990 against Angels right-hander Kirk McCaskill.
George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was born on Nov. 21, 1969 in Stan Musial’s hometown of Donora, Pa. – on Musial’s 49th birthday, no less – grew up in Cincinnati watching his All-Star father play the outfield for the Reds. By the time he reached Moeller High School, Junior’s big league future seemed secure.
After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Mariners – a selection that Baseball America would later call the best pick in the history of the MLB Draft – Griffey negotiated some rough days in the minor leagues before making his big league debut on Opening Day 1989 against the defending American League champion Athletics.
The low point of his minor league days occurred in Bellingham, Wash., where he consumed far too many aspirins and was rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. Less than two years later he was making his Major League debut in Oakland.
In his first big-league at-bat, Griffey doubled off Athletics ace right-hander Dave Stewart, the first of his 2,781 hits. His first hit in Seattle — a home run — came in his first at bat of the Mariners’ home opener against the White Sox.
Griffey noted that he was just a kid — literally — when his dad first told him to be jimself and not try to be like anyone else.
“I did a talent show when I was probably in the third or fourth grade and along with a couple of other kids we imitated all the Reds hitters and sang ‘Take me out to the ballgame.
“I got in the car and my dad was like, ‘Hey, you’re not me. I’m not you. I just want you to be a kid’. “And so, I’m learning at an early age, to just be yourself. I tell my kids all the time, ‘Michael Jordan’s name is taken. And so, you have to make your own name. Kobe’s name has been taken. Iverson’s name has been taken. LeBron James, all those names have been taken, so you have to make your own name’.”
Griffey, who will become the first Mariner to have his jersey (No. 24) retired by the Mariners next month, says all the hoopla has not changed him, at home or on the road. “I’m pretty much no one else, so that hasn’t changed,” he said. “I tried to get certain names called. I tried to get emperor, but that didn’t work. My dad and my kids didn’t want to go for that around the house. When people call and ask for ‘Mr. Griffey’ I still look for my dad if he’s around. I’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m just Ken.” That being said, in Seattle he is not “Ken” he’s still “The Kid.”
But more than anyone else, he saved Major League Baseball in the Great Northwest.