See also: All 2006 Award Winners
As Baseball America has grown over the years, so has our coverage of high school baseball. It has become increasingly common for us to track a player from high school all the way to big league stardom. No player typifies this trend more then Ken Griffey Jr., the recipient of the 2006 Baseball America Lifetime Achievement award.
Based on his father’s big league career, Griffey’s name was already recognizable to Baseball America readers when he was a senior at Cincinnati’s Moeller High. But the attention bestowed upon Griffey in the spring of 1987 was more then just a case of nepotism. With an arsenal of tools that had scouts in awe, Griffey was considered the best talent in the draft and the likely selection of the Mariners with the top pick. But the best talent is not always selected No. 1 overall for a variety of reasons.
“Seattle’s situation as the draft approaches is muddled by the fact that owner George Argyos is in the midst of acquiring the San Diego Padres,” we wrote in the 1987 Draft Preview. “Whether or not Agryos is able or willing to spend the money necessary to acquire the most desirable player might be in question.”
Argyos was also said to prefer a college player, with Cal State Fullerton righthander Mike Harkey considered the top collegiate candidate. Fortunately for the Mariners, scouting director Roger Jongewaard had experience with the No. 1 pick. As Mets West Coast supervisor in 1980, he had been instrumental in persuading them to sign another lefthanded hitting high school outfielder by the name of Darryl Strawberry. He stayed strong on Griffey and convinced Argyos that Griffey was the right choice, and the Mariners signed him for $169,000 as the top pick.
“Griffey represents a sound choice for a team looking to the future,” we wrote of the then 17-year-old. “A Mike Harkey, who the Mariners also gave final consideration to, might have been a short-term pitching solution, but Griffey–considered the best long-term prospect in the nation, college or high school–was a pick for the future.
“Griffey, who throws and bats lefthanded, has been rated a step ahead of another one-time Cincinnati schoolboy who played at Moeller High School, Barry Larkin.”
The Mariners’ decision to take Griffey looks even more prescient when compared to the rest of the 1987 draft. With the second pick, the Pirates took high school outfielder Mark Merchant, who never reached the major leagues. High school righthander Willie Banks (Twins) and Harkey (Cubs) went with the next two picks and though both pitched in the majors, neither had a significant big league career.
Top Prospect From Day One
From the moment he set foot on a professional field, Griffey made it obvious why he was the top pick. Assigned to the short-season Northwest League, Griffey hit .313/.445/.604 with 14 home runs in 182 at-bats for Bellingham and was named the league’s top prospect.
“Can run, throw, play the outfield, hit for average and hit for power. Need to know more?” read the scouting report in the 1987 league top 10 issue.
Praise for Griffey was not hard to find that season:
“He has better tools right now than most major leaguers,” Bellingham manager Rick Sweet said. “Experience is the only thing he lacks.”
“He can do anything he wants,” Spokane manager Rob Piccolo said.
“He has all the tools to be a superstar,” Everett’s Joe Strain said.
The Mariners jumped Griffey to high Class A in 1988, and it was more of the same. In 219 at-bats for San Bernardino in the California League, Griffey hit .338/.431/.575 with 11 homers. Once again, he was named the league’s top prospect.
“The only question is how fast he should be allowed progress in the Mariners’ farm system,” we wrote. “He was ticketed for a promotion to Double-A Vermont at midseason when a back injury sidelined him. He returned to finish the season in Double-A and could start 1989 in Triple-A.”
“The only thing I’d do is not rush him,” Riverside’s Tony Torchia said at the time. “Not making him pay his dues, necessarily, but letting him accumulate at-bats and have some success at each level.”
The Mariners would not take Torchia’s advice. Griffey did not play another day in the minor leagues.
Speeding Up The Timetable
During spring training in 1989, Griffey was seen as a longshot to make the big league club. Griffey was not among our top 20 rookies in the March 25, 1989, issue. He was, however, listed No. 1 among our top 10 longshots.
“He’s a 19-year-old who can do it all, but he’ll probably do it in Calgary to start the year,” we wrote. “The Mariners insist they’ll be patient with the top pick in the 1987 draft, but after all, these are the Mariners.”
The Mariners’ outlook toward Griffey apparently shifted quite quickly because Griffey was in their starting lineup on Opening Day and on his first Baseball America cover a month later. In that issue, we ranked the 22 first overall picks in the draft’s history on Hall of Fame potential. Once again, Griffey came out on top. Of the group of 22, Griffey has had the greatest career with none others coming close to Cooperstown. Since then, the only No. 1 picks that have a comparable career to Griffey (or might be expected to) are Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer.
Griffey’s legend continued to grow over the next couple of years and he was featured on two Baseball America covers in 1990. And we forget it now because his statistics stayed strong, but there was a time when his attitude was in question.
After an incident in a game against the Tigers in which Griffey made an obscene gesture towards Sparky Anderson when he continually intentionally walked the young slugger, Griffey was featured on the July 25, 1993, cover, which asked the question: “When Will The Kid Grow Up?”
“Oh, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about Griffey,” Ken Rosenthal wrote, now with Fox Sports. “He wears his cap backward in the clubhouse, and can often been seen clowning around. But (teammate Harold) Reynolds remembers the sensitive 19-year-old who sat in front of his locker crying as a rookie, wondering if he’d ever get another hit to break a lengthy slump.
“To Reynolds and others, that’s the real Griffey, a young man frantically driven to succeed. Still, the game comes so easily to him, he sometimes appears to lack motivation. That seems to be changing under the intense (Lou) Piniella, and not a moment too soon.”
At the time, Griffey was still just 23 years old, and by the end of that summer he had put together a season for the ages and made doubters forget about his youthful indiscretion. He hit .309/.408/.617 with 45 homers, his first of seven 40-homer seasons in an eight-year span.
By 1994, Griffey had firmly established himself as a superstar and was sitting on 40 home runs, and in sight of Roger Maris’ home run record, when the strike hit. That fall, with the absence of a World Series, Baseball America’s Jim Callis wrote a fictional account of an imaginary international tournament that was played in lieu of a Fall Classic. In Callis’ version that predated the World Baseball Classic, the United States and Cuba faced off in the finals. For a snapshot of who was perceived as the biggest name in baseball at that time, look no further then Callis’ story, which had Griffey hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game One to give the United States a 4-2 victory. In clinching the series in Game Two, Griffey added a solo homer in the ninth inning of a 7-0 victory.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Callis saw Griffey as the logical choice of Team USA hero. While players like Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds might have had better pure hitting stats, Griffey is the player we associate most with the 1990s.
An examination of the archive of our annual Best Tools survey shows us just how opposing managers felt about him during that time. To list every time he was named in the top three of a category would take up the entire column, so here are some highlights. From 1994-99 Griffey was named the most exciting player in the American League every year. Beyond winning a Gold Glove every year during the decade, he was also named one of the top three defensive outfielders in our Best Tools survey and No. 1 in six of those years. In 1999, he was named best power hitter, best defensive outfielder, best outfield arm and most exciting player.
It’s not the most scientific method of determining a player’s worth, but when you factor in performance, flair and his popular perception, there is no question that Griffey was the player of the decade of the 1990s.
He moved to the Reds and the National League in 2000, and though his performance has diminished since his Seattle heyday, he has still added 165 home runs over those seven seasons to bring his career total 563. And in an era when steroids have put an enormous cloud over almost everyone’s home run totals, Griffey is one player whose accomplishments are beyond reproach and long ago made reservations for himself in Cooperstown.
If you were reading Baseball America, you knew about him long before he set foot on a big league diamond and are probably asking yourself how the Mariners ever considered drafting Mike Harkey over him.