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Griffin Lights Up Radar Quickly

The hard-throwing high school righthander has the eyes of Texas--and major league scouts--upon him

By Alan Schwarz

MARSHALL, Texas–It’s a Who’s Who watching Who’s Next. Colt Griffin is about to start warming up down the right-field line, and word spreads through the dozens of scouts and executives who have made a pilgrimage to east Texas to watch the 100 mph kid pitch. The Reds’ Gary Hughes. Mark Shapiro of the Indians. Astros president Tal Smith. Five Royals brass, including George Brett. They amble over purposefully and station themselves against the fence to see if what they’ve heard is true. "We’re jockeying for position," one scouting director quips.

Could it be? Could Texas be spawning yet another pitching phenom, the heir to Ryan and Clyde and Clemens and Van Poppel and Wood and Beckett? After all, Griffin barely pitched before this year, and area scouts, after popping their eyes back in their sockets, have been known to report gun readings as accurately as the NRA. For teams to select Griffin in the first round of the draft, maybe the top five or 10 picks, they have to see this for themselves.

Behind a dusty batting net Griffin loosens up his electric wing with a half-dozen easy fastballs, a couple of sliders, and a few more heaters before one leaves his fingers and slices through the dusk with an evil hiss. Sucker must have gone a good 94. The next one’s even faster, probably 96. "Very nice," a GM nods. "Let’s see it in the game."

Fifteen minutes later, his angular frame perched on the mound with 2,000 eyes and 30 radar guns on him, Griffin raises his leg, cocks his right arm and makes his opening statement. Directly at the batter’s chin–sends him sprawling. Protected by the screen, the scouts look at their guns: 97.

"In the majors," one coos, "you’ll get a warning for that."

In the majors.

Colt Griffin’s story has knocked baseball on its ear, too. A virtual unknown two months ago after playing first base as a junior, he shocked the scouts who attended a game in Natchitoches, La., to watch the opposing pitcher by bringin’ it at 97. Fifty blew in for his next start, against Lufkin (Texas) High, when Griffin did the unthinkable: As if wielding the sledgehammer at a carnival strongman booth, he reared back and threw a pitch 100 mph, leaving the radar guns all but ringing and flashing in celebration.

"What in the hell was that?" said Robert Ray, the Lufkin hitter equal parts flummoxed and frightened. Though radar guns came into favor only in the 1970s and share the smirk of Joe Isuzu, it’s believed no high school pitcher had ever hit the century mark before. Griffin knew he had done something special the minute the ball burned off his fingers; the only thing that traveled faster than the pitch was the news. Royals executive Art Stewart, now in his 49th year of scouting, shakes his head and says, "This game, there’s always something where you can’t ever say you’ve seen it all."

It took just two months for Griffin’s arm to display the most raw strength among high school pitchers, not just in this year’s class but possibly in the entire draft era itself. J.R. Richard, while posting a 0.00 ERA for Lincoln High in Ruston, La.–just two hours down Interstate 20 from Marshall–didn’t throw this hard. Nor did Texas terrors Nolan Ryan, David Clyde, Roger Clemens, Todd Van Poppel, Kerry Wood or Josh Beckett. Brien Taylor hit 98 before being the No. 1 pick by the Yankees 10 years ago, but no one can remember ever seeing a triple-digit teenager. Says the Reds’ Hughes of the high school pitchers he’s seen over 30 years, "I’ve never seen anyone throw harder."

Griffin is prime beef but raw as steak tartare. He has reasonably developed breaking pitches for someone with just one year on the mound. In fact, while beating Richardson’s Berkner High 4-2 in the second round of the Texas 5-A playoffs, his hard-breaking slider and authoritative curveball were almost as impressive as his fastball. But his inconsistent mechanics cost him command of the strike zone and, beyond that, his spontaneous explosion on the scene leaves some scouts a little skittish.

Most Texas phenoms are followed from Little League on up, their high school graduations anticipated for years. But when you suddenly consider spending $2 million on a kid who a year ago planned to spend this summer at his old truck-loading job and riding powerboats on nearby Lake o’ the Pines–the one warmed by the power plant–some background is appreciated.

Young Colt threw hard since he first picked up a ball. "I always had the stronger arm every year in my age group," he says. In eighth and ninth grade, he grew six or eight inches to his current 6-foot-4, and it took him several years to develop the coordination to throw pitches in even the vicinity of the strike zone. He played first base as a junior last season–earning all-district honors–because Marshall already had two frontline starters. "They also threw strikes, so it was hard to work him into the mix," coach Jackie Lloyd says. "He threw 88-90, but he might hit five or six people in a row."

Lloyd asked Griffin to work on pitching last fall, and much of it came in the family’s backyard throwing to older brother Chris–if only in spurts. The sessions were generally interrupted by Chris trudging back into the house on welted shins.

"I ain’t throwin’ with him no more!" Chris would scream. Thirty minutes later he’d ask Colt, "You wanna go throw?"

Soon enough the shouting would start again.

"Stop throwing the ball so dad-gum hard!" Chris yelled.

"I’m not throwing it hard!"

"Well, slow down!" The neighbors could hear it all. Colt’s out there throwin’ again . . .

Griffin grew from 180 to 200 pounds through weight training, helping his strength and coordination. Raising his elbow on his three-quarters delivery gave him more natural command. One scout who saw Griffin throwing well in a February scrimmage wrote his name down and figured he’d put him on the back burner for a while. "Well, that burner heated up real quick," the scout says. "He started throwing 94-95 at Natchitoches. The scouts were going nuts. They didn’t know who he was."

Teams will have to decide if they prefer Griffin’s pure arm strength over the greater polish in this year’s exceptional class of high school righthanders–pitchers such as Mike Jones, Alan Horne and Gavin Floyd. He has first-round numbers against first-rate competition: an 8-1 record with 110 strikeouts in 59 innings, with 35 walks and 17 hits allowed. Insiders believe Griffin won’t last past his home-state Astros at No. 10, if he lasts that long.

Going that early would score Griffin a roughly $2 million bonus–he’s expected to forgo his scholarship to Louisiana Tech–and, most importantly, a new truck. Though his current blue Bronco features a classic east Texas lift that raises the cab a bad-ass four feet off the ground, Colt wants more. "If you go on up there over that hill," he says to the horizon, "there’s a Red one, you can just about walk under it." Vehicles now approach him–after whipping a Tyler team, a carful of high school girls drove up and prefaced their autograph requests with, "Hey, studmuffin." He got three phone numbers.

In fact, his stardom is benefiting all of Marshall. One citizen was pulled over 20 miles away by a Henderson Police officer and had the following conversation:

"You’re goin’ 76 in a 50, sir. What’s your hurry?" "Well, sir, I’m goin’ to watch Colt Griffin pitch." "Really? I’ve heard about that kid. He’s the boy throwin’ 100, right?" "Yessir."

"Well," said the cop, sufficiently beguiled, "I guess I’ll just write you up a warning."

Several Marshallites walk up to Griffin’s mother Kay in the parking lot after games and give her heartfelt hugs. Less approved of is Lloyd–that is, among scouts who fear he might destroy his prodigious pitcher as fast as he helped create him. Most scouts by nature view handling by amateur coaches as slightly more reckless than a blindfolded briss, but Griffin has thrown 134 pitches in one start and more than 120 several other times. "This guy should be shot for that," one executive snaps, almost reflexively. Lloyd claims Griffin pitched just once a week and was in no danger.

Besides, adding to Griffin’s spookiness, his arm never hurts. Never aches, throbs, smarts or chafes. "They don’t know–I could probably throw 300 pitches," he says. "We’ve got one boy, if he throws 20 pitches, he can’t move the next day. I throw, and I’ll throw again the next day." Has he ever iced his arm? "Not once. Grab a bag, throw on my shoes and walk off."

Doc Bospon, a local trainer who has worked with 18,000 Texas athletes since 1955, including current big leaguers Jay Buhner, Clemens and Greg Swindell, says he’s never seen anything like it. "Every pitcher gets some pain after he pitches, but not Colt," Bospon says. "It’s against the laws of nature." (A Griffin did have rotator-cuff surgery this April, but it was Kay, who got up in the middle of the night to let the dog out and fell down the stairs.) Hughes still sees a scar on Colt as inevitable: "Nobody gets through this unscathed. It doesn’t have to be when you’re 17, 18. It can be when you’re 23, 24. How many times do we pick up the paper and find a kid with a strained this, a sore that? Or worse?"

The only kid in danger against Richardson Berkner was that first batter, a 17-year-old named Kyle Brehm who knew a 97 mph fastball was coming, but not necessarily at his head. Griffin and his catcher, Matt Coyle, both admitted afterward to throwing at him on purpose. "I wanted to scare them a little bit," Griffin said through his gap-toothed grin. "I think it worked." Let the Clemens comparisons begin.

While disapproving of that tactic and certainly the 4-2 loss, Berkner coach Steve Young still bubbled at getting a firsthand peek at the latest car on the ever-chugging Texas phenom train. "I’ve been looking forward to this all week," he said. So were the scouts. "You want a fresh arm?" the Royals’ Stewart asked. "This is a fresh arm."

The only disappointment was that he didn’t hit 100 again, give everyone something to tell the grandkids. "I was a little sluggish," Griffin explained. Maybe he can add a few miles an hour before the draft. The cops probably won’t mind at all.

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