Hall Of Fame Flashback: Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr. got a record 99.3 percent of the Hall of Fame vote on Wednesday, falling three votes shy of a unanimous vote. Here are a collection of scouting reports and features on the No. 1 overall pick in 1987. With the first selection in last June’s draft, the Mariners took the sure thing–Ken Griffey, son of the big league outfielder by the same name. He was easily the pick of the crop, according to scouts.
1. Ken Griffey, of Age: 18. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 190. B-T: L-L.
Griffey had plenty of pressure to cope with. He wasn’t just a high school kid who was away from home for the first time. He wasn’t just a No. 1 pick overall, which creates unfair expectations. He also happened to be the son of a successful big league player, adding to the fishbowl Griffey had to deal with. He had some early problems, but by season’s end he had stamped himself as legitimate. The tools are all there. He can run (13 stolen bases). He can hit for average (.313) and power (14 home runs in 82 games). He can throw, and he can track down fly balls in the outfield. Griffey will develop as quickly as he decides he wants to get serious.
In the 1988 Best Tools Issue, Griffey not surprisingly was everywhere. He was named the California League’s Best Batting prospect, Hitter With Best Power and Best Defensive Outfielder.
RIVERSIDE, CALIF.–Like father, like son? Try better than father. That seems to be the trend at the top of the California League Top 10 Prospects list. The No. 1 prospect to the surprise of few is Ken Griffey Jr., son of current major league veteran and the pride of the Seattle Mariners’ organization. The managers surveyed agreed that Griffey, 19, has superstar skills. “Griffey’s an above-average guy in every category,” said San Bernardino manager Ralph Dick. “He doesn’t really have a weakness and I think he’s only going to get better and better.” The only question is how fast he should be allowed to progress in the Mariners’ farm system. 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,” said Riverside’s Tony Torchia. “Not making him pay his dues necessarily but letting him accumulate at-bats and have some success at each level.”
Jim Caple caught up with Griffey in Arizona in spring training in 1989 for a Baseball America cover story.
TEMPE, ARIZ.–Ken Griffey Jr. remembers the moment vividly. The pitch. The swing. The sharply struck baseball appearing into the first baseman’s glove. And then the embarrassing tears following the first failure of his baseball career. He was 11 year old. After one entire season of little league, Griffey had finally made what he says was his first out. “I cried,” he says. “I cried so hard they had to take me out of the game.” “My mother said, ‘Look, your father makes plenty of outs. One out is not going to make any difference.’ And I said, ‘But that’s him, that’s not me.’ “ When you’re the son of a major leaguer, comparisons to father begin at an early age. Particularly when you don’t make an out until age 11. There have been more outs in his life since then, but few enough that George Kenneth Griffey Jr. now is one of baseball’s best prospects-maybe even the best–and at age 19, a likely big leaguer this season. The Seattle Mariners’ most consistent hitter during spring training (he was leading all major leaguers in hits and RBIs in late March), Griffey was considered the prime candidate to be the Mariners’ starting center fielder. If not on Opening Day, then almost certainly by midseason. If he is, and if his father Ken Sr., makes it with the Reds (he was in camp as a non-roster player), they will become baseball’s first father-son pair to play in the majors at the same time. “It’s something my dad began talking about last spring training,” Griffey says. “He said This could be my last season, so you had better make the team.’ I thought he was kidding at first, but the more he talked about it as the season went on, the more serious he got. “It’s the only thing I could give him. He’s given me everything most kids dream about.” The stuff kids dream about only if they have an overactive imagination.
Big Name In Cincinnati - Griffey grew up in Cincinnati, the son of one of the city’s heroes, the son of one of the Big Red Machine’s main cogs. While other boys dreamed of simply obtaining autographs from the likes of Pete Rose Sr. (his son plays in the Orioles’ system), Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion or Johnny Bench, Griffey knew them, spoke with them, played against them in father-son games. WHile others played basketball with whatever friend was available, Griffey went one-on-one with Rickey Henderson. While other teens made do with second-hand AMC Hornets, Griffey received a new BMW when he turned 16, the first of several cards his father has given him in the past three years. Of course, the BMW was nothing compared to what Pete Rose Jr., a boyhood friend of Griffey’s, got from his father–a Porsche (comparisons, comparisons). “I’m spoiled, everyone knows it,” Griffey says. “My mother calls me a spoiled brat. My dad tells me he spoiled me too much.
The Griffey Swing - What Ken Griffey Sr. spoiled his son with most, though, was his genes, a gift that began showing its tremendous value on the baseball field when Griffey was in high school. Not that it was evident right away. Griffey sat out his freshman season with poor grades, then missed his sophomore season because he chose to attend spring training with his father in Florida. Then as a junior, Griffey made a less-than-auspicious debut. “I heard all the rumors about what a great player Kenny was,” Moeller High coach Mike Cameron said. “And then he swings at the first 10 pitches and he misses every single one. He pulled his head. He looked awful. I said ‘That’s terrible. You missed every pitch. That swing will have to go.’ “He said ‘Nah, that’s the Griffey swing.’ “ The swing stayed, and soon enough Griffey began hitting the ball so consistently and with such force that Cameron said he was actually afraid to pitch him batting practice. “With all the kids, it’s the same thing,” Cameron says. “I really believe that until they fail, they’ll never listen to you. And Kenny’s never met failure. When they start failing they come up to you and say ‘Coach, what am I doing wrong?’ then you know they are ready to listen. And I knew I would never see that time when Kenny would ask me that.” No he didn’t. As Griffey says, “Anything he said, I had heard from my father since I was 9 years old.” Griffey hit .478 with 11 home runs as a junior, grew six inches to 6-foot-3, 40 pounds to 185 and five pant sizes over the summer, then hit .484 with seven home runs as a senior. “But considering what he had to hit, that was fantastic,” Cameron said. “The word got out on him his senior year. He got absolute junk that year.”
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Move Over, Willie - As for his defensive skills? “They talk about Willie Mays making that basket catch against Vic Wertz,” Cameron says. “I saw Ken do it four times.” The only time Griffey ever had trouble, Cameron says, was on the rare occasions Ken Sr. was able to attend a game. After going to the New York Yankees and then the Atlanta Braves, Ken Sr., rarely was home from April through September. “He could play under the pressure of GMs watching him, of scouts watching him, his mother watching him. None of that ever bothered him. But not his father. Ken Sr., would show up and I’d give him a look and he’d say “I know. I know.” By Griffey’s estimate he went 0-for-3 every time his father attended a game. Despite the difficulties of playing under his father’s eye, by the time Griffey graduated, Camwron considered him the greatest athlete to pass through Moeller, a nationally recognized football factory, in the coach’s 22 years there. Equally impressed, the Mariners made Griffey the No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft. He began his professional career shortly thereafter, breaking in with Bellingham (Northwest) at age 17. He struck out looking in his first at-bat. “It was a forkball,” Griffey says. “I’d never seen one before and they told me to never swing at a pitch I hadn’t seen before.” He adapted quickly enough, homering for his first professional hit and finishing the year with a team-high .320 average, 14 home runs and 40 RBIs. The season earned him an invitation to the major league camp the next spring where he singled off Dennis Eckersley in his first at-bat against a major league pitcher.
First Frustration - Griffey began the 1988 season at Class A San Bernardino, where he underwent the first slump of his career, albeit a short one, when he went 0-for-17. “He was a kid who had never dealt with failure before,” says minor league instructor Don Reynolds (Harold’s older brother), who acted as a big brother to Griffey. “I don’t think he had ever been unsuccessful for such a long time.” So frustrated was Griffey that he flew home to visit his mother on one of the team’s rare days off. He says upon returning to the club the next day he began a 20-for-30 streak. Griffey rose to the top of the charts in hitting (.328), home runs (11) and stolen bases (32) by mid-June befor a strained lower back force him to the disabled list. When he returned to action in August, it was at Double-A Vermont, where he hit .279, and went 8-for-18 in the Eastern League playoffs. Despite playing only 58 games at San Bernardino, he was named the Class A Player of the Year by Baseball America. That earned him a second invitation to major league camp this year, where as a non-roster player he wore No. 24, played center field and surprised even his most optimistic supporters , spending most of the camp with a batting average solidly above .400. “My father says he never, ever hit .400 in spring training,” Griffey said. Comparisons, always comparisons.