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Proud Father Tries to Keep Tabs on His Son the Rookie

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Newsday

At approximately the time that Ken Griffey, dressed in the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds, was stepping into the batting cage, his oldest son and namesake was driving in a run for another team in another league on another coast.

There was no announcement to that effect on the scoreboard at Shea Stadium, just the notation that Seattle opened a 3-0 lead over Detroit. The good news would be contained in Thursday’s newspapers.

It isn’t every father and son who can communicate through box scores. In fact, Ken and young Kenny are the first to appear on major-league rosters in the same year. And if the center fielder for the Seattle Mariners happened to read the morning papers before his game Wednesday, he was sure to note that his father had closed the personal gap in home runs to 3-2 with a ninth-inning drive in Montreal on Tuesday night.

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That’s not bad for an old man who has been to the plate only 11 times all season. For the first time in a professional career that has spanned two decades, the elder Griffey is a part-time player and a pinch hitter. “This is a real challenge,” he said Wednesday night before the Reds beat the Mets, 6-4. “I thought I was going to go 0-for-April.”

Indeed, the man was hitless in six at-bats before Pete Rose, the embattled manager who was saved by the flu from the New York media hordes Wednesday night, gave him his first start of 1989 on Sunday in Philadelphia. Griffey promptly delivered his first hit, also a homer. His son didn’t have to wait for the next day’s papers. The game was shown live on the message board at the Kingdome, where the Mariners were loosening up for their game later in the afternoon. Kenny Jr. reacted by high-fiving his teammates.

Father and son chatted the next day. “He called everybody after that,” Pops Griffey said. “His mother, his grandmother, me.” A long way from home, the youngster has made extensive use of the telephone in coping with big-league pressure. “Yeah,” the father said, “but when it’s his money, he only stays on for five seconds.”

The youngster is 19. At the same age, the father was playing for Bradenton, Fla., in the rookie Gulf Coast League. “He’s a lot better than I was then,” noted the 39-year-old veteran of the Big Red Machine. “At 19, I was 5-10, 160. He’s 6-4, 200. He has a lot more pop in his bat and a better arm.”

It wasn’t until 1974, when he was 24, that Griffey arrived in the major leagues to stay. By that age, it was suggested, his son might have 1,000 hits. “It’s possible,” he said. After Wednesday’s game, Kenny had 27 hits and a .310 average.

Dad might not have believed it if he hadn’t seen it for himself. While playing for Moeller High School in Cincinnati, the son said he couldn’t hit whenever his father attended a game. Griffey saw him play one game in the minors last summer while on a West Coast trip with the Atlanta Braves, and two weeks ago he took advantage of an off-day on the Cincinnati schedule to fly to Chicago for a game between the Mariners and White Sox.

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“They gave us seats in the boxes right above left field,” Griffey said. “But he saw us. I guess he sensed it. I think I was a lot more nervous than he was.”

Not only did Ken Jr. hit safely in his third at-bat, but he also drove in the winning run. “I talked to him after the game,” the father said, “and he asked if he looked OK. I said, ‘You’re fine.’ You’re always fine when you’re hitting.”

Otherwise, their dialogue has been limited to telephone calls. “He calls me more when he’s not doing well,” Griffey said. “When he went for 8 for 8 in that one stretch, I didn’t hear from him.”

He did hear from the oldest of his three children on the occasion of his son’s home run on April 10. The date is the father’s birthday. Naturally, Ken Jr. told him it was a present. “I told him, ‘You ain’t getting away that cheap,’ ” Griffey recalled. “I said, ‘Send me something through the mail.’ ”

It was a nice little anecdote, delivered with fatherly affection. He doesn’t know how it would have sounded from the other end. Griffey’s father, who had played high school ball with Stan Musial in Donora, Pa., left town when his son was 2.

Not until 1975, Griffey’s first full season with the Reds, did the two meet. The father was living in Cleveland. “He came down to the World Series,” Griffey said. The relationship has not flourished.

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George Kenneth Griffey Jr. is fortunate to have not only exceptional talent but also a supportive family. “I never pushed him to play,” the senior Griffey said. “He wanted to play. He loves playing baseball. He retired from football in his junior year and that team was the state champion.

“His mother was with him for about a month at one stretch. She spent the last two weeks of spring training in Arizona when he was fighting to make the team. I think that relaxed him a bit. She went to Oakland, where they opened the season, and then drove his car to Seattle.”

The youngster has survived his first slump and emerged as one of baseball’s future, if not current stars. A second son, Craig, is headed for Ohio State, where his football skills will be utilized at running back or wide receiver. Clearly, Griffey doesn’t mind competing for attention in his own house.

“We’re not really competing,” the man said. “You have to play (regularly) to do that.” And despite a .298 lifetime average and two World Series rings, Griffey is past the stage where he can post numbers similar to Kenny’s.

In the twilight of his career, he has become Ken Griffey Jr.’s father. He hasn’t tired talking about his son. All he asks is that people say, “He looks like his mom and plays like his dad.”

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