The talk of the town in Seattle is a 19-year-old wunderkind named Ken Griffey Jr., who in less than two months in the big leagues has inspired a Seattle area candy company to name a chocolate bar after him.
Griffey, the No. 1 pick in the 1987 June draft, has become a hot item in a town that historically has reserved its emotions for the football Seahawks, the basketball Sonics and anything connected with the beloved University of Washington Huskies.
Griffey’s numbers have been merely good, not magnificent (.292, six home runs, 16 RBI), but the locals are raving about the lightning-quick bat, the Maysian catches ... the simple fact he can only get better. “On the one hand,” Mariners Manager Jim Lefebvre said, “I don’t like talking about him all the time because I worry about him getting a big head. But, at the same time, I don’t get tired talking about him because he’s such a great story. He’s so enormously talented. He can beat you with the bat, with the glove, with the legs. He can beat you with his head, and that’s something you just can’t teach a kid.”
About three months ago, when this ever-suffering franchise was dusting off its spring-training digs in Tempe, Ariz., the organizational consensus was that Griffey would begin the season in the minors, probably at triple-A Calgary, Alberta.
He was a kid with just two minor league seasons to his credit, and the Mariners were fearful of rushing what everybody agreed was a hot property. Problem was, the hot property had other ideas.
Griffey, son of veteran major leaguer Ken Griffey, said, “This is my 12th season -- two with the Mariners and 10 with my father,” explaining that, through his father’s experiences, he was well-versed in such matters as locker-room etiquette and the media.
As for the on-the-field stuff, Griffey simply let his talents take over. He hit in 15 straight Cactus League games and set Mariners spring-training records for hits (32), total bases (49) and RBI (20). His average? .360. March 29, before the team boarded a bus for an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Lefebvre summoned Griffey to his office.
“I told him that this was the most difficult decision a manager has to make,” Lefebvre said. “I told him how I talked with the coaches, and that we had taken a lot of things into consideration.”
Having thoroughly convinced Griffey he was headed back to the minors, Lefebvre then dropped the news: “I told him he had made the team. I told him he was my starting center fielder.”
In his first major league at-bat, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound outfielder connected for a double. Then came 18 consecutive at-bats without a hit, but, surprisingly, no panic or fear of being sent down. “I just tried not to worry about anything,” Griffey said. “You know what they say: you don’t get too high and you don’t get too low.”
One can only imagine a 12-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. hanging around the Riverfront Stadium batting cage and hearing his dad throw that chestnut at the Cincy scribes.
Whatever, Griffey--just “Junior” to his teammates--began to hit. Then came the running, and the dazzling catches, and the unleashing of terrific throws to cutoff men that are prompting people to compare him with such great outfield ball tossers as the Cleveland Indians’ Cory Snyder and the Texas Rangers’ Ruben Sierra.
And with all this came the adulation and the media requests and, yes, that phone call from the Pacific Trading Co., which came up with the idea of a Ken Griffey Jr. candy bar.
Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley came up with the idea “Ken Griffey Junior Mints,” but, alas, the name is taken. “I don’t know too much about it (the candy bar),” Griffey said. “I do like candy bars, but if I have more than a couple of them I break out.”
Ethan Kelly, a Mariners public-relations spokesman, says everyone in town is talking about Ken Griffey Jr. “You go to a bar or a health club, and you keep hearing his name coming in casual conversation about sports,” Kelly said. “We’ve never had a player receive this kind of attention. If he continues to play well, he could be really big in this area.”
The question concerning the Mariners, though, is making sure Griffey does not get too big for his britches. He has generally been cooperative, if unexciting, when dealing with fans and media, but there have been signs of strain.
The Mariners played an exhibition game against the triple-A Calgary Cannons last week in Calgary and the local media turned out in force to do Ken Griffey Jr. stories, but the wunderkind was curt with the writers and wouldn’t do interviews with TV reporters.
The next day, a Calgary Sun columnist got his revenge. In an article headlined, “Young Griffey brat with bat,” Griffey was described as a “petulant, spoiled 19-year-old who had to be begged and cajoled into conducting one brief mass interview . . . an interview in which he had nothing noteworthy to say.”
The Mariners were livid with Griffey’s behavior in Calgary, and told him so, yet they also recognize they are dealing with a teen-ager, a kid who would be in only his second year of college or banging at the back door of the job market were it not for baseball.
Only a few years ago, former Yankees Manager Billy Martin was chasing Griffey Jr. out of the Yankees’ clubhouse, where his dad was working at the time.
“His father called me up and gave me permission to hit him if I have to,” Lefebvre said, only half-kidding, “but I wouldn’t even consider that. I don’t have to. He’s going to do all right. He’s going to be fine. Remember, he’s just a kid, but he’s getting more mature every day.”
“My mom told me to hang around with the right people,” young Griffey said. “That’s what I’ve been doing. Just taking it easy and having fun. I like this.”