It’s not every teen-ager who gets to wander around the outfield at Yankee Stadium. Ken Griffey Jr., 19, the youngest player in the major leagues, did that Monday.
He knew he was going to play center field in the game, so he worked out there, but he also visited left field and right field in the Seattle Mariners’ pregame workout.
“My father played all three in the years he was here, so I wanted to check out what kind of view he had,” Griffey Jr. said. He remembered the ninth-inning catch his father made in left field to rob Marty Barrett of a home run and save a 6-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox in 1985.
Ken Griffey Sr. climbed the eight-foot-high fence, made a spectacular grab more than 10 feet off the ground, did a backward somersault after coming down and held onto the ball.
“I studied the angle he had and tried to figure how high he went,” the teen-ager said. “I rated him a 10 on the catch and a 2 on the dismount.”
Griffey Jr. had been here before, never to roam the field but as one of the clubhouse rats. He and his brother, Greg, joined Lou Piniella’s son, Jeff Torborg’s boys and other offspring of Yankees coaches and veteran players in passageway games in the catacombs of Yankee Stadium outside the clubhouse.
That was in 1983, Billy Martin was managing and it became a bitter memory. “The Yankees lost that day and there must have been 10 or 12 of us playing pickle when Billy went into the clubhouse,” Griffey Jr. said. “He sent somebody to tell my father to get his kids out of here.
“When we got home, my father said, ‘I’m never bringing my kids back to Yankee Stadium.’ He was upset because his boys had been singled out of a crowd of kids. Mom talked him out of it. She said, ‘I’d bring them every day.’ ”
There would be other visits, more pleasant ones. “Rickey Henderson gave me my first talk about baseball other than my father,” Griffey Jr. said, recalling a more recent memory. “He told me, ‘You’re going to be here.’ He told me to stay away from the wrong crowd. He said that if somebody does drugs, his name may not be mentioned, but yours will be.”
Now Griffey Jr. has his own credentials to enter American League ballparks. It comes in the shape of a lithe 6-3 body weighing 190 pounds that’s capable of making its own great catches. He made one a week ago in Boston that the Mariners will remember for some time.
It was the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, and Wade Boggs led off with a shot to left-center. The center fielder took off in a graceful gallop. He caught the ball with a leap just before his back crashed into the padded wall. The problem was that his head bounced off the concrete just above the padding.
Griffey Jr. finished the game, which the Red Sox won, and was taken to the hospital for precautionary X-rays. Fortunately, he escaped with a bruise and was able to play the next day.
“It was a great catch,” said Mariners coach Rusty Kuntz, who is working on refining Griffey Jr.'s defensive skills. “He realized he’s going to have to take his lumps. He basically has no fear. That’s how a potential great player starts out. You just hope he doesn’t get hurt or takes unnecessary chances. He’s so resilient. A ball caught against the wall like he did would take the average player out of the lineup a couple of days. He takes that shot and it meant nothing to him. He’s got that youth going for him.”
The left-handed hitter went 1 for 4 against the Yankees Monday, doubling to left in his final at-bat. Griffey Jr. also was fined for wearing sneakers to the ballpark, which is against the Mariners’ dress code on the road. “Me and Rickey are going one-on-one,” he said. “I got fined $25 for wearing my Nikes.”
Henderson declined the basketball challenge. “Rickey said I got too big,” Griffey Jr. said. “Instead, he invited me to dinner. Maybe we can go one-on-one at the All-Star break.”