Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. was 9 when his dad knew he’d be a star
Ken Griffey, Jr. only ever played two major-league innings at first base, with just one lone putout from the No. 3 position during his 22-year career.
But on the day The Kid was announced as a first-ballot Hall of Famer with the highest percentage of votes in history, The Kid’s Dad, longtime big leaguer Ken Griffey Sr., recalled early flashes of greatness from an agile grade schooler with a particular talent for picking balls out of the dirt. It was a sign, he said, that his son would someday be a star, nearly a decade before the younger Griffey ever took the field as a pro.
“I knew he was great when he was about 9 or 10,” Griffey Sr. told FOX Sports in a phone interview Wednesday. “In the backyard, you’d throw to him and you could see how well he handled himself with the glove. A lot of kids don’t handle themselves that well, but Junior was always a very special kid because he could use the glove better than most at that age.
I knew he was great when he was about 9 or 10. In the backyard, you’d throw to him and you could see how well he handled himself with the glove.
-- Ken Griffey Sr. on his Hall of Fame son
“So when he started playing Little League ball, the first place they put him was first base because he was the only one who could catch the ball.”
That an adolescent Griffey Jr., eventually a 10-time Gold Glove winner, was deft with a mitt probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but as his son got older and also honed his sweet swing, Griffey Sr. — an occasional first baseman himself — noticed a more cerebral change from Junior, as well.
That more than anything, Senior says, is what put Junior in Cooperstown.
“You could see the physical talent in him when he got to 14, 15, 16 years old, but the biggest thing, for me, was developing his mindset — how he was going to handle situations,” Senior said of his son, who made his big-league debut for Seattle at age 19 in 1989 and retired as a Mariner in June 2010. “Because baseball is so different, you can go from a goat to a hero or vice versa in one day, one moment.
“It’s just handling and trying to keep an even mindset about what happens out on the field, and he just always kept an even keel and handled his business.”
From an intangible standpoint, it also probably didn’t hurt Junior to have an All-Star dad showing him the ropes during his early days in the league — even doing so from the same clubhouse at the end of the elder Griffey’s career. And in playing with his dad, Griffey Jr. picked up on quite a bit, according to his old man.
“It gave him shortcuts,” Griffey said. “He knew exactly how to handle most situations when they came up.”
That was a far different experience from the one Senior had when he entered the league in 1973.
“When I came in, I didn’t have a mentor,” Griffey continued. “I didn’t have anybody to look up to except for maybe Willie Stargell, but it was long distance there. (Junior’s) mentor was close because I was always there, and he would ask me questions — ‘Was this right?’ or ‘Was that right?’ and I’d explain certain things to him.
“He knew in advance sometimes how things were going to work out, and it was an important step for him.”
It was during their overlapping time on the same team — Senior signed with Seattle as a free agent in late August 1990 and played alongside Junior until his retirement in June 1991 — that the elder Griffey says he truly began to see not just greatness but Hall of Fame potential in his son-turned-teammate.
“It especially hit me when I was able to play with him,” Griffey said. “It wasn’t long that I was there, but just watching how he handled himself, how well he played, what he did — playing center field and seeing how much ground he could cover — that I knew.”
Those few months playing together also gave both Griffeys a moment Senior describes as one of the highlights of his career. That came on Sept. 14, 1990, when the pair became the first father-son duo to hit back-to-back homers in a major-league game.
“I remember Harold Reynolds was on first when I hit the home run, and when I came around, and I’m watching (Junior’s) expression,” Griffey said. “He was all excited when I hit the home run, but then I’m watching as I get closer to home, rounding third base, and I knew something was up, but I wasn’t really sure.
“His concentration went from one extreme to the other,” he continued. “You could just see it.”
After signing with the Mariners following his release from Cincinnati, Griffey Sr. had hit two previous homers with his son on deck. The first was a solo shot against Boston and the second was a three-run homer against Oakland. Junior followed those up with a walk and a 1-3 groundout, respectively, but the third time, he made the most of his rare opportunity.
“I remember we’re walking back to the dugout, Harold and I, and Harold said, ‘You know, if he hits a home run here, it’ll be the first time father and son have done that,’ and I said, ‘You know, you’re right,’ because I’d never thought of it that way,” Griffey Sr. continued. “That time he handled it a lot differently … and it was a special moment for both of us.”
In the years that followed, Griffey Sr. reveled in Junior’s success and even got to coach his son for a time after Junior was traded to Cincinnati in 2000 (though, to a degree, he’d always been doing that). As his career progressed, Griffey Jr. won an MVP award and hit 630 home runs, establishing himself as one of the greatest center fielders ever.
In short, he was a far better player than his dad ever was, but if you ask Griffey Sr. that’s totally fine.
“When you do something with your kids, you always want them to be better than you,” he said. “When they’re in the same field as you, you want them to be better and do better than you could. I know I accomplished a lot. I played in a lot of historical games and I’ve seen a lot of things over the years, but I always wanted him to be the best player he could be.”
Griffey Jr. certainly maximized his immense talent, and soon that kid with a knack for first base will be enshrined at Cooperstown as one of the greatest center fielders of all time. He’ll also do so as one of just a few dozen first-ballot selections in history, and for Griffey Sr. seeing his son honored so overwhelmingly is a thrill of a lifetime.
“Just watching him develop over the years was the most important for me, just seeing how well he handled himself, what he accomplished, what he did on and off the field,” Griffey said.
“I don’t know how he would explain it to you, but being a father and playing this game as long as I did — the Hall of Fame and World Series rings are what you’re after as a player,” he continued. “So for me, knowing that my son is going to go in the Hall of Fame probably makes me one of the proudest fathers in the history of the game.”
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