In 1993, Ken Griffey Jr. had only scratched the surface of a Hall of Fame career. Then 23, Griffey was coming off what was then a career-high 27 home runs and 103 RBIs. He had already garnered three All-Star appearances (including one MVP) and three Gold Gloves.
Yet only four years into his career, there was a sense more was on the way, particularly as the last-place Mariners began to build their franchise around The Kid.
The following is a feature by John Owen from the 1993 Athlon Sports’ Baseball Annual in the preseason before Griffey hit 40 home runs for the first time and finished second in AL MVP voting.
Griffey discussed his challenges before becoming a pro, including thoughts of suicide, his battles with fan perception and the vast amount of potential that would await him for the rest of his career.
Ken Griffey Jr. admitted his failure. He set his goal and simply couldn’t measure up. Inadequacy is a sensation he has seldom experienced. But this time he was forced to confront his personal defeat head-on.
“It’s not going to work,” the Seattle Mariners’ center fielder admitted during the offseason. “I tried. But it’s not going to work. Learning kanji (Japanese system of writing) shouldn’t be so difficult. There are only a couple thousand characters to memorize.”
You see, Griffey embarked upon a major league barnstorming tour with one conviction. Before he left Japan, he was going to learn the language.
The box score of last winter’s tour credited the athlete known to the Japanese as Junior-san with a .353 batting average and a series-high nine RBI. But he was zero for 2,000 against the language.
And a sign of relief swept through the American League. Junior Griffey had finally confirmed there was something he couldn’t do. It’s news to Tom Kelly of Minnesota.
“He doesn’t seem to have a ceiling I can see,” the American League manager commented after Junior was voted the Most Valuable Player of the 1992 All-Star Game.
This may be the summer Griffey explores the outer reaches of the stratosphere. His Seattle Mariners have a new manager in Lou Piniella.
They also have a new hitting coach. When the latter’s credentials were questioned, he responded with a smile. “I taught Junior how to hit.” Yep, Ken Griffey Sr. is beginning his first season as the Mariners’ batting coach. “Junior has always listed to what I have to say.” And if anything changes, he’ll turn The Kid over to Birdie.
Birdie is Ken’s wife and Junior’s mother. She also has some qualifications as a scout.
“That boy loved baseball from the day he could walk,” she reports, adding that he walked unaided at the age of 7 months and was running the bases a month later.
She remembers the first time her son made an out in a Little League game. Ken Jr. broke into tears. “I had to explain to him that there are gong to be a lot of games when you don’t get hits,” Birdie says.
Well, maybe not a lot. Her son was blessed with good genes.
In the 1980 All-Star Game, Ken Sr. singled and hit a home run and was voted MVP. Last July, Junior hit a single, a double and a home run. The father-son All-Star Game home runs and matching MVP trophies made major league history.
About the time he was contemplating a curveball thrown by a Japanese southpaw in Fukuoka, Junior-san learned he had also be awarded a 1992 Gold Glove Award for outfielders back in the United States.
At the age of 23, Griffey has already reached what would be considered lifetime goals for most athletes.
In his first year in the majors, a candy bar bearing his name was marketed in Seattle, and there was a stampede of customers that produced 800,000 sales. As a rookie, he was already on a merchandising par with George Herman (Baby) Ruth.
Griffey’s first minor league hit was a home run. He doubled in his first official major league trip to the plate in 1989 as a rookie. In his first appearance in Seattle’s Kingdom, before the hometown fans, he hit an opposite-field homer on his first swing. When the Mariners advanced their promotional schedule and gave away Ken Griffey Jr. posters, the rookie blasted a game-winning home run against Charlie Hough of Texas. It was the first time Griffey had ever batted against a knuckleballer.
However, the popular conception that everything came quick and easy for Griffey was dispelled last spring when the Mariner center field revealed in an interview with The Seattle Times that he occasionally contemplated suicide as a teenage and that he was admitted to a hospital in Mount Airy, Ohio, in 1988 after taking 277 asprin tablets.
“It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there,” Griffey said. “I got depressed. I got angry. I didn’t want to live.”
Griffey said he went public with his confession in the hope that it might dissuade some other depressed youngsters seeking the same “solution” for their problems.
“Don’t ever try to commit suicide,” he pleaded. “I am living proof of how stupid it is.”
There is possibly no more vibrant figure in baseball than The Pride of the Griffeys as he enters his third season in the majors. Although the Mariners have had only one winning season in the history of the franchise, Griffey polled over 2 million All-Star Game votes nationwide in each of the last tow seasons, leading all American League players in 1991. He has been a .300 hitter in each of his last three seasons and ranked third in the American League in extra base hits last summer with 70.
Admirers of his defensive skills claim Griffey chases fly balls like Willie Mays and has an arm like Roberto Clemente. Griffey has taken many extra-base hits away from slugging rivals.
“I like playing defense because it’s the only time I get to see somebody else besides me get mad,” he laughs.
Griffey will chase baseballs through an outfield fence and hit them over the wall, yet, oddly, he convinces some fans that he is playing at three-quarters speed.
“My intensity is always there, but when I step to the plate, maybe it doesn’t always show,” Griffey analyzes. “I want to be the best player I can be. It may seem that I’m being selfish, but if I am, it’s for the good of the team.”
Griffey has a congenial relationship with all in management. With tongue firmly lodge in cheek, Seattle president Chuck Armstrong complained that although Griffey is the offensive and defensive leader of the team, he had not yet obtained a multimillion-dollar TV contract for the Mariners or sold out the Kingdom in April or October.
The next time Armstrong walked through the Mariner locker room, he heard Griffey call his name. “You didn’t tell me you wanted me to negotiate a new TV contract. When do I start?”
As for Piniella, he promises that players and fans will see a new Junior Griffey this summer, one exercising leadership skills.
At one time last fall, while the Mariners were shopping for a manager, Griffey questioned out loud whether he wanted to play for Piniella. Some hurt lingered, he admitted, from the 1990 season when Ken Sr. was used sparingly by Piniella in the Cincinnati lineup. Senior eventually got his release from the Reds and joined Junior in the Seattle lineup.
If Junior had some misgivings about Piniella, the feeling was not reciprocated. Piniella says he treasures the memories of his son, Lou Jr., growing up with Ken Jr. around the Cincinnati ballpark. Even before Piniella took the Seattle job, he says, the most prominent piece of “art work” in youngest son Derek’s room was the poster of the Griffeys, father and son.
“His dad for years talked about how good an athlete his son was,” Piniella recalls.” He had a cocky, having-fun approach, telling his dad he could do better than him. He’s not offensive-cocky, just a happy, smiling kind of kid.”
Once in a while last year, when the Mariners were mired in one of their lengthy losing streaks, the smile disappeared. Griffey like Seattle. At the same time, he would also like to play for a team capable of remaining in pennant content past April Fools’ Day.
“If we continue to have the worst record in baseball, he’s not sure this is where he wants to play his entire career,” Armstrong acknowledges.
But to most Seattle fans, the loss of Griffey would mean the loss of this franchise’s last measure of credibility. Of course, his father’s presence on the Mariner bench is a definite positive factor for Seattle.
Wherever the Mariner center fielder’s baseball career takes him in the next decade, he will be traveling on fast wheels. His automotive tastes run to BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and pickups or vans that vibrate down the road on a sonic cushion of subwoofers, tweeters and amplifiers. Before he was able to drive himself, Kenny (his family nickname) was sometimes driven to Little League games in the family Rolls Royce.
By contrast, Ken Sr. grew up in a housing project in a single-parent welfare family. He worked as a grocery store clerk, a meter “maid” and in an armaments factory before he was drafted in a late round by the Reds in 1969. Junior’s dad swears that his signing “bonus” consisted of a Reds jacket, an athletic supporter and a pair of sweat socks. If he held out, the Reds might have thrown in a Japanese dictionary.
But Ken Jr. is the world traveler. At first he wasn’t considered for last winter’s trip to Japan because the major leagues had a no-repeat rule, and Junior made the tour in 19890. He was named MVP, and Junior-san has been a Japanese sports hero ever since. Asian writers saw Griffey conclude a long day of baseball by dancing up the 102 stairs of the Chiba Marine Stadium and out the exit with a farewell wave.
That rated an encore. The major leagues decided to allow Griffey to revisit Japan last winter as a tip of the cap to the Mariners’ new non-voting majority owner. Hiroshi Yamauchi had never before seen major league baseball as it is played in the United States. Nor had he ever met Junior-san, whose earning potential may soon approach that of the Nintendo founder.
His selection for the 1992 team also afforded Griffey and his bride the opportunity to honeymoon at Disneyland in Tokyo. Junior breathed easy when he learned that Mickey Mouse spoke English.