Seattle Mariners

Minor league treasure: Ken Griffey Jr. was both the superstar and The Kid

WATCH: Former Mariners teammates recall the greatness of Ken Griffey Jr.

The megawatt smile. The backwards-turned baseball hat. That sweet swing and the homers it produced. Former teammates Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Mariners lead broadcaster Rick Rizzs weigh in on Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle's greatest baseball playe
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The megawatt smile. The backwards-turned baseball hat. That sweet swing and the homers it produced. Former teammates Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Mariners lead broadcaster Rick Rizzs weigh in on Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle's greatest baseball playe

Rick Sweet answered his phone. Ken Griffey Sr. was on the other line, wanting to check in on his boy in Bellingham.

This was his son’s first time away from home.

“I heard Junior did something,” Griffey Sr. said.

“Yeah, that’s all right,” Sweet said. “I spanked him.”

Griffey Sr. laughed.

“Well, if his mom needs to come out, she’ll come out,” he said.

Sweet chuckled recalling the conversations. “Most parents didn’t call me like that, obviously,” Sweet said.

Sweet, the manager of the Bellingham Mariners, and Griffey Sr. knew each other from their years in the big leagues. And now Sweet was coaching Griffey’s 17-year-old son, the No. 1 selection in the 1987 draft.

Griffey Jr.’s time in the minor leagues was limited to rookie league Bellingham, Single-A San Bernardino and Double-A Vermont — a total of 129 games over two seasons.

“I can tell you, I’ve been in the game for over three decades — I’ve never experienced a greater minor league baseball player than Ken Griffey Jr.,” said former San Bernardino general manager Bill Shanahan.

“The cool thing about minor league baseball is these players become your own. You follow them from the beginning. Single-A, Double-A, collegiate teams — you look at some of these kids and say, ‘That kid is going to make it.’

Former teammates remember Ken Griffey Jr.

The megawatt smile. The backwards-turned baseball hat. That sweet swing and the homers it produced. Former teammates Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Mariners lead broadcaster Rick Rizzs weigh in on Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle's greatest baseball player and soon-to-be member of the Hall of Fame.

Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

“But Ken Griffey Jr. was more than that. For him, it was ‘That kid is going to be in the Hall of Fame.’ 

Physically, he’s ready to play in the big leagues right now, but he’s a 17-year-old kid emotionally. Just because you’ve got a 6-3, 195-pound body doesn’t mean you’ve got the head that goes with it. He’s got a lot to learn.

Bellingham manager

There are no iconic videos from Griffey’s time in the minors like all those from the majors. But, rest assured, he still made the same highlight-variety plays.

Griffey’s first professional hit was a home run at Everett Memorial Stadium. A bronze plaque is embedded in the sidewalk outside that left field fence where it landed on the corner of 38th and Lombard.

“I remember he hit it and I’m going ‘God, that’s out of here,’ ” Sweet said. “I’ve had that stuck in my head.”

Griffey ran into a center field wall in Everett, causing him to miss a week with a concussion and an injured right shoulder.

“His whole career he did that, and that’s part of what I loved about Junior,” Sweet said. “He was the best player in the Northwest League. Back then, they didn’t have the press all over him or anything like that, so it was quiet. But he was special from Day One.

 
Ken Griffey Jr. hit .313 with 14 homers and 40 RBIs in 54 games with the Bellingham Mariners. Bellingham Herald file, 1987

“I have coached some really good players. But Griff — he was in a class by himself. God, he had so much fun playing the game.”

That 1987 Bellingham team was Sweet’s first as a manager, and looking back he said he was probably harsh on his players, especially The Kid.

“I made him cry a time or two,” Sweet said. “I had to take him out of games. There were a couple of times, and I know he has alluded to that, where I had to bench him. But I just remember how determined he was the next day to come out and make up for it and play even harder.”

Sweet recalled Griffey Jr. living in a house in Bellingham with a few other players, and the manager had to get on him about how he kept his room.

“We stopped by and checked in on them once in a while, like we did all the players. I had to say, ‘Hey, you guys got to clean this up. C’mon,’ ” Sweet said. “It’s their first time away from home, they have to do all of the dishes and take care of their own place.”

Griffey Sr. met with the team on an off day and took Griffey Jr. and some players out to eat afterward, Sweet recalled.

“The next day I come to the ballpark and all these guys have new bats and new gloves — Junior had taken all the equipment his dad gave him and he gave it to all his teammates,” Sweet said.

“It just put a smile on my face. Here’s this kid and his dad comes to town, and his dad is a big league player and All-Star and a tremendous player, himself. And he brings all this equipment for Junior, and he then gives it to all the guys on the club. That’s the kind of kid Junior was.”

 
Ken Griffey Jr. takes his first professional swings in the Kingdome in 1987. After he was drafted, The Kid took batting practice in the Kingdome. Three days later, he joined Class A Bellingham. Seattle Times, AP file

Don’t mess with the swing

For the 1988 season, Griffey was sent to San Bernardino, the Mariners’ advanced Single-A team. Manager Ralph Dickenson wanted to work with Griffey’s swing, which he noticed was getting long.

But Griffey pre-empted the manager’s meeting with one of his own.

“I walk in from the mound to home plate and he says, ‘I just want to tell you one thing before we get started — don’t mess with the Griffey Swing,’ ” Dickenson recalled, laughing.

Dickenson, who remembered that he once benched Griffey for jogging to first base, said he knew he had a special talent. He recalled Griffey’s throws from center field that hovered eight feet off the ground from release all the way to the plate.

Griffey batted .338 with 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and a 1.007 OPS in 58 games in San Bernardino, and wowed defensively.

He was a sensation. No other player on the team was younger than 20, and Griffey was 18.

“I’ve only known two players in the time I’ve been coaching baseball who could struggle for a little bit and then could say, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to be myself again.’ That was (Rafael) Palmeiro and Griffey,” Dickenson said. “I’ve been around Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds — but Griffey is by far, I mean, by far, the best of all those guys. I feel like he could have been — if he didn’t get hurt later on — the best player to ever play the game.”

 
A poster signed by Ken Griffey Jr. to former San Bernadino general manager Bill Shanahan. The poster was one of many passed out to fans during a promotion night in 1988 in San Bernardino, while Griffey played for the Double-A team there. Courtesy of Bill Shanahan, owner of Lexington County Blowfish

Shanahan, the San Bernardino GM, decided to put on a Ken Griffey Jr. poster night, handing them out to the first 1,000 fans. And this was while Griffey still played for the team.

Shanahan even came up with a chant for when Griffey would come to bat. The stadium announcer would ask what time is it, “and everybody in the crowd would yell, ‘It’s Griffey time!’ ” he said.

Shanahan posted a photo of the poster to his Facebook account when it was announced Griffey would enter the Hall of Fame with a record 99.3 percent of the vote.

“A lot of times these stars come along in the minors and they never really pan out,” Shanahan said. “I look at the players I’ve seen come and go and you just can’t tag someone like you could Ken Griffey Jr. He was a superstar of superstars at 18 years old.

“I get goose bumps when I think of that, and that was 30 years ago. All I can tell you is that he was the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”

Griffey was called up to Double-A Vermont later that season, but was limited to 17 games by a back injury.

MLB starter at 19

It was April Fools’ Day in 1989 and Jim Lefebvre thought he’d play a prank on Griffey.

The first-year Mariners manager called Griffey into his office and listed his concerns on how Griffey might not be able to handle the rigors of the big leagues.

“And he’s kind of looking at me like I have something negative coming out,” Lefebvre said.

“So I put my hand across the desk and I say, ‘You’re my starting center fielder, and you’re going to be here for a long, long time.’ He looked at me and you would not believe the expression on his face. He says, ‘Can I call my dad?’

“I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I thought he was going to cry. I said, ‘You go ahead and call your dad. Congratulations. You’re now the starting center fielder for the Seattle Mariners.’ 

Griffey was in a fall Instructional League when Lefebvre said he saw Griffey for the first time.

His reaction?

“Son of a gun, look at this kid hit,” Lefebvre recalled. “He reminded me a lot of Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron had that beautiful, fluid swing. You could see it right away.”

 
Ken Griffey Jr. shows off a pacifier early in his career with the Mariners. AP file

The issue was whether to bring Griffey to the bigs or let him spend some time in Triple-A. Griffey hit .360 during the ensuing spring training and had a 15-game hitting streak.

The decision had been left to Lefebvre, and he waited as long as he could.

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on me as a manager,” Lefebvre said. “Junior had never failed, and I would hate to have to be the guy that brought him to the big leagues and have to send him back because he wasn’t ready.”

But Lefebvre thought of his advice-seeking conversation with Sparky Anderson before taking the job with the Mariners, Lefebvre’s first managerial job — “Good players come fast.”

The Mariners were to face Rick Sutcliffe in his final spring training start for the Chicago Cubs, with Sutcliffe looking to get into regular-season mode. The matchup decided it for Lefebvre.

Griffey battled Sutcliffe for what Lefebvre said was probably 14 pitches before drawing a walk.

“Rick was throwing him curveballs, sliders, cutters, sinkers — everything,” Lefebvre said. “Junior just kept fouling it off. Then he throws a bunch of balls and there was one that was three or four inches outside and Junior took it for a walk.

“That’s when I said, ‘He’s ready.’ 

Griffey hit the first pitch he saw in his MLB debut for a double at Oakland. In his first plate appearance in the Kingdome, he hit a home run. And he was 19.

Lefebvre recalled Griffey heading to an autograph session in Tacoma before a game, expecting 500-600 people. Instead, 3,000 showed, and Griffey was late getting back for batting practice.

“He was one of those guys who right away people gravitated toward,” Lefebvre said.

“He was always out there just having a ball. At batting practice, he would go out with the bat boys and have more fun hanging out with them than his own teammates. He just loved being out there, and he’d have a big smile on his face, and I admired that.

“I do know one thing — Junior was an absolute treasure.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677

@TJCotterill

Mariners fans put to test while reminiscing about The Kid

Can you swing a whiffle bat like Ken Griffey Jr. or answer a seemingly easy trivia question about The Kid's career? Mariners fans at Cheney Stadium and Safeco Field attempt to handle these fat pitches while reminiscing about Seattle's greatest baseball player.

Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

BEFORE THE BIGS

Before Griffey became one of the most recognizable names in the majors, he spent two seasons in the minor leagues with rookie league Bellingham, Single-A San Bernardino and Double-A Vermont.

Year

Team

Games

AB

Runs

Hits

HR

RBI

Avg.

1987

Bellingham Mariners

54

182

43

57

14

40

.313

1988

San Bernardino Spirit

58

219

50

74

11

42

.338

1988

Vermont Mariners

17

61

10

17

2

10

.279

TOTAL:

129

462

103

148

27

92

.318

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