There's no hiding the kid in Griffey

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 06, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Harold Reynolds was watching the game on national television. "As soon as he hit the ball, I knew he'd do something," Reynolds said. "I said, 'Watch this, he's going to point at somebody, yell at somebody.' That's Ken."

Reynolds laughed, knowing his former Seattle teammate hadn't meant any harm. Oh, Ken Griffey Jr. did make an obscene gesture and curse Detroit manager Sparky Anderson last Sunday. But the way Reynolds saw it, he was "just being young and carefree, enjoying the game."

It's not that simple -- the incident served as another blow to

baseball's image, and Griffey will receive a letter of reprimand from the American League even though he apologized to Anderson. Still, it's hard to dispute Reynolds' analysis. That's Ken.

Griffey is in his fifth season, but he's only 23. He's younger than Mike Mussina, younger than Brad Pennington, younger than Paul Carey. Heck, he's younger than all but 25 of the 291 rookies who played in the majors last season, according to the Elias Baseball Analyst.

His father, Ken Griffey Sr., played for Anderson in Cincinnati, and back then, Junior was the only kid allowed to raid Anderson's refrigerator ("He had the only cherry sodas," Griffey recalled, smiling). Today, Griffey is the same way, a kid who wants his hits, and wants them now.

What happened last Sunday? Sparky took away Junior's toy, took away his bat. "I like to play as much as anybody, and he didn't let me play," said Griffey, who was walked six times in the three-game series. "That's what it was. He didn't let me play."

So, Griffey got frustrated. Most hitters take it as a sign of respect when teams pitch around them. Griffey reacted like, well, a child. "It took me three days to learn that he was respecting me," he said. "I'm hardheaded as hell."

Hardheaded, but not usually hotheaded. By taunting Anderson, Griffey left the impression that he's just another vulgar millionaire, and that's too bad. If anything, he's a refreshing change, one of the few baseball superstars who plays with the exuberance of a Michael Jordan.

"He has grown up so much in the last two years, I can't even put it into words," said Reynolds, who left Seattle to sign with the Orioles last winter. "But he's still very much a kid. That's the thing I admired most about him on the field. He does what he wants to do.

"He's a kid. Turn on MTV, that's Ken Griffey Jr. Those are his peers. That's him. He'll play Nintendo all night long. He's not one to hang out. He's got an arcade room in his house with more video games than you can find in a video store."

Griffey began his major-league career at 19, and at first he didn't know how to act around grown men. "He might have a four-hit game, rag on a guy who was 0-for-20 and think nothing of it," Reynolds said. He's still playful around his teammates, but is more considerate now.

The game comes so easily to him, he sometimes appears to lack motivation, but that also is changing under new manager Lou Piniella. He's running out every grounder, hustling for every fly ball, rising to the challenge of playing for a team that finally is in contention.

Piniella said: "You've got to push him once in a while to do his pre-game work," and Reynolds joked, "He plays the game hard, but stretching, he don't want to stretch." In time, Griffey will understand the value of a strong work ethic. Right now, he's an All-Star without one.

"Junior probably will mature when he gets to be 25 or 26," said Griffey Sr., the Mariners' hitting coach. "He still doesn't know what he's capable of. He hasn't had a team jell together in Seattle. That's when he'll find out what kind of potential he has. That's when he'll really understand what he has to do."

Griffey Sr. saw flashes of that potential in 1990, when Junior and Barry Bonds slugged their way across Japan, trying to top one another on a postseason tour. With no such prodding in Seattle, Griffey became the sixth-youngest player in major-league history produce two 100-RBI seasons. The five younger than him are all in the Hall of Fame.

To think, the kid could have wilted after the Mariners asked him to be their savior. "At first, it was kind of tough," Griffey said. "You're paying guys in the front office to get sponsors, stuff like that. Then all of a sudden, you turn around and say, 'Hey, we need you to do this [appearance], or people aren't going to buy season tickets.' That's not fair."

But now, for the first time in his career, Griffey is enjoying life as a Mariner. He's only 23, and he's both a .301 lifetime hitter and three-time Gold Glove winner. He's only 23, and he's the perfect blend. A boy in a man's body. A man in a boy's game.

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