Griffey taking it a game at a time Junior 1 homer shy of breaking record

July 30, 1993|By Blaine Newnhawm | Blaine Newnhawm,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- Lou Piniella looked star struck, and as boyish as an unshaven, nearly 50-year-old face can look. The names rolled off his lips.

"Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, Maris," he said in a quiet roll call of baseball's greatest sluggers.

"Junior can do something that's never been done before in the history of baseball."

Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey has hit eight home runs in eight games, six of them 400 feet or more.

Wednesday night, he clubbed a high, outside fastball that slammed off the facing of the third deck in right field to tie the record for home runs in consecutive games, set in 1956 by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Dale Long and tied in 1987 by the New York Yankees' Don Mattingly in 1987.

Last night, he went for sole possession of the record, with the Twins scheduled to start Scott Erickson.

Is it a streak, or a signal of even bigger and better things to come?

"When I was his age," said his father, Ken Griffey, "I was playing Triple-A ball. People forget he is still learning."

At his current pace, Junior will hit 48 home runs this season. In his third full season, Willie Mays hit 51.

Are the comparisons valid? Sure they are. Griffey, at 23, can hardly do any more than he has, and he might do more than anyone else ever has.

"Ever since he was a rookie," said Seattle catcher Dave Valle. "my line has been 'and the legend continues.'

"First at-bat, double off Dave Stewart. First at-bat in the Kingdome, home run. First pinch hit, game-winning home run. Then his dad comes along. He singles, Junior singles. The next week in Anaheim, Dad homers, Junior homers. And now this. Man, the legend does continue."

Mays posted better numbers his first five years than Junior will post, no matter how well this year goes. More RBI, more home runs. But Mays was three years older.

Mays stole more bases, but he didn't field much better. And he wasn't as consistent. He didn't have three 100-plus RBI seasons, as Junior certainly will.

What if Junior, who earlier in the month hit a 460-foot blast off the B & O warehouse in Baltimore during an All-Star Game home run contest, is just learning to play the game? What if he stays healthy and attentive? What if he plays another 15 to 20 years? He could, frankly, hit more than 700 home runs. More than Mays, maybe more than anybody.

Mays was 5 feet 10, 170 pounds. Junior is 6-3, 205.

"I remember the first few times I saw Junior in batting practice," said Piniella, the Seattle manager. "He hit one, and I said, 'Boy, he just missed that one.' And all of a sudden I watched it just carry and carry and carry and go out of the ballpark.

"He'll tell you he's just a line-drive hitter with home run power. But he is maturing into a very strong young man."

To his credit and general love for the game, Piniella wouldn't allow Wednesday night's 5-1 loss to the Twins to detract from the moment.

"The whole organization is enjoying this," he said.

Valle, the ancient Mariner, talked about Junior, who wasn't talking to anybody.

"The scary part is he is just getting better," said Valle.

"Right now, you can't pitch to him. He's hit changeups out, he's hit breaking balls out from left-handers, he's hit fastballs in, fastballs away.

"He doesn't have the holes in his game he used to have. He's not giving away at-bats. At one time, you could throw him off-speed pitches and get him to chase after bad pitches. You can't anymore."

Four of his eight home runs in the streak have come against left-handers, four against right-handers.

Said Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner: "It doesn't matter what the pitch is. When it crosses into his zone, he just lets go and isn't missing. It's something to watch."

Mays and Hank Aaron, the all-time home run leader with 755, each played for 22 years. Griffey started younger than either of them, but the question remains whether he will want to play as long as they did. Twenty-two years of averaging 30 home runs a season is 660 home runs, as many as Mays hit. Griffey can do that, perhaps even better than that.

"People look at him and see potential," said his father. "I'm looking to see what kind of person he is and how happy he is."

Senior won't buy the notion that his son is emerging as a power hitter, even though his previous major-league high for home runs was 27. He now has 30 -- the most in the major leagues -- with 61 games remaining.

"I don't see any more power than I did a year ago or when he was 15," said Senior. "But I know more about him than you do. I see him concentrating better."

The key for Junior, as Senior sees it, is the ability to relax.

"The pitch is high and away and he is relaxed enough that he can go get it," said Griffey Sr. "The records will come, if he just relaxes and has fun."

Valle, who will be 33 in October, tried to imagine what Junior would be like in 10 years.

"The money won't matter," he said, "so the question will be his motivation. Mays and Aaron had great determination and desire. You have to play 22 years. Will Junior have it? I don't know.

"But for right now, I think Junior is the best player in the game. I think he is the Michael Jordan of baseball."

If not the Willie Mays.

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