Griffey: from phenom to legend in waiting Maturing Mariner among best at 23

September 08, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Watch Ken Griffey slam home runs to the warehouse, make impossible catches over the wall and throw laser-beam strikes to the plate long enough and you'll be lulled into thinking that the game of baseball should always be this easy.

It's not, of course, and it never has been. But Griffey is so unbelievably good, at such a young age, that it looks that way.

"In Little League, I had always been the best player. I had my father [Ken Griffey Sr.], so it was a little bit easier and I knew what to expect," said the Seattle center fielder.

"Up here, though, it's a totally different thing. I don't walk around like I'm the best player. I do what everybody else does. I'm not any different than anybody else."

Humble, but not accurate. At the precocious age of 23, Griffey, who went 0-for-4 last night against the Orioles but still is hitting .314, has leaped the mere bounds of superstardom and appears headed toward the rarefied air of legend.

He is already the 10th youngest player to hit 40 home runs in a season, and with three more RBI, will become one of only five men to drive in 100 runs for three straight seasons before his 24th birthday.

The other four -- Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio -- are among the greatest names in baseball.

The pressures of living up to those legends could be enough to swallow up Griffey if he were concerned about his place in the game.

"I could care less what other people feel about me, or say about me," said Griffey. "I'm going out there every day, playing the best possible baseball that I can on that day.

"People can say what they want, but I don't put any added pressure on myself. I don't have to do anything. I just want to go out there, play, have fun, enjoy myself and give the fans a show."

Griffey, with his innocent cereal commercial face and cap turned backward, is quite capable of giving the fans a show. On All-Star Monday, for instance, he battled the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez into overtime in the home run competition, and became the first person to hit a ball off the B&O warehouse.

"He's the guy you don't want to let beat you," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "He's one of the best players in the game."

But, with all his numbers, there was a suspicion that, until this year, Griffey was somehow not dedicated to the game that appeared to come so easily to him.

"I had heard that he didn't like to run balls out, but I have not seen that at all," said first-year Seattle manager Lou Piniella.

"The biggest compliment that I can pay a player is that he loves to play and he works hard and Junior fills both those," Piniella continued. "If we've had extra batting practice 50 times this year, he's been out there 75 percent of the time. That tells me there's a lot of pride there."

Griffey certainly has benefited from the counsel of his father, the Seattle batting coach and a not-too-shabby player in his own right, who compiled a .296 lifetime average, 2,143 hits and two World Series championships in an 18-year career.

Ken Sr. has not only been present this year to work on his son's on-the-field skills, but to keep him humble in the clubhouse, as he did yesterday, when he quietly but firmly reminded him there was batting work to be done while Griffey Jr. was holding court with a few reporters.

"He likes challenges and this is a challenge for him," said Ken Griffey Sr. "He just wants to have fun and get better from year to year."

It is a measure of Griffey Jr.'s commitment and his abundant talent that he already has hit 13 more home runs this season than last.

But still the home runs -- which came in a major-league record-tying eight straight games from July 20-28 -- are as much a source of consternation to young Griffey as they are a sign of his development.

"I get upset when I don't hit the ball to left field," said Griffey, like his father a left-handed hitter. "I like to use the whole field, because then they can't put a certain player in a certain spot. I'd rather hit a single to left than a single to right because then I know I stayed on the ball."

An increased understanding of how the game works, both physically and mentally, is what Griffey says has brought on the boost in power. That, and a specially lacquered bat that Griffey says only Kirby Puckett and Barry Bonds have.

Griffey's 31-ounce bat is dipped twice in lacquer by the Louisville Slugger folks and, as a result, the lumber doesn't splinter as easily.

"If Cecil [Fielder] used that bat, or [Rob] Deer, there would be a lot of records in jeopardy," he said.

Perhaps the only thing that separates Griffey from wresting the title of baseball's best player away from Bonds is increased maturity.

Griffey seemed well on the way to that until a May incident in the Kingdome, where, after being repeatedly pitched around by Detroit pitchers, he slammed a home run to right and yelled into the Tigers dugout and appeared to make an obscene gesture at manager Sparky Anderson.

Griffey apologized, but to his way of thinking, the incident reflected how important baseball has become.

VTC "I just got frustrated. I want to win. I want to play and that was the first time my emotions showed," said Griffey. "It shocked a lot of people, because I think they thought, 'Well, he doesn't care.'

"Well, I do care. I may not show it, but I love baseball and I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't playing this game."

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