As Ken Griffey Jr. arrives in Cooperstown, a look at those who helped him get there

Jul 23, 2016, 12:02 PM | Updated: 4:06 pm
While his dad was a big-leaguer himself, Ken Griffey jr. said his mom was also influential in his c...
While his dad was a big-leaguer himself, Ken Griffey jr. said his mom was also influential in his career. (AP)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Ken Griffey Jr.’s journey to the Hall of Fame is about to come to an end.

The first steps were taken in the hallways of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, playing pickle with the sons of his father’s Reds teammates. In the years to come, he learned to walk, run and eventually flat-out fly around the bases as he did on the biggest hit in Mariners history. He endured the bumps in the road, accepted that it was time to pull over, and then came the wait.

He’s been away from the game for five yeas, but come Sunday he will again be the focus, again be bigger than the games being played. With the eyes of the baseball world in front of him and the eyes of 48 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame behind him on the stage, Griffey will approach the podium to give the speech that every player dreams of having the honor to make. It is a moment he has been thinking about for a long time. His thoughts in the days leading up to the speech, however, have not been about the content.

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“Don’t mess up,” Griffey said. “Don’t trip going to the podium. Don’t fall leaving the podium and don’t start crying. Due to the fact you have a 22-year-old who says, ‘Dad, don’t be no punk.’”

Trey Griffey almost certainly knows there is zero to no chance his father makes it through the moment with dry eyes. If I had to guess, the first time he looks at his family, he will have to take a long pause to gather himself. Griffey himself knows he is not a safe bet when it comes to the tears.

“There is an over and under of 90 seconds,” he said of when he may begin crying. “My dad said that. Hopefully, if I don’t get it in 90 seconds, I’m good. But he says under.”

From the phone call from the Hall of Fame informing him that he would be inducted this summer up until just a few days ago, Griffey insists his life has not changed. He still waits up for his college-aged kids to get home and then tells them that he is just watching TV. If it is his daughter Taryn who walks through the door, he quietly takes the keys to her car to go fill it up with gas. Around the house, he has received no free passes. He still takes out the garbage and does the dishes.

“I keep asking for ‘What the inductee wants, the inductee gets,’” Griffey said, shaking his head. “They said I could have the final week.”

Griffey has spent time on the speech, but he won’t give details. With five years to reflect on the game, it appears there hasn’t been much reflection on his 24-year career. There probably doesn’t need to be. Griffey has always seemed incredibly grounded in his baseball life, who he is as a player and how he got there. Baseball was always there. It was never forced upon him. His father insisted that he play, but the sport was up to him.

“My dad played and I wanted to play,” Griffey said. “My dad didn’t care what we played as long as we played. I never knew if my dad went 4 for 4 or 0 for 4 because if I said, ‘Dad, I want to go play catch or shoot baskets,’ he would just go, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I learned that from him.”

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He also learned quite a bit from his mother Birdie. While his dad was at work on the big-league baseball field, Birdie was more than just a driver for Junior and his brother Craig to their games.

“My mom probably had the most influence on us as kids,” Griffey said. “With her, she was tough but fair. She watched so many games even before I was born. As a little kid knowing my tendencies, knowing what I needed to work on, she would whistle at me and tell me I was pulling my head and I’m like, ‘OK.’ There’s some times early in my career my mom would be in the stands, I would make a swing and everybody would (ask), ‘What are you looking at?’ ‘I’m looking at my mom.’ ‘Why are you looking at her?’ ‘Because she will tell me if I’m doing something wrong.'”

While Griffey’s parents tried to keep his life as normal as possible, limiting the time he spent in the big-league clubhouses, his eyes and ears were wide open when his dad brought baseball home. On a night off, there was no telling who could show up at the dinner table for conversation: Willie Mays, Brooks Lawrence, Joe Black, Chuck Harmon Sr.

“As I got older, the guys would pull me aside and tell me all these things that these guys went through, so I had an understanding of what they went through, what my dad went through. There wasn’t a decade that wasn’t covered. We had the 40’s, the 50’s, the 60’s. My dad was 70’s, 80’s. I got all this information at an early age.”

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The memories are rich. In the Griffey house, the kids were to be seen, not heard in social situations with the adults.

“It was out of the room or quiet in the corner,” he said.

Griffey chose to be quiet in the corner. He rarely went unnoticed, however.

“Joe Black was like the grandfather,” he remembered. “He would give me a little piece of paper and say, ‘Read this, think about the situation and then open the envelope,’ and the article would be in there. Read the article and then he would tell me what really happened. I got a chance to really have some important people in my life at an early age. These guys were not guys to beat on their chests and tell you how great they were. They were always, ‘This is what we did. This is how we did it.’ They would always say we. ‘You want to be a baseball player, this is what you must do. You want to stay in the game for this many years, this is what you must do.’”

Eventually, his family and his baseball family handed the 17-year-old Griffey to the Mariners. His mom still keep tabs on him while he was in the minor leagues, calling his roommate for updates. When he was 19, Griffey stepped into the big-league clubhouse, where a number of teammates would help him with the next part of his baseball journey.

“I had great teammates,” Griffey said, naming Dave Valle, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Harold Reynolds, Alvin Davis, Mickey Brantley, Jim Presley and Jeffrey Leonard. “All these guys were like my big brothers. ‘This is where we are going. This is what we do. This is how you talk to umpires.’ They showed me the ropes early.”

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As a Hall of Famer, there are new ropes to be learned. He has leaned on Randy Johnson quite a bit to get the ins and outs of what this week will be like. The moment he is looking forward to most? The picture that is taken with the entire group of Hall of Famers who are present.

“I’m going to be sitting there as a rookie again, not saying anything,” Griffey said with a big smile. “I’m just not going to say a word. The respect that I have for the guys that played and are in that club is more than I can show.”

He will now be a part of that club. Ken Griffey Jr: Hall of Famer.

No starting pitcher.

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As Ken Griffey Jr. arrives in Cooperstown, a look at those who helped him get there