MIKE SALK

Salk: The Griffeys, the Brons, and the joy of father-son teammates

Jun 28, 2024, 12:15 AM

Seattle Mariners Ken Griffey Jr Ken Griffey Sr LeBron James Bronny James...

Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners with his father Ken Griffey Sr. in 1990. (Getty Images -- Ken Levine/Allsport)

(Getty Images -- Ken Levine/Allsport)

Growing up 3,000 miles from Seattle, I really didn’t know a lot about this area. Coffee and grunge were about the only tangible things that set it apart from Portland in my mind, but please don’t ask me which city is bigger! I knew the music from 90s radio and the culture from the movie “Singles.”

And from ESPN, I knew about Ken Griffey Jr.

Junior was the best player in the world, and he brought more style and swag than any player before him. But you know that already. I thought all that was fine, but if you had asked me about him before I moved here in 2009, my most vivid memory and the first thing I would have brought up was that he had the unique opportunity to play with his dad.

I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. There were plenty of sons following their father’s footsteps in sports, and some even played for their dads. The Ripkens, Boones, Alous and others were all over the game. But in the same lineup? That was amazing. And when the Griffeys homered back-to-back for the Mariners in September 1990, it had to be a dream come true for both players.

It takes incredible circumstances for two generations to come together on the same professional team. You need a player to have a kid early in life and then maintain a career well beyond average. You need that kid to not only be good enough to play professionally but to do so at an early age. So you need two generations to beat the odds, and then you need them to be acquired by the same team! It shouldn’t be a surprise that we haven’t seen it since the Griffeys.

Until now.

With the Lakers taking Bronny James in the second round of the NBA Draft on Thursday, this could become a reality once again. And while I haven’t successfully made it through more than one or two NBA games in years, this would get me to watch. This gets me invested. This is so awesome.

Yes, there are some fun and funny questions that go with it. Like, what should Bronny call his dad? Yes, there are some real concerns for teammates and new Lakers coach JJ Redick trying to navigate the challenges of a superstar who understandably wants to see his son play even if his son might not be good enough to crack the rotation. But it is more about the opportunity for a family to live out a dream together.

Like all of you, I’m not as good at any sport (or really anything) as the Griffeys or Jameses. Nor is my father. But for a few years during and after college, I got to play softball with my dad. And I can tell you it was the best athletic experience of my life.

I loved playing sports. I played tons of basketball, football, baseball and tennis as a kid. My dad coached our little league team for a few years. And I have great memories of high school sports and helping to turn around a moribund football program that finally won five games my senior season after losing every game for three straight years. I played with my best friends and had so much fun doing it.

Playing softball with my dad was cooler. Well, maybe not cooler. A bunch of aging and overweight dudes playing softball can only be so cool. But it was a blast.

Our right fielder was a crane operator who I think had very real connections to organized crime. Our left fielder once sat in his van for the first five innings and drank an entire case of beer before attempting to play in the sixth. Our first baseman was pretty good, but he couldn’t play on nights that interfered with his “dahts” (darts) league.

My dad played second base and I played center field. One night, an opposing batter smashed a line drive that my dad caught with a quick flick of his arm.

“Look what I found,” yelled a voice from the other bench.

Now, my dad is not a fighter, but this set him off. He chirped back at the voice and the next thing you know, some huge dude stood up and started walking towards my dad! The benches cleared but I came on a dead sprint from center (yes, in those days I could sprint without hurting my hamstring) to have my dad’s back.

Fortunately, it all blew over with a bunch of bluster and no fisticuffs, but the feeling was exhilarating. Not just the normal adrenaline rush and camaraderie that tends to accompany flared tempers, but the sense of being in it with my father? Honestly, it was one of the first times I truly felt grown up (even if we were all acting like children).

Now 75, my dad still plays a few times per week. He manages his team and is on the board of directors for the league. There are more fielders on the field now as their range has diminished, but I think in some ways they take it more seriously as they know their bodies will only let them play for so much longer. When we talk, I get to hear updates on how he’s playing and how his team is doing (plus, who broke his hip and who needs oxygen after running to first).

Most of us will never get to experience what the Griffeys did or what the Jameses will. But if you can find a way to play with your parents or kids, I strongly recommend it. Coaching them is one thing – someone has to teach them how to play. Cheering and joining them for tournaments is meaningful, as well. But getting to experience being teammates?

As a father now myself, I’m a ways off from that adult relationship with my own kids. The closest I’ve come has been golfing with my oldest, which is a thrill in an of itself.

The story of the Griffeys is different from that of the Jameses. In the first case, the son was the superstar and the story was mostly about him. Now, it’s more about the all-world father than the kid who it seems like his dad pulled a few strings to get on his team.

But one thing they have in common is that in both cases, the father made it happen. Griffey Sr. came to Seattle just to play with his son before retirement. LeBron seemingly used his massive influence to get his team to draft Bronny.

And after being a father for 12 years, I totally get it. Playing with my dad was amazing because it was not only fun but meaningful. An opportunity to capture that feeling again with my daughters? Sign me up. And like Ken Sr. and LeBron, I’d do just about anything to make it happen.

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