New Mariners OF Jay Bruce shared an outfield with his idol, Ken Griffey Jr.
This season it would appear a safe bet that the biggest Ken Griffey Jr. fan at T-Mobile park this won’t be sitting somewhere in the stands, but rather will be on the field wearing a Mariners uniform.
“Calling me a huge Griffey fan is probably the biggest understatement you could make. I was completely obsessed,” new Mariners slugger Jay Bruce told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Bob, Groz and Tom Thursday afternoon (listen here).
How obsessed? As a 9 year old growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Bruce actually picked up the phone, called the Kingdome and asked to be connected to the future Hall of Famer.
“I got to the operator: ‘Sorry honey, we’d like to talk to him too, but not going to be in the cards for either of us I don’t think,’” Bruce recalled. “When my eyes were open I was trying to be Ken Griffey Jr. That’s just the bottom line.”
As fate would have it, Bruce was selected by the Cincinnati Reds with the 12th pick in the 2005 MLB Draft and found himself sharing a field and wearing the same uniform as his idol. He called the experience almost surreal.
“Playing center field while he was playing right field felt almost like I was doing something wrong,” he said. “He was arguably the greatest center fielder ever. To be able to play with him, get to know him and still consider him a friend today is something I never would have dreamed of.”
While they were teammates for just a short while, Griffey’s impact on Bruce’s career was longer lasting.
“I followed him around like a little puppy,” he said. “Honestly. I tried not to be too weird about it but there was definitely that sense of I’m a fan but I am also now a colleague so I have to act like it.
“But I was 21 years old, man – I was dumb,” he continued with a laugh. “I was a dumb 21-year-old kid. I think everyone is dumb when they are 21 so for me to try and have to toe that line while also trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal was an added feature to the entrance to the Major Leagues for me.”
According to Bruce, Griffey’s down-to-earthedness made his transition to the bigs easier. His message is one that Bruce carries with him today.
“I learned a lot about just letting the game come to me,” he said. “Relaxing, not trying to do too much because I’m sure that he had so many times in his career that he felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, having to perform, do this, do that. I’m sure he had to learn to relax himself.”
Bruce looks forward to seeing Griffey, who remains a good friend he has kept in contact with, at Mariners Spring Training. It will be his 14th trip this time of year to Florida or Arizona, and he looks forward to being the guy who can help younger players the way Griffey did with the Reds. It is a role he embraces.
“I’m the veteran and I definitely will be one of the veteran voices, but I try to make sure not to be too preachy,” he said. “I feel like I try to be an open book. If people have questions and concerns, be there for them and share my experience with them. I’m not going to go around screaming and hollering, but I hope to be around for guys when they have a question and I hope and plan on having them feel comfortable asking me what they are going to ask me.”
As for joining a team that is in a transition year and not expected to make the playoffs? Been there, done that – and he doesn’t want to hear the projections.
“I don’t pay much attention to everyone involved,” he said. “When I go into a season I expect to win. I expect to be a contender, and really these days, that’s the reason I play. … I was part of a team that was supposed to be rebuilding as well and we won that division in 2010. With the Reds, we weren’t supposed to win that division.
“I am looking to get after it and play ball and let the pieces fall where they may, but what I have learned over my career is you can’t really concern yourself with things everyone else says or projects because everyone has their opinion but most don’t mean a whole lot.”
That is a voice and a message Mariners manager Scott Servais will no doubt appreciate in the clubhouse. For Bruce, it is a clubhouse he will appreciate being a part of.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I really have a good feeling we are going to surprise some people. And I look forward to getting out on the field and doing that. You can look however you want at it on paper, that’s obviously been seen a million times, but getting out and playing and actually doing it is a different story and I feel we have a group of guys that can.”