710 ESPN Seattle hosts share their memories of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.
With the expected announcement of Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame a day away, 710 ESPN Seattle hosts shared their thoughts and memories of the Mariners legend:
Groz arrived in Seattle in 1990, a year after Griffey’s major-league debut. He had heard the hype about the player they called “The Kid” and was interested to see if he would live up to expectations in person.
“It took about two games when I got here to realize what he was,” Groz said, “and that was worth the price of admission for every game you went to. It blew me away. Every night he did something. I remember thinking, ‘Well, this can’t go on forever. Eventually he’s going to slow down,’ and it didn’t.”
It wasn’t just what Griffey did but how he did it that stood out to Groz.
“I think about those home-run races that were going on with the guys who were all bulked up and there Junior wasn’t all bulked up,” he remembered. “He threatened 60 home runs a couple of times. You looked at this guy, 180 pounds, he was Hank Aaron-esque to a degree, with the greatest swing I ever saw … I was amazed that there was a player that was that good in every facet of the game like he was.”
As the pre- and postgame host of Mariners baseball from 1992-1995, Groz had plenty of opportunity to see Griffey up close on a daily basis. What Griffey did off the field was perhaps as impressive as what he did on the field.
“Every game he had a Make-A-Wish kid,” Groz recalled. “He refused to allow people take about it, was emphatic (about this), which was impressive. I thought on his part, he really wasn’t doing it for any other reason but to be good.
“To a lot of people who wondered if he was a good guy, he was. He was complicated for sure, and had a lot of pressure on him, but was a very good guy in his soul.”
Groz believes Griffey was the best sports star Seattle has seen to date. In the game of baseball, he was one of the best.
“I’ve seen a lot of great players in my days,” Groz said. “He’s the best all-around baseball player I ever saw and in his prime, there was absolutely nothing like him.”
Stelton grew up in the Seattle area, playing baseball and collecting baseball cards as a child. Griffey became a quick favorite for him.
“For me, he was the first player I could champion with pride,” Stelton said, “because the Mariners weren’t very good. They were a fairly new organization. There weren’t a lot of players to cling to and say, ‘Hey, this was my guy,’ and he was a guy who lived up to his draft position, lived up to his hype. For me, he was a guy who was whispered about, talked about; we didn’t have the Internet back then. It was word of mouth, reading the newspaper, hearing my dad talk about this kid coming up, he was Ken Griffey Sr.’s son. It was kind of the anticipation of something potentially great for the Mariners.”
Stelton watched Griffey reach greatness on a regular basis.
“Watching him play, watching him track the ball, watching the Jesse Barfield catch and watching him hit home runs back-to-back with his dad, you just saw those glimpses very early in his career,” Stelton said. “You saw very quickly he was different. It was just the way he played. It just looked like it was second nature, and there was no trying. It was just, he did it.”
After watching for years as a fan, Stelton found himself in the Mariners’ clubhouse as an radio-station intern in the late 90’s. He admitted to being nervous the first time he was within arms reach with a microphone of Griffey.
“Our job at that point was to go in there and don’t say anything,” he recalled. “Just hold the mic on, make sure the recorder is recording, and I was nervous just standing there in front of him. In my mind I was, ‘Oh my god, that’s Ken Griffey Jr. That’s him!’ and I would make eye contact any time he would look at me I would look down at the ground.”
Eventually Stelton would spend enough time in the clubhouse to get to the point where he could ask Griffey a question. Shortly after that he began to see a different side of the superstar.
“His best moments came when you didn’t have a mic,” Stelton said. “When you talked to him off the record. I remember sitting with him in the dugout on the bench with him watching a J-Lo video on the big screen and just BSing with him like a buddy or something and that was just one of the coolest moments of my life. Not talking about baseball, just talking about this video, talking about music. It was just a huge moment for me.”
Stelton strongly believes Griffey should be the first to be voted unanimously into the Hall of Fame.
“He was by far the greatest player I ever saw in person,” Stelton said. “He was my favorite player. He was my hero.The fact that nobody has ever gone in with 100 percent vote I think is shameful. That somebody found a reason not to vote for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. He should be the one to break that trend. There’s not a logical, rational, reasonable reason not to vote for him. He should be the first one to go in with 100 percent vote. He’s the greatest star in the history of Seattle sports. With all due respect to Gary Payton, Russell Wilson, there has been a lot of great athletes in this city that have had (as much of) an impact, he’s the greatest. He’s the greatest. I think you could make the argument that he is one of the greatest to play the game. Not just in Seattle but to ever play his position to ever play the game. If not for him this team is in Tamp Bay. This team is not here. Griffey is responsible for keeping this team here as much as anybody. The reason that Safeco Field is there is because of Griffey. The reason the Mariners are attached to Seattle is Griffey, and he gave them credibility. In years where they had nothing really worth watching, he gave you a reason to watch. He to me is the greatest athlete in the history of this city.”
Myers, also a Northwest native, grew up in Oregon.
“Being able to see a superstar in the Northwest was a very very big deal,” he said. “The first time I ever saw him play at the Kingdome, I was 10 years old and he was my favorite player from that day on.
“The first highlight that I can vividly remember of seeing Griffey was when he robbed the home run, I believe it was his rookie year, and was showing it off to Harold Reynolds, because I think he told him he was going to get one. He had that big million-dollar smile and looked like he was having so much fun out there. The defense was what really drew me to Griffey early on. Without a doubt, the defense was what really made him the best.”
Myers, like many kids at the time, took what he saw from Griffey and tried to incorporate it into his game.
“I did mimic the stance,” he said. “I had the high elbow, the bat waggle, I had the cap backwards. My high school coach probably hated Griffey because all of us had to have our hat backwards, our elbow up high and that nice little bat waggle, but none of us hit home runs like he did. But I mimicked everything about him.”
Myers also collected the gear.
“I was obsessed. I had wall-to-wall Griffey posters,” he said, naming the “Riptide” poster as his favorite, “had the shoes, had everything.”
For Myers, Griffey’s legacy is clear.
“I believe at his prime he was the greatest talent that we have ever seen,” Myers said. “The physical ability to play the game of baseball, no steroids suspicions at all in a massive steroid era. He is without a doubt, in my opinion, the greatest talent to ever take the field.”
Like Myers, O’Neil grew up in Oregon. Like with Stelton, Griffey came across O’Neil’s radar as a baseball card collector.
“Griffey had the coolest baseball card ever,” O’Neil recalled. “My favorite card I have is still the Upper Deck card where the cap is just barely perched on top. It’s shot from below. It’s such a cool looking card.”
O’Neil appreciates not just the on-field feats but also the relationship he saw between Griffey and Seattle.
“He was in a lot of ways the first truly national superstar, and I don’t think there still has been a bigger star from this city than Griffey,” he said. “And I think the coolest thing always about the relationship between Griffey and the city, he fits with Seattle in most unexpected way, because he’s a second-generation player that was truly a national figure, a No. 1 overall pick, yet this seemed to be a place he felt comfortable and it was a place that was really comfortable with him and I think that was really cool.
“The fact that he came back and ended his career here, I wish it had ended on a better note, but at the same time, I felt like the way he came back, everybody was happy just to have him here again. There was this mutual appreciation. Sports fans in cities are not rational when it comes to their heroes leaving, yet I feel that Seattle acted very maturely when it came to understanding why Griffey left to Cincinnati and welcoming him back and I think that was because of how much everybody respected and loved Griffey. There was never going to be a chance that it became something like what happened with Alex Rodriguez. He connected here in such a deep way that it was almost like your first love and you break up and go your separate ways, but man, it’s cool to see him again at the reunion.”
With O’Neil’s background as a newspaper reporter, I was interested in getting his thoughts on the media’s role in legitimizing a player’s career. More on that can be heard on the audio. As for the player himself, O’Neil believes Griffey’s legacy will be multi-faceted.
“He played in an era that is going to take decades for people to come to grips with,” O’Neil said. “He played in a way with an excitement and a joy. There were two true physical specimens that we may never see again in that era and that was Bo Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. Bo for different reasons. Ken was a beautiful baseball player. His defense, the way he hit, the fact that he wasn’t and would always say he was not a power hitter yet the way his swing looked truly graceful. He’s a guy I will never wonder about. I just won’t.”
Salk grew up in Massachusetts in a town that did not have cable until the early 90’s. He gives us the faraway view of Griffey.
“For some reason when I think of Griffey from afar, I think of Kobe (Bryant) from afar, of just kind of a guy who took his sport by storm … but did it with incredible flair and incredible ferocity right off the bat, like all of a sudden there’s this incredible new star and how come you don’t know everything about him right away. Because people in the Northeast are big baseball fans, but really they are fans of their own team and the Yankees fans know everything about the Yankees and the biggest players in the game and that’s it. The Red Sox fans know everything about the Red Sox and their farm system and nobody else unless they become a big star, and then one day all of a sudden there was this new star that was enormously important.”
Enormously important on the national scene, even bigger at home as O’Neil described earlier and Salk discovered quickly after Griffey’s return.
“Most of my real memories of Junior were getting to know him over the season and a half he was here after I got to Seattle,” he said. “When I think of him now I think mostly of the passion people have for him, which I found out the hard way when I looked at the numbers and said this guy should probably not be in the every-day lineup and people said, ‘Yeah, no, that’s not the way it works, Mr. newcomer, please go away. Junior gets to do whatever he wants for the rest of his life and you are nothing.’ And you know what? They were right and I was wrong because at that time nobody wanted to hear that. Ken Griffey Jr. meant more to this city than what he meant as a baseball player, and what his average was what his home-run total, WAR, anything else. In 2009, he was more important than that.”
A bit of a brutal day for Salk at work, but at the end of it he came away with redemption of sorts along with a great Griffey story.
“But after all that, my biggest memory will be after an entire day spent on the radio saying the Mariners should bench Griffey, that he should still be on the team, just come off the bench, he didn’t play that night,” Salk recalled. “It came down to a late-game situation … and sure enough, what do they need to do? Pull Junior of the bench as a pinch-hitter. What does he do? He hits the home run that Dave Niehaus called – probably my favorite radio call I have ever heard – the “old time religion call” from 2009. I came in the next morning and said, ‘See, I told you, they need to put Junior on the bench!’ I don’t know, they weren’t quite ready to hear that, either. But it was an incredible night and that home run gave me my own personal sense of what it must have been like when he was able to do that almost at will and just show up ever single day and hit a home run if he wanted to just because he was Ken Griffey Jr.”
As for Griffey’s legacy?
“Griffey’s personality is cool, but his charisma exceeds his personality because of the smile. I hope that his legacy is because of that charisma and of that smile but I fear it’s not going to be,” he said. “I fear that it will be for hitting a ton of home runs in a time when most people who were hitting them weren’t doing them cleanly and by all accounts he was, so I fear that will be the majority of his legacy. Clearly, it’s saving baseball here in Seattle and bringing enough interest in the game that this team didn’t leave, and thank god because I can’t imagine being here without Safeco or the Mariners. That’s probably his biggest local legacy.”
Wassell grew up in Connecticut, a baseball fan in a split Yankees/Red Sox family.
“When he started his career I was about 10, so that was right in my wheelhouse as far as waking up every morning checking the box scores, and you see Griffey’s name. Griffey home run again, Griffey home run again. Griffey home run again,” he remembered with a smile.
“Griffey to me was like Superman. I heard my dad talk about Willie Mays when he was a kid and the way he described him, and Griffey seemed to be to me that guy,” he said. “And when I first really saw him play in the ’95 Division Series, against my father’s Yankees, he was Superman. You couldn’t get him out and every pitch he hit seemed like it was going to be a home run.”
The home runs were spectacular, but for Wassell, it was the defense that set Griffey apart from the rest.
“Let’s not forget about his defense. I think I heard about him and watched more defensive highlights of him than I did home runs before he became a huge superstar,” he said. “You would watch ‘This Week In Baseball’ and I think I saw more of Griffey in center field running around the Astroturf out there than as a hitter. To that point, I think he was the best player I ever saw on television.”
Griffey was baseball’s superstar and a unique one at that.
“I’m not sure baseball can just manufacture and package a superstar,” Wassell said. “I think that guys like Griffey and Kirby Puckett, whatever they had, they had it just so naturally. Their play was great, sure, but there was just some other quality, charisma about them that you can’t just force and it’s not that you will never see it again, but for whatever reason, I don’t know if it is the money or the way that kids are being brought up and sort of put up through the baseball machine – whether it’s Little League, high school, American Legion, select – I think they are just conditioned to think ‘baseball, baseball, baseball’ whereas the guys before weren’t as much that way. So maybe it’s tougher for them, but at least once a generation you get a player like that.”
Pitman, a lifelong baseball fan, moved to Seattle from Atlanta in 1991.
“For the first time you were hearing about the Seattle Mariners, not because of the Seattle Mariners per se, but because of The Kid in center field,” he remembered. “He made it look so easy. No one else made the game look as easy and I think that’s why we all derive joy from watching him play. He looked like he was having fun. It came so natural. Everything he did he just made look so easy and more often than not he was smiling.”
Upon arriving in Seattle, Pitman quickly became a Mariners fan. His path was quite similar to Stelton’s. One day he is a fan, the next day he’s in the clubhouse representing a radio station. Pitman had met Griffey before on a couple of occasions, but seeing him behind the scenes at Safeco Field was a different experience.
“I first got a chance to actually sit and have a conversation – where there was no recorder, there were no cameras, no other reporters – and all of a sudden it was just you and Ken Griffey Jr.,” Pitman recalled. “He’d take batting practice and then come back to the dugout and hold court and if you were the only one on the bench, you were the court, he was the judge and jury. He’d just get going. To this day, and it makes me respect him and like him more – and frankly it makes me a little angry at people who I think ignorantly say Junior is not anything less than an exceptional man, person, ambassador for this game – you sit and have one conversation with the man, when there is not one camera or a pool of reporters who are looking for that gotcha answer, he is the most humble and funny and just genuinely nice person.
“And then when he came back the first couple of times, he was just a different guy. Totally relaxed. He had been away from the game, probably for the first time in his life if you think about it, and he got the chance to be the full-time dad, he hadn’t missed any meals, he was just mellow and calm and I think as authentic Ken Griffey Jr. you are ever going to see. That has become part of my personal story of Ken Griffey Jr. and I wouldn’t change a thing. I saw it as a young kid, I was 15 in ’95, and then all those years later to get to cover him as a professional and then the benefit of sitting in the booth and have Junior come up there and wax poetic about you name it. Junior is still a little bit shy, but you get him one-on-one and he is just another one of us. He loves the game of baseball. He loves to talk about his family and the most random things like fly fishing and RVing. His range of interest are endless and I think he is loving life as much now as he was loving the game back in day in the Kingdome.”
And his legacy?
“He did it the right way,” Pitman said. “When he was healthy, there was no one better, period. The raw, genuine five-tool athlete – Ken Griffey Jr. will always embody that to me. He played in an era where we look back on it with a different flavor or take on it than we were living it. It’s not always positive. But with Junior it is positive. When it comes to what he did on the baseball field he was the most complete baseball player of his era. Unfortunately, part of that dictates looking at how frequently he played injured and how long it took for him to come back from some things. Other guys, other injuries, healed a lot quicker. Unfortunately for Junior it didn’t. But also fortunately for Junior he will never have to worry about defending himself being fifth on the home-run list. He will never have to defend those numbers because of how he carried himself. The more we reflect on Ken Griffey Jr., the player and the person, I think the more integrity becomes a part of his legacy. He was such a great ambassador of the game. For kids, it was infectious back in the 90s. That’s why I think his legacy will ultimately go down as a great ambassador who did things the right way, and is the embodiment of integrity and class in the game of baseball.”