Raised by baseball: Ken Griffey Jr. had plenty of help early in his Hall of Fame career
Ken Griffey Jr. going into the Baseball Hall of Fame has been a given for some time, but even so it was a subject he could never talk about. That’s not unusual for many athletes, but Griffey took it a step further. Not only would he not talk about the Hall of Fame, he refused to visit it.
“I think everybody knows, I am really superstitious,” he said Wednesday on the MLB Network shortly after the announcement that and Mike Piazza would be inducted at Cooperstown July 24. “I have played in the Hall of Fame Game three times and I have never set foot in the building. I have never even seen the front of it. I’ve gone directly from the field to the hotel and the hotel to the bus and never looked at the front of it because the one time I wanted to go there, I wanted to be a member of it.”
He is a member now, and it probably won’t take too long to get used to his new reality.
“Happy and shocked,” he said of his reaction to the news. “Happy that I get to be in such an elite club. Shocked, because any time somebody else does something for you, it means a lot.”
Griffey can be humble about this moment. That is real. I have spent enough time around him to know that. It’s no accident that the words “Ken Griffey Jr.” and “doing things the right way” are so often linked.
A lot of it is him, but no doubt a lot comes from his upbringing. From the stories he has told, he comes from a strong family. His dad Ken Sr. and mom Birdie have been huge influences in his life. There are also numerous stories of those who looked out for Griffey in the game. He credited a number of them Wednesday, as did his dad, who summed it up beautifully when I asked him on a conference call about the challenges of raising any kid, let alone raising them in baseball. He chuckled and answered, “Baseball raised him.”
Junior may have been a kid running around in the Reds clubhouse following wins when his dad was a member of the Big Red Machine, but he was not much more than a kid when he entered his first professional clubhouse as a player. Just 17 years old and with high expectations as a No. 1 overall draft pick and the son of an All-Star, the Mariners did their best to keep the pressure off his young shoulders.
“They let me go out there and make the mistakes that young kids make,” said Griffey Jr. “They let me be a teenager and make mistakes on and off the field, and were able to say, ‘Hey go out there and have fun.’ When they did see something, I had big-league managers, guys that had played in the big leagues from my first year like Rick Sweet who knew how to be a pro, and he went out there every day and he developed you as if you were a professional. Not a high school kid, not a college kid, but a pro.”
When he arrived at the big-league level, still a teenager, Griffey said a number of players including Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle and Jeffrey Leonard looked after him. His dad would join the Mariners the next season, and father and son would have an experience we may never see again.
“I’m hitting second and he’s hitting third, and it is the first time I ever heard with me being in the batting box somebody hollering ‘Let’s go Dad!’ and it’s the hitter behind me,” Griffey Sr. said with a laugh. “That was a strange feeling. I had to step out of the batter’s box to get myself back in order and think about what I had to do, which was get a base hit.”
Griffey Jr. gave his father a moment he will never forget. Wednesday afternoon you could hear the pride in Griffey Sr.’s voice in every question he answered. To see his son get the approval of more voters than any player in baseball’s history for the Hall of Fame, and to understand that as only a person who played the game himself could, must have been an unbelievable experience. But for all of the love of the game the Griffeys have, Junior’s baseball accomplishments don’t eclipse the person his father raised – the same person seen in the clubhouse every day during his 22-year career.
“Him being himself,” Griffey Sr. answered when asked what he was most proud of with his son. “He never wavered from him. Being straightforward about stuff, making sure people knew him as a person. Being a family man was so big to him. He never wavered from his kids at all. He’s done a lot. I’m just proud of him being my son. That’s all.”