IT MIGHT as well be a softball game at a church picnic to him, or
maybe backyard Wiffle ball or one of his own 16-bit, stereo-sound
video games. Yes sir, 25-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. -- with his cap
turned backward, his shirttail (not to mention the rest of him)
hanging loose and his smile shining through even the dankness of the
Kingdome -- is playing games with us. How could baseball be this
easy, this fun?
One season he decided to hit a home run for his mom on Mother's
Day and to do likewise for his dad, former major leaguer Ken Sr., on
Father's Day. He delivered both gifts as easily as the rest of us
fork over flowers and a tie.
''He's one of the most relaxed players I've ever seen,'' says Lou
Piniella, his manager with the Seattle Mariners. ''It has to do with
the confidence level he has. It's incredibly high.'' Says Griffey,
''I take my game seriously, but I don't play like I'm serious. I play
to have fun.''
While he's flitting about American League diamonds, George Kenneth
Griffey Jr. also happens to be amassing the sort of
rattle-the-musty-halls-of-C ooperstown numbers that are downright,
well, serious. On his way to taking the league home run crown in 1994
with 40 dingers (despite losing 50 games to the strike), Junior
became the third-youngest player to hit at least 150 career home runs
-- only Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews were younger.
Griffey, a centerfielder, has already won five Gold Gloves (two
more than Hank Aaron); batted .300 or better five times (one fewer
than Carl Yastrzemski, who played 23 seasons); played in five
All-Star Games (one more than Lou Brock); and hit for the highest
career All-Star Game average among players who have had at least 10
at bats (.571). He has accomplished all of this and yet will not turn
26 until November.
Griffey is on a career path that bears precious few footprints. He
is a virtual statistical twin of Mickey Mantle. Griffey has played in
845 games, while the Mick had played in 808 at the same age. Griffey
is a .306 hitter with 972 hits, 172 home runs and 543 runs batted in.
Mantle had batted .308 with 907 hits, 173 home runs and 575 RBIs at
the same point in his otherworldly career. What if Junior keeps this
up? There's no telling -- especially if you ask him.
''I wasn't good at history,'' Griffey says. ''I was better at math
and science. All I want is to be the best player I can be, not what
people think I can be.''
Can Griffey really be this blithe? Well, no. Appearances to the
contrary, he is a dedicated student of hitting who studies videotapes
at home. ''He does his homework,'' says Piniella. When he began last
season on a home run tear, Griffey asked the Mariners' public
relations department what the record was for most home runs through
May. Told that Mantle had set the mark with 20 in 1956, Griffey
decided to break it, at one point declaring, ''Need to get me five
this week.'' He promptly smashed Mantle's record by two. For good
measure, he also broke Babe Ruth's 66-year-old record for home runs
through June. He ended that month with 32, two more than Ruth had in
1928 and 1930.
Griffey hit his 40 home runs in the 112 games played before
baseball shut down -- one fewer than Roger Maris hit in the same span
on his way to 61 in '61. Who knows how it might have turned out? With
Griffey, there is time to find out.
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1995 issue