HITTING HIS PRIME KEN GRIFFEY JR.'S GAME HAS MATURED, HEIGHTENING EXPECTATIONS FOR A SEASON OF MARISIAN MAGNITUDE

May 11, 1997

He was 10 years old in the summer of 1980, proudly wearing the
uniform of the A&A Janitorial Service team in a Mount Airy,
Ohio, summer recreational league, when the joy of playing
organized ball for the first time was sapped by what he heard
coming from the stands. The parents of players on opposing teams
cursed him. Ken Griffey Jr. was too good for them to take,
whether he was hitting, pitching or playing just about any
position on the field. He must be too old, they figured, which
is why his mother, Alberta, brought his birth certificate to
every game. "Strike out the next three batters," she would tell
him between innings. "Then we'll really hear them." The kid
would do it, and the opposing parents would cuss him some more
for being so much better than their sons.

As Griffey stood in the green vastness of centerfield at Yankee
Stadium last week, having hit more home runs in April than
anyone else ever had, it seemed little had changed since the
summer of 1980. He heard the garbage coming at him from the fans
in the rightfield bleachers. He stood there like a living
monument, as unmoved as the granite ones over his right
shoulder. By now all that shouting had become just white noise.

Not once for A&A Janitorial or the Seattle Mariners or any team
in between has Griffey played baseball without people expecting,
fearing or resenting his greatness. "It's happened my whole
life," he says. "I've got pretty thick skin. That's why I don't
worry about what people say."

With his 13 home runs in April--and 14 at week's end--Griffey
has inspired expectations lofty even by the usual standards of
Junior achievement. He has triggered the earliest watch on Roger
Maris's single-season home run record of 61 in '61. Projections
that would otherwise seem as foolishly rushed as stringing
Christmas lights in August don't seem so outlandish when applied
to Griffey, assuming he remains healthy. Not since '93, when he
hit 45 home runs at age 23, has Griffey played a season
uninterrupted by strike or injury. Four years later, not only is
he still armed with the same exquisite swing, but he has also
added a mature approach to hitting and a lacquer-hard shell from
growing up in the bull's-eye. The Kid is hitting his prime.

"Early in his career we'd go over scouting reports on pitchers,
and Junior wouldn't bother listening," says New York Yankees
first baseman Tino Martinez, who played with Griffey in Seattle
from 1990 to '95. "He didn't care who was throwing or what the
guy threw. He just looked for the ball and hit it. A lot of
pitchers were trying to figure him out, so they would challenge
him--see if he could hit a good inside fastball, see what he did
with breaking balls. They tried to find weaknesses. Obviously,
there were none. Now he's hitting with all the knowledge that
comes from experience. I see him setting up pitchers all the
time, which you didn't see earlier. He might look bad on a
certain pitch, and when a pitcher comes back with the same
pitch, maybe in the next at bat or with two strikes, he'll be
sitting on it and crush it."

Griffey's teammates are aware that the talk of his challenging
Maris's record has already started. Says Mariners rightfielder
Jay Buhner, "If he hits 50 home runs, does that mean he failed?
Forty? People expect so much from him. If he ever got close to
the record, the attention and demands on him would be
tremendous. But he's a guy who's mentally tough enough to handle
it."

A September run at Maris--nobody has staged one in the 35 years
the record has stood--would inspire the biggest traveling show
this side of Ringling Brothers. Every night of the week would be
Sunday at Augusta with Tiger Woods atop the leader board. "You
never heard those expectations come from me, the 61 home runs,
the 150 RBIs," says Griffey, addressing the prospect of a media
circus. "I just go out and play hard, and whatever happens
happens."

Griffey is a man whose license plate reads FEAR NO ONE. He is a
low-maintenance hitter, blessed with what Martinez calls "the
perfect swing, something that can't be taught." Only rarely does
Griffey venture into the videotape room, and when he does, he
checks just the position of his hands at the start of his swing.
In an age when the weight room has become as crowded as the
batting cage, Griffey, who hits the ball as far as anyone, is an
exception: He has never lifted weights with any consistency.
"Flexibility," he says. "Look at Tiger Woods."

There is genius in simplicity for someone who sleeps in the same
bed he used at his parents' house in high school and who opened
his first mutual fund account only after four years of
depositing major league checks into a passbook savings account.
"I know where the barrel of my bat is at all times," he says.
"All my life I've known what pitches I can and cannot hit."

Only three players, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews and Mel Ott,
reached 250 homers at a younger age than Griffey, who hit the
mark on April 25, seven months shy of his 28th birthday, despite
having missed 205 games because of the injuries and the work
stoppages. He holds the major league records for home runs hit
by the end of April (13 this year), May (22 in 1994) and June
(32 in '94). He belted 49 homers last year despite sitting out
20 games with a broken bone in his right wrist suffered while
swinging at a pitch and even though he still felt the effects of
a severely broken left wrist from the previous year, which he
hurt when he crashed into a wall to make a catch. What kind of
stats might Griffey have if he were healthy for a full season?
Consider a 162-game sample, covering his 140 games last year and
his first 22 of this one: .313 average, 149 runs, 170 runs
batted in and 62 home runs.

No wonder Seattle manager Lou Piniella pleaded with Griffey in
spring training and again in the first week of the season to
fine-tune his radar near outfield walls. "Look, Junior,"
Piniella remembers saying, "we want 162 games out of you. Be
aware of where the ball takes you. It's more important for us to
have you in the lineup every day."

Griffey, however, insists, "Whatever I'm going to do, I'm going
to do. I don't feel I'll be more cautious. If that were the
case, then I'd be the DH."

The Mariners already use the designated hitter spot to safeguard
the health of Edgar Martinez, who's also a dangerous hitter.
Cleanup man Martinez's presence directly behind Griffey in the
Seattle lineup prevents clubs from pitching around Griffey. Says
Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, "As good as Junior is,
the guy behind him is probably a better pure hitter. Without
Edgar in the lineup we might tell our pitchers, 'Pitch around
Griffey. Whatever you do, don't let him beat you.'"

"If Edgar stays healthy, then Junior could break the home run
record," says Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Martinez,
however, has also been injury-prone: He has made five trips to
the disabled list in the last four years. He and Griffey were in
the same starting lineup only 311 times from 1993 to '96, or in
just 54% of Seattle's regular-season games. This year Griffey
and Martinez, who at week's end was batting .315 with four home
runs and 19 RBIs, have missed only one game between them, when
Griffey was laid low by the flu on April 11. They have helped
the American League West-leading Mariners, who had a half-game
lead on the Texas Rangers as of Sunday, rack up more runs than
any other team in the majors. They were scoring at a clip--6.1
runs a game--nearly identical to that of last year's Mariners,
who were the highest-scoring team in 46 years.

"When Junior makes the pitcher put the ball over the plate, he's
going to put a good swing on it," Piniella says. "That's what
he's been doing more and more. The problem in the past was that
Junior saw the ball so well he felt as if he could hit
everything they threw. I tell him, 'If they want to walk you,
let them walk you. You're capable of winning the Triple Crown.'"

Says Griffey, "People don't realize what I deal with on a
day-to-day basis. I break both wrists, and when I go back out
there, it's supposed to be like I never was hurt."

After the injury last year Griffey played for six weeks without
any feeling in his right pinky and ring finger. That was nothing
compared with what he felt upon returning from his injury in
1995. Every time he swung and missed, pain shot from his left
wrist up his arm "as if somebody were pulling my arm out from
the wrist," he says. He still does not have full flexibility in
that wrist.

With Griffey otherwise healthy, math never has been more fun.
Thirteen homers in his first 22 games left Junior needing 49 in
139 games for 62 this year and 300 for his career. (Never mind
that in 1961 Maris, underscoring the streakiness of most power
hitters, didn't hit his 13th until June 2, triggering a
28-dinger explosion over June and July.) The Mariners play 17 of
their 25 September games indoors, which will protect Griffey
from that month's cooler weather.

September, however, is a long way off, and between now and then
Griffey will go without a homer during some stretches, as he did
in New York last week. Before the second of three games against
the Yankees and before another round of extra batting practice
in which he peppered balls into leftfield, Griffey met with an
11-year-old boy named Dominique Mayo from Harrisburg, Pa., whom
he had invited to the stadium. Griffey had been watching The
Maury Povich Show one day during spring training when he heard
Dominique, who was on the show with his mother, say that Griffey
was his only male role model. Griffey immediately called one of
his agents and said, "I want to meet the kid. Let's make it
happen." Against the Yanks, with his young admirer watching,
Griffey went hitless in five at bats, taking only two pitches
for balls and never hitting the ball hard.

The next morning Griffey signed his name--always with the
Jr.--to 518 collectibles. Then he vowed that the next game,
against lefthander David Wells, would be different. "Watch,"
Griffey said. "I'll be locked in. My rookie year I hit a
pinch-hit home run against him. He'll slip up, try to show me a
curveball."

Over a lunch of rice, beans and chicken at a South Bronx
restaurant, Griffey remained confident about cranking out a long
ball. The establishment's owner wanted to know "Where? Upper
deck?" Replied Griffey with a smile, "No, I'd love to rip one
into the bleachers, take out five or six of those [hecklers]
with third-degree burns."

The loudmouths were safe. Griffey had only a weak infield single
in four at bats. He chased some bad pitches and, eager to go
deep, opened his front side too much on others. He left New York
without a home run or a walk in 14 plate appearances. "The best
thing for him may be that April is over," says Piniella. "He was
getting to where he wanted to hit every pitch out."

Sometimes he is still just a kid. Prepared as Griffey may be for
this year, he is not impervious to the gravitational pull of a
long season. That, too, can be expected.

COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN Griffey swung into May having hit a record 13 April homers. [Ken Griffey Jr. batting in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER One awed opponent says a more experienced Griffey now sets up pitchers to get a ball he can crush. [Ken Griffey Jr.] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON After Dominique said on TV that Griffey was his role model, Junior called him in for a few hitting tips. [Ken Griffey Jr. and Dominique Mayo]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)