With the seventh pick in the first round of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft, the New York Mets selected…some kid.
I wish him well. I wish to see him on the Mets before too long. Until then, Matt Harvey — RHP, UNC — is just a name to me, no more guaranteed of success than any of his first-pick Met predecessors. This young man could be Darryl Strawberry or Doc Gooden or Mike Pelfrey. Or he could be Steve Chilcott or Kirk Presley or Ryan Jaroncyk. They were names. Some resonate for the right reasons. Others are a badge of discouragement to Mets fans. Their failures to become more than being known as first-round Mets picks who didn’t come close to what we call “making it” probably bothers them a whole lot more than it bothers us.
The only picks, beyond the rare megahyped prospects, whose names mean anything when they come up in the draft are the ones whose fathers played in the big leagues. For example, on the MLB Network crawl Monday night, I noticed the name “Delino DeShields, Jr.,” chosen No. 8 overall by the Houston Astros. That’s Delino DeShields’ kid, I quickly concluded. Delino DeShields came up with the Expos in 1990 in the aftermath of one of their periodic purges of veteran salaries. It was the rookie year for Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom, too. The youth movement was supposed to doom Montreal to last place. Instead, they finished a strong third, winning 85 games, six behind the second-place Mets. DeShields, Walker and Grissom formed the nucleus of the Expos team that challenged the Pirates and the Phillies for the N.L. East title in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Then DeShields was traded to the Dodgers for young Pedro Martinez and Montreal became the best team in baseball for one star-crossed, strike-stricken year.
None of this has much to do with Delino DeShields, Jr., but that’s what I thought of when he was drafted by the Astros, because I don’t know a damn thing about the kid. I remember his father, and I cannot believe that the father has a kid who was just drafted by a big-league team. Didn’t Delino DeShields just come up to the Expos? How is it possible that he has a son likely en route to Greeneville, Tenn., and rookie ball? Wasn’t Delino DeShields a rookie himself twenty minutes, not twenty years ago? What do you mean he hasn’t played in the majors since 2002? And that Grissom retired in 2005, same year as Walker? What do you mean the Expos aren’t loaded with up-and-comers anymore? Come to think of it, whatever happened to the Montreal Expos?
Time’s flight isn’t news. The first-year draft is, supposedly, but I won’t know what any of it means until the players chosen begin to appear in the majors or prove conspicuous by their eventual absence. All I’ll know until then is the names, and the only names that will mean anything to me are the names that go back a generation.
That was the case on a June night in 1987 when I was listening, per usual, to Mets Extra on WHN prior to the Mets’ late game in Los Angeles. Howie Rose told us our first pick was Chris Donnels, a third baseman from Loyola Marymount, also in L.A. I’d never heard of Chris Donnels, and I’d only hear of him sparingly in the years to come. Donnels was a part-time player as a Met in 1991 and 1992 before he was lost in the expansion draft to the Florida Marlins. What I mostly remember about him is I saw him hit two home runs for the St. Lucie Mets versus the Baseball City Royals (in Haines City, Fla., home of the short-lived Boardwalk and Baseball theme park). That and my friend Joe believed he strongly resembled Ike Godsey, keeper of the general store on The Waltons.
The most amazing aspect of Chris Donnels’ big league career is it ended in 1995, reignited in 2000 and continued through 2002, like he was the second coming of Minnie Minoso, activated from retirement solely for promotional purposes. His AWOL period wasn’t that mysterious — he went to Japan, as big leaguers sometimes do. But they don’t usually return and play again in our big leagues. Chris Donnels did. He kept playing in the minors through 2004, two years after Delino DeShields hung ’em up. I’m more surprised Chris Donnels was still playing professionally six years ago than I am Delino DeShields hasn’t played in eight — or that there’s a Delino DeShields, Jr., old enough to soon sign a professional contract.
But I digress. Back to that night in 1987, or actually the next night, if I recall correctly. It was definitely in June, and it was definitely on Mets Extra because WFAN didn’t exist yet and the only place you were going to hear Howie Rose was on Mets Extra. Mets Extra, as Burt Lancaster said of the Atlantic Ocean in Atlantic City, was somethin’ then — you should have heard Mets Extra in those days. It ran for 75 minutes before every Mets game and 75 minutes after every Mets game. It was Howie Rose unplugged, bringing us every possible Met angle, every important baseball story. It was Howie Rose at his finest. I yearn for Howie Rose to spend 2½ hours with me every night on either side of Bob Murphy and Gary Thorne.
Anyway, it’s June and the draft has taken place as Rose, always the reporter even as host, is going to bring us an interview not with Chris Donnels, the 24th overall pick in the draft, but with the kid who went first in the draft, chosen by the Seattle Mariners.
His name was Ken Griffey, Jr.
Easy name to notice, right? Ken Griffey was a familiar name. There was no Ken Griffey, Sr., at the time as far as the average baseball fan was concerned, just Ken Griffey: long a Red, for a spell a Yankee, at that moment a Brave. Griffey, Jr., was his son. He was obviously well thought of or he wouldn’t have gone No. 1 in the draft…I guess. I mean Shawn Abner went No. 1 in the draft, selected by the Mets three years earlier. As of 1987, the No. 1 pick in the nation from 1984 was still a prospect. He wasn’t our prospect anymore; we’d traded him with Kevin Mitchell to get Kevin McReynolds the previous winter. (It was a trade you could call Kevin-sent.) Shawn Abner hadn’t made it yet, but he probably would, it was assumed. You made assumptions on behalf of overall No. 1 picks. Ken Griffey, Jr., had done nothing more than play high school ball in Cincinnati and apparently impress the scouts of the Seattle Mariners. It was assumed he’d make it. He was bigger news than Abner was in ’84 or B.J. Surhoff was as first pick in ’85 or Jeff King was as first pick in ’86. They all had talent. Griffey had a name.
So Rose got him on Mets Extra. He congratulated the kid, not yet 18, on his status as the first draft pick in the nation. Griffey, Jr., mumbled some thanks. Rose asked him a few questions about how it felt and whether he was excited and his dad’s reaction. Griffey, Jr., mumbled some more. It was early June. Classes, finals and graduation were barely over. This, I thought, was a kid on the phone, not just by age, but by demeanor. If a kid like this called Mets Extra and mumbled like that, Howie Rose’s producer would have hung up on him.
That was the last I heard from or thought of Ken Griffey, Jr., for a while. Why would I keep up with a Seattle Mariner minor leaguer? The Seattle Mariners were baseball’s lost battalion, playing in the majors’ saddest outpost, regularly posting baseball’s grimmest results. The Mariners were in their eleventh season in 1987. They’d yet to achieve a winning record. They finished fourth once when they lost only 86 times. That was their high-water mark, 76-86. Their best player then, 1982, was Bill Caudill, a relief pitcher. The only reason I remember Caudill is because he dressed up as Sherlock Holmes one Saturday afternoon for the NBC Game of the Week pregame show and pretended to be searching the Kingdome clubhouse for saves. The Mariners of Bill Caudill found themselves seven games over .500 in early July, just three games behind Kansas City for the American League West lead. The Mets, who had been bad as long as the Mariners had been alive and didn’t have hilarious relievers wearing trenchcoats and carrying magnifying glasses, were seven below and 8½ out. I swear to god I was jealous of the Seattle Mariners for a solid week.
That didn’t last. Nothing good ever lasted for the Seattle Mariners. They’d be back in last in 1983, losing over a hundred games. They hit the basement again in 1986, seventh in a seven-team division for the fourth time in ten seasons of Mariners baseball. They’d have finished last more often except they had the good fortune to dwell at the bottom of the same A.L. West as Charlie Finley’s dismantled Oakland A’s, who were a more depressing version of the M. Donald Wrecked Mets of the same period. The Mariners were terrible but couldn’t even gain traction as most pitiable. The A’s in those latter-day M.C. Hammer years were more embarrassing. The M’s expansion brethren the Blue Jays were more futile — they always finished last — and a bit more preposterous. What might have been worst for the Mariners was the way they finished last, in non-consecutive years. There’d be a last-place finish, there’d be a sixth-place ray of hope, then reality would rise up and smack them down again.
Seattle was nearly 700 miles removed from its closest big league neighbor. Back east, more than half of their games were reported in the morning papers as “(n.)” — night, too late for this edition…as if anybody was really making like Bill Caudill and searching high and low for the M’s score. The Mariners didn’t exist except as obscure and unsuccessful. They needed all the help they could get. They theoretically got in the form of high draft picks. Finish low, draft high. That’s the rule.
But it didn’t help. The Mariners’ first overall No. 1 pick came in 1979. They used it to select Al Chambers, an outfielder who would come up in 1983 and be done by 1985 after 57 big league games. The Mariners picked first in the nation again in 1981. They selected pitcher Mike Moore. Moore gave them a ton of innings, one obviously outstanding season (17-10 in ’85), another that deserved to look better (9-15 in ’88 but with the fourth-best WHIP in the American League) and absolutely nothing to show for it from a team perspective. The Mariners finished last for the fifth time since 1977 in 1988. Moore filed for free agency, fled to Oakland and won two games in the earthquake World Series of 1989, including the clincher.
The A’s had rejuvenated by 1988 The Blue Jays had become a powerhouse by 1988. Everybody except the Cleveland Indians had taken a legitimate run at success since the year the Mariners were born. It had to look bleak in Seattle. It always looked bleak in the Kingdome, according to those who had bothered to buy a ticket and sit inside. Seattle was such a lovely city. Its baseball stadium and baseball team couldn’t have been less so.
Then came 1989 and Ken Griffey, Jr., the No. 1 draft pick from 1987, having developed from mumbling high school kid to the subject of a lot of excited talk. Griffey was mentioned quite a bit his rookie year, buzzed about more than any Mariner had ever been, even Bill Caudill. It was mostly talk from where I sat. I was on the East Coast, focused on the Eastern Division of the National League, the A.L. West was diametrically opposed to my line of sight. The only thing I was aware of as regarded the Seattle Mariners in 1989 was we were close to trading them Howard Johnson and Sid Fernandez to get Mark Langston. The trade never happened. Seattle dealt their lefty ace to the Expos for a younger southpaw, Randy Johnson. Langston was hyped as the difference-maker in a pennant race, but it didn’t work out. He was let go after that year ended, paving the way for the Montreal youth movement that unveiled to the world the likes of Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields, Sr.
Griffey was hyped, too. Not enough to win Rookie of the Year (that went to Oriole reliever Gregg Olson) but enough to mark him as something more than a name. There was still curiosity about the name, however. His dad, Griffey, Sr., as he was becoming known, was still playing. By 1990, it was a huge deal that the father, 40, signed with Seattle to play with the son, 20. They homered in the same game in September.
The Mariners lost that night. They had losing records during the first two years of Ken Griffey, Jr. Fourteen years of Mariners baseball never produced as many as 79 wins. But Junior, as he was now routinely identified, was a great distraction and building block. The 1991 Mariners compiled a winning record. It was only 83 wins, and it was only good for fifth place, but it was something. Griffey was also something, racking up 100 RBI for the first time, elected to the All-Star team for the second time, earning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger in the process. And as he was rapidly becoming the darling of baseball lovers who managed to find out about him despite his being stranded in Seattle, he broke through on the most transcendent level possible.
On February 20, 1992, Ken Griffey, Jr. portrayed himself on an episode of The Simpsons.
The Simpsons first saw light as animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show when Griffey was a senior at Moeller High in Cincinnati. They got their first big break, their Christmas special, the December after Junior placed third in A.L. ROY voting. Each was a phenomenon in the early ’90s, one of those things you just had to tell your friends to watch. Ken Griffey, Jr., and The Simpsons were made for each other.
The episode in which they came together was “Homer at the Bat,” the one where the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team shifts into high gear. Mr. Burns, refusing to take any chances by relying on his worker drones, hires a band of ringers to ensure victory over bitter rival Shelbyville. In order of major league debut, they were:
SS — Ozzie Smith
C — Mike Scioscia
2B — Steve Sax
3B — Wade Boggs
1B — Don Mattingly
RF — Darryl Strawberry
P — Roger Clemens
LF — Jose Canseco
CF — Ken Griffey, Jr.
Alas, each member of Mr. Burns’ “beloved ringers” befalls some obstacle or cartoon tragedy that doesn’t allow him to compete…all except for Darryl, whom Burns removes despite his having gone 9-for-9 with nine home runs because Shelbyville has brought in a southpaw to face him. “It’s called playing the percentages,” the skip informs Straw. Junior, meanwhile, is out of action from an overdose of the nerve tonic Mr. Burns prescribed. Seems it did a number on the kid’s head. It’s all recounted in Terry Cashman’s classic tale:
We’re talkin’ softball…
From Maine to San Diego.
Mattingly and Canseco.
Ken Griffey’s grotesquely swollen jaw.
Steve Sax and his run-in with the law.
We’re talkin’ Homer… Ozzie and the Straw.
It’s hard to know whether there was a Simpsons softball curse, but it is worth noting that none of Mr. Burns’ ringers ended 1992 on a team that finished with a winning record. The Mariners were back in last, even though the only thing that swelled for Griffey in real life his power: 27 home runs, 103 runs batted in. If anything else great came of that season in Seattle, it was how they would use the No. 1 pick in the draft they were granted for finishing so badly. With the first pick in the nation in June 1993, the Mariners selected shortstop Alex Rodriguez. That same year, Randy Johnson’s potential became performance (19-8, 308 strikeouts). He entered the All-Star Game at Camden Yards in the third inning and backed John Kruk about ten feet off the plate, lefty vs. lefty (playing the percentages, you know). Legends were taking shape in Mariners uniforms, but one had a head start on the rest. In the All-Star home run hitting contest, Ken Griffey, Jr., launched a ball that soared past the Camden outfield grandstand, remained aloft over Eutaw Street and bounced off the otherwise unreachable B&O Warehouse.
By year’s end, Griffey would hit 45 home runs that counted. The next year, before the same strike that would strip the Expos of their best chance ever at a pennant, Griffey had put 40 home runs in the books by the second week of August.
It was official: Ken Griffey, Jr., was now bigger than The Simpsons.
More would happen for Griffey and the Mariners, most notably their instantly legendary Refuse to Lose drive to the A.L. West title in 1995, featuring Junior’s return from a gruesome wrist injury, a one-game playoff stifling applied by Johnson to the choking California Angels, and then the five-game exercise in breath-holding better known as the American League Division Series between the Mariners and Yankees. It wasn’t settled until the eleventh inning of the fifth game, when Edgar Martinez doubled home Joey Cora with the tying run and Junior Griffey — sliding past Jim Leyritz — with the winning run. Seattle and the Mariners and the kid had all grown up at once. A city fell in love with its team and voted to fund it a new ballpark.
There’s more one could say about Ken Griffey, Jr., from there, but I’m not the one to say all that much of it. I was riveted by that playoff series and his All-Star appearances and the SportsCenter highlights of his unbelievable catches in center fields all over the A.L., but the distance from here to Seattle generally limited my view of Griffey on a nightly basis. He became big business for baseball at a time when all the big stars came from other sports, but that didn’t matter all that much to me. Those were just commercials. He was also at the core of the baseball card boom, but I wasn’t a collector anymore, so if you said “Junior: mint” to me, I’d assume you meant candy, not Upper Deck.
I was too old to look up to Ken Griffey, Jr., but I was intermittently fascinated by him. As I recall his Seattle days — sketchily, partially, curiously — he strikes me as the last megastar surrounded by at least a veneer of mystique. That he peaked at such an incredibly high level before every single play was readily available for download likens him in my mind to Ted Williams or Stan Musial or someone similarly exalted from the newsreel age. If you didn’t live in a place where you could see them regularly, you saw them hardly at all. We weren’t quite that in the dark here in New York in the 1990s, but as a National League fan in the days before Interleague play made everybody that much more accessible, Griffey was off my daily radar. By not being overexposed to him, I was undersaturated by him — but by no means unappreciative of him.
Ken Griffey never came to Shea Stadium as a Mariner. He almost came there as a Met, however. That, too, carries a touch of mystique. When Junior’s contract was going to be up in Seattle and he was going to be too much to afford, the Mariners tried to trade him back east, closer to his family in Orlando. New York was closer to Florida than Washington state. A deal was reportedly on the table in December 1999: Armando Benitez, Octavio Dotel and Roger Cedeño for Ken Griffey, Jr. Sounded tantalizing to me. Not so much to Griffey, who says he wasn’t given ample opportunity to consider such a life-changing move. Like HoJo and Sid for Langston, this deal with the Mariners died. (Apparently the only notable M we were ever destined to receive was J.J. Putz.)
When we finally saw Griffey at Shea, he was a Red, the way his dad had been. After years of reflexively cheering visiting icons — McGwire, Sosa, Ripken — we mostly booed Ken Griffey for turning us down. When the ninth inning of his first game in Flushing came down to Griffey vs. Benitez, Armando was our guy. He struck out Junior with the tying run on first. We cheered our closer. We booed their superstar.
That’ll teach him to not be one of us.
Junior the Red was never Junior the Mariner except for his seeming elusive to me. He was in our time zone, but not our division. He was injured a lot. The Reds would come to Queens, he wasn’t with the team. I’d go to Cincinnati, he’d be scratched from the lineup. When he did show his face, we’d still boo, but more out of ritual than ire. After a while, I’m pretty sure we forgot why we were booing. On his last trip in, Mother’s Day 2008, we didn’t boo at all.
The kid, 40, finished up in Seattle last week. His manager announced his retirement for him. Junior didn’t sound like he much felt like talking to Howie Rose when he was drafted into the professional ranks; I take it he didn’t feel like talking as he was leaving. That’s OK if he was a little grumpy on the way out. He smiled plenty for 22 seasons, certainly the first batch of them. He made others smile as well. The instant obits for his career were like something they would have trotted out for Musial or Williams. He was this era’s kid bidding his fans adieu without, as of yet, tipping his cap. But surely had been the Man in one sense or another from 1989 to 2010. The relatively ineffectual Red years were glossed over. The recent report that he was napping in the Mariner clubhouse when he was needed for pinch-hitting was consigned to a footnote. Nobody brought up that stale chestnut about a player who doesn’t win a ring not really being that great. Ken Griffey, Jr., breathed life into one of the deadest franchises in modern baseball history. He doesn’t get a ring for that, but he ought to get a medal.
His individual statistics would need no embellishment in a more innocent age, but Griffey’s 630 home runs positively glow in contrast to the tarnished numbers of the few players who could be considered peers among his contemporaries. Thank you, everybody seemed to say, for not being one of those guys. Thank you for not doing what those guys did. Thank you for — as far as we can tell — never attempting to enhance your performance with anything stronger than Mr. Burns’ nerve tonic.
When the head of the last active Springfield Nuclear Power Plant ringer swelled grotesquely, at least we knew it was a cartoon.
What was it like to get literally if temporarily close to Ken Griffey, Jr. as he was becoming baseball’s most celebrated player? Find out from Dave Murray at Mets Guy in Michigan.