Says another AL general manager, "I love Frank, but I'd take Griffey because of his body. You look at his dad and see that he had such a long career, and Junior has the same genes. Gonzalez has already had some back problems, and you worry about pure power hitters. Frank is already big, and you worry about him getting hurt or getting bigger as he gets older. But Griffey has the kind of body you think will hold up over a long period of time."
Even Thomas agreed, saying, "All around, I would say Griffey's the best. Junior's getting better and better, and his defense is incredible. There are only three guys in this game I'd pay to see play: Junior, Juan and Barry Bonds. Me? I'm just your basic blue-collar guy who works hard at his game. Hittingwise, I don't feel like I have any flaws. I work on all facets."
While many baseball people admire Griffey's talent, they don't have the same regard for his approach to the game. He has had the reputation of a slacker. Says one general manager, "I don't see him serious about the game all the time the way he should be. I still see him silly at times." It bothers the traditionalists that Griffey doesn't always run hard to first base on routine ground balls, that he likes to wear his cap backward and fraternize with opposing players and that last season he directed an obscene gesture at Tiger manager Sparky Anderson after hitting a home run. And as Griffey admits, "I'm usually the first one out of the clubhouse" after games.
He toys with the game. Baseball is another video game to him, his bat a joystick. He claims to have only one goal: to steal 20 bases in a season (his career high is 18). He acts completely uninterested in the historic possibilities for his career.
"I was never good in history," he says. "I was better at math and science. I've heard all the things said about me. Well, I don't have a face like Will Clark. I take my game seriously, but I don't play like I'm serious. I play to have fun. You play better when you're loose. All I want is to be the best player I can be, not what people think I can be. When I'm done playing, I want people to say about me, 'He could flat out play. He had fun while he played. And I enjoyed watching him play.' That's all."
Truth is, Griffey is getting more serious about his job. He played in a career-high 156 games last season, his first after signing a four-year, $24 million contract; he also set personal bests in hits, home runs and RBIs. "I was skeptical after he signed that big contract, but not anymore," says Minnesota Twin general manager Andy MacPhail. "He really is something special." This spring Griffey was first in line whenever it was time for running drills in training camp. "No one asked him to do that," Seattle manager Lou Piniella says. Griffey studies videotapes of his hitting at home, a giant leap from his cavalier early years. Once, upon learning he was to hit against Bert Blyleven, he had to ask, "Is he a lefty or a righty?" He also is a first-time father proud enough to describe how 2½-month-old Trey Kenneth Griffey loves to nestle against his chest and fall asleep.
"When I was younger, it was me, me, me," he says. "Not anymore. Now it's him and my wife and then me. Now I have to watch what I say around the house and what I do. In a way, that's good. It makes me feel responsible."
Says teammate Mackey Sasser, "He doesn't even realize his own talent yet. He's still a kid. I've watched Barry Bonds play, and he's every bit of Barry Bonds—only younger. He's the only guy I've ever seen who can call his shots. He said he was going to hit one out on Mother's Day, and he did. Said he was going to hit one out on Father's Day, and he did. Sometimes he'll just say, 'Watch this, I'm going deep,' and then hit one out."
With his youthfulness and all-around skills, Griffey would seem to be the most marketable of the young stars. Yet he exhibits little passion for gaining a higher profile. He took a small part in a movie, Little Big League, over the winter, but only after agonizing for six weeks about whether to do it. "Because it's not me," he explains about his hesitation. "I just want to be me. I'm not a fame freak. The only ego I have is I know I can play."
Thomas has snared some endorsements, but not on the level of many basketball players. The 6'5", 257-pound MVP was virtually lost in the shadow of Michael Jordan during spring training. Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican, can be engaging but is still working to improve his English. Olerud is as boring as C-SPAN and admits to it. Fryman, despite three straight 20-homer, 90-RBI seasons, has no identity outside Detroit, and the one he has there is that of a hardworking wooden soldier who refers to hi£ general manager as Mr. Klein. As Q ratings go, these ballplayers are no speed skaters.