A passing of the mantle is an occasion deserving of some pageantry, and so it was fitting that Ken Griffey Jr. confirmed his standing as the new Image of Baseball amid the banners and balloon releases of this year's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. The telltale sign that Griffey had indeed reached the top of the game's marquee was not Chicago White Sox superstar Frank Thomas's dropping to his knees before the All-Star Game workout to salaam Griffey, nor was it Junior's jaw-dropping performance in winning the Home Run Derby. It was only when Griffey sought out Reggie Jackson, eagerly offered a soul handshake and then absorbed a 20-minute lecture from Mr. October on what exactly he was getting himself into that Griffey seemed at last to fully embrace his position as the game's leading man.
Griffey stood as rigid as a cadet on the turf of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, his eyes fixed on centerfield, with one of Jackson's massive arms draped across his shoulders. During that momentous conversation, Reggie leaned in and spoke hard into Griffey's ear about pressure, expectations, the media and all the other pitfalls of being on top. He spoke of the colossal responsibility of having The Game strapped to your back. It was a speech that Jackson had been waiting to give for some time, but nobody had wanted to hear it before now. Occasionally, Griffey bowed his head ever so slightly as Reggie spoke. It was a nod of understanding, and acceptance.
Reggie: "We love Ken Griffey Jr. because he is everything we would like to be. He's young, he's good-looking, he's got the best smile in the world, and he's a heroic athlete. He is a shot in the arm for baseball. He is what this game needs right now. He is creating excitement and making headlines just by his presence. There hasn't been anyone like that since...Reggie Jackson."
Say what you will about Jackson, but he was the last baseball folk hero, the last man who was as big as the game itself and ensured that the national pastime was exactly that. Baseball folk hero can be a thankless job, laced with peril, and it is a post that has been vacant since Reggie stopped being the straw in the early '80s. The superhero's cape has slid from the shoulders of a generation of stars. There have been those who were too modest (Nolan Ryan, Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg), too surly (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens) or too self-destructive (Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco) to pick up where Reggie left off. But now there is Griffey, the Seattle Mariners' 24-year-old centerfielder, with his sugary swing and candied smile. He and Jackson have more in common than just the fact that chocolate bars have been named for them. While Griffey lacks Reggie's bombast, he has, like Jackson, captured the fancy of the fans with the force of his personality as much as with his exploits on the field. "Reggie was what I would classify—in a nice way—as a villain when he was playing," says Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who played with Jackson on the New York Yankees from 1977 to '81. "People came out to root against him. With Kenny, people come out to root for him, to be swept up by his enthusiasm and amazed by his talent. But what they share, and this is what makes them special, is the same ability to turn the fans on."
How big a turn-on is Griffey? He waltzed into the All-Star Game with 6,079,688 fan votes, a mere 1.8 million more than any other player has ever received. Griffey's appearance at the All-Star workout set off a skirmish reminiscent of a Lollapalooza mosh pit, as frenzied media members literally tried to elbow their way to him. And he is now officially the biggest thing in the state of Washington. Griffey superseded Mount Rainier on July 23 with his 36th home run, a 381-foot blast against the Boston Red Sox. Junior's 36 dingers through Sunday have traveled a distance of 14,645 feet, putting him 235 feet ahead of Rainier and only about 10,000 feet behind Roger Maris. Meanwhile, despite all the suffocating attention and weighty expectations, Griffey continues to romp around the ballpark with the energy of a colt feeling his legs for the first time.
Griffey has been a standout player and a fan favorite since he was a 19-year-old rookie, in 1989, but in the past he only dipped his toe in the pool of celebrity. This season he has taken the plunge. "I've always felt like it isn't the fans or the press that make you a big star; you have to play yourself to that level," Griffey says. "Before, I wasn't real comfortable doing commercials or being in the spotlight, because I wanted to establish myself on the field."
Last year, when he hit .309 with 45 home runs and 109 RBIs and won his fourth straight Gold Glove, Griffey finally convinced himself that he had earned the right to start saying yes to his commercial suitors. During the '93 season he signed a large endorsement deal with Nintendo, and this April the video-game maker introduced Ken Griffey Jr. Presents: Major League Baseball, backed by a $4 million ad campaign. According to Griffey's Cincinnati-based agent, Brian Goldberg, Junior is on the verge of deals with Oakley sunglasses and a mysterious brand that Goldberg will identify only as "a national food company of considerable size." Griffey is also endorsing Franklin batting gloves, Rawlings fielding gloves, Louisville Slugger bats and Upper Deck trading cards. And as of the second inning of this year's All-Star Game, he also had his own Nike ad campaign.
"We feel like Ken is going to be as big a star as baseball has ever seen," says Terdema Ussery, the president of Nike Sports Management. "Ken is the type of person that kids can love and adults can respect. He is a true role model, and that is something baseball sorely needs."
Junior has been sporting Nikes since the early 1980s, when his father, Ken Griffey Sr., began wearing them while playing for the Yankees. By the end of last season both Nike and Griffey Jr. knew the time was right for an advertising blitzkrieg, and a campaign was put in the works. Griffey's terrific first half this season only accelerated its release. A print campaign began, and Nike outfitted a traveling "Griffmobile" stocked with T-shirts and hats reading 62 IN '94 and HOLY cow, the latter being the tag line from the commercial that was unveiled during the All-Star Game. Because baseball cleats are a limited consumer product, Nike is set to launch a Griffey cross-training campaign anytime now. Never mind that Griffey considers baiting a fishing line to be his primary off-season workout.
For a player from a market as small as Seattle, and a team as hapless as the Mariners, to distinguish himself from all the other young studs in baseball is no small feat. It is a testament to Griffey's charisma and talent. Consider the case of Frank Thomas (preceding story), Chicago's businesslike first baseman, who plays for a championship-caliber team in the country's third-largest market. While he lacks Griffey's defensive prowess, Thomas may be the game's premier offensive player, and he is handsome and well-spoken to boot. But he seems destined to play Ted Williams to Griffey's Joe DiMaggio, always overshadowed by his rival's popularity. "The thing about Junior, he has that golden smile," Thomas says. "He is like a kid on the sandlot. We're all competitors, we all play to win, but he always seems to be having more fun than the rest of us."