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Tom Verducci
May 12, 1997
Ken Griffey Jr.'s game has matured, heightening expectations for a season of Marisian magnitude
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May 12, 1997

Hitting His Prime

Ken Griffey Jr.'s game has matured, heightening expectations for a season of Marisian magnitude

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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.

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