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Born to Be a Big Leaguer
Hank Hersch
May 16, 1988
The way 18-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting, he may become the first player ever to join his father in the major leagues
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May 16, 1988

Born To Be A Big Leaguer

The way 18-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting, he may become the first player ever to join his father in the major leagues

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On a cool April evening in San Bernardino, Calif., Ken Griffey, the veteran outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, emerges from his rented Cutlass and strolls across an asphalt parking lot, angling for the rightfield line of Fiscalini Field. His target is a large youth in the uniform of the hometown Spirit who is chatting over a chain-link fence with a few ballpark denizens. As Griffey walks, word of who he is spreads, and a sea of children surrounds him, their pens poised, their looks beseeching. Some ask him to sign baseballs that already bear a signature resembling his own. "How much money you got on you?" Griffey deadpans before signing.

Until now, Griffey's day hasn't been an uplifting one. The Braves lost an afternoon game at Dodger Stadium, dropping their record to 0-10, a modern National League record for season-starting futility. Griffey, a .299 hitter over his 15-year major league career, lined out as a pinch hitter in that loss and lowered his 1988 average to .091. But after the 80-minute drive from L.A., the frustration has faded. Griffey is about to watch his son George Kenneth Griffey Jr. play Class A ball, and his mood is soaring.

When the older Griffey reaches the fence, Ken Jr. extends a wide smile, a greeting—"Dad!"—and a large right hand for a vigorous shake. "Hey, kid," says the father. Kenny, as his father calls him, inquires about Ken's game that day and then, with a child's innocent energy, blurts out the details of his own latest feats afield. Ken absorbs this rapid-fire narrative before advising his son to tuck in the two dangling gold necklaces he's wearing. Kenny tucks one under his turtleneck, leaves one out.

Soon they are down to family business. Griffey the father wants to know where his kid's twice-monthly loan payment is. Griffey the son wonders how many bats his dad has brought with him. They hike back out to the parking lot. Although their shoulders roll gently as they walk, the Griffeys aren't very similar. Dad is 38 and thick through the middle, 200 pounds of mostly muscle on a 6-foot frame, and he moves with a professional's assuredness. The son, at 18, is 6'3", his 195 pounds are tapered, his sloping, open features favor those of his mother, Alberta. He's a kid in a rush. Ken pulls a brown garbage bag out of the trunk of the Cutlass and loads Kenny up with batting gloves, underwear, a mitt and two pairs of cleats. He hands him a 35-ounce bat, too. Kenny scans the trunk. "Only one?" he asks.

The father smiles and shakes his head. He has given his firstborn much in life, including a gift that will keep on giving: his talent. When his career ends, Ken will have around 2,000 major league hits. Kenny has taken that talent and amplified it. As the game between San Bernardino and Palm Springs begins, Kenny, who plays centerfield for the Spirit (which was 7-0 then and 15-9 at the end of last week), leads the California League in batting (with a .520 average), home runs (4) and RBIs (11). Last season, just before Kenny graduated from Moeller High in Cincinnati, the Seattle Mariners made him the No. 1 draft pick in the nation and signed him for a $160,000 bonus. Less one jockstrap, two pairs of sanitary hose and a Cincinnati Reds warmup jacket, that was $160,000 more than his father signed for as a 29th-round choice in 1969.

As a 15-year veteran, Ken has the abiding respect of his peers; Kenny may one day have their awe. But while Ken had to work to prove his ability, Kenny will have to work not to disprove his. By age six, he showed that he had a feel for the game: When his dad struck out in a Puerto Rican league game, he told him in the dugout, "That pitcher's got nothing." When Ken struck out again, the kid said, "Dad, you got nothing." The game hasn't humbled Kenny much since.

If the Griffeys' major league careers overlap—and there's an outside shot that the Mariners will call up Kenny in September—they will become the first father and son to play in the bigs at the same time. The Mariners showed an interest in trading for Ken last season, and if such a deal were ever to be made, one can imagine the dialogue as the Griffeys trotted out to their positions in the Kingdome outfield:

Son: What happens if I call you off a ball?

Father: You'd better. Or you're grounded, and I'm taking your car away.

Baseball, though, has mostly kept the Griffeys apart. During his eight seasons with the Reds, Ken was around the family's Cincinnati home enough to share the preteen years of his kids, Kenny and Craig, now 16. But since 1981, when Ken was traded to the New York Yankees, his schedule has allowed him to see Kenny play only seven or eight times. Some scouts saw the kid play that many games in his senior year at Moeller alone. It took the family's chief scout, Alberta, three months to convince her husband that when Kenny was 16 he was good enough to compete with 18-year-olds in Connie Mack ball. At the Connie Mack World Series that year, Kenny hit three home runs, one to left, one to center and one to right.

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