You kind of want to put the whole show under glass and preserve it forever, before it changes, the way people wanted to do when Willie Mays first came up and the Say Hey Kid won everybody's heart. Now there's this kid: Junior. It's more than just the breathtaking baseball skills you want to capture—his great arm, his fluid stride, his viperlike upper-cut swing. It's the whole darn affair: The 40-year-old father, in his 18th major league season, catching a plane on a day off to watch his namesake make a dazzling over-the-wall catch that reminds everyone of a catch he, the father, made five years earlier in the very same stadium. The teammates on the Seattle Mariners who thrill to his exploits and bear him no jealousy. The nickname, Junior, and how he still calls home every night—collect-to tell his mother, Alberta, about the game. The pure joy that the kid derives from playing, which, on a good day, can be felt in the far corners of the stands. The way he turns this big-buck, high-pressure business called baseball back into a playground game.
You want to keep all that for posterity. But there is a problem. You also want to fast-forward the calendar so you can see Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime. You kind of want to find out just how great a player he will someday be when he actually gets serious about baseball. Not serious like Will Clark-serious, walking around with an I'm-looking-for-the-cure-for-cancer expression wrinkling his brow. Just, you know, serious. Like, paying attention to who's pitching. Learning the names of some of the opposing players, so he can position himself in the outfield. Watching relievers warm up before he faces them for the first time. Little things.
Unless, of course, that's the whole secret to the 20-year-old Griffey's success: that he doesn't unnecessarily complicate the fundamentally simple concept of hitting the ball with the bat and catching it with the glove. Hitting the bejesus out of the ball, as a matter of fact, as no 20-year-old player has hit it in the major leagues since Al Kaline batted .340 at that age to win the 1955 American League batting title. Making running catches with his back to the plate, which draws inescapable comparisons to Mays. And, as long as we're mentioning Hall of Famers, making throws from the outfield that are of the same general caliber as the cannon shots of Roberto Clemente. It's almost as if Griffey were born to do this kind of work.
And he's still the youngest player in the major leagues. Same as he was last year. Thai's the scary part. "People are comparing him to Jose Canseco," says Seattle pitcher Matt Young. "He's only 20 years old. Jose was 22 when he made it in the major leagues."
"He's a big kid, a baby," says Gene Clines, the Mariners' hitting coach. "When he finally buckles down and gets serious about this game, there's no telling what kind of numbers he will put on the board."
A big kid who, truth be told, is still growing. Everybody swears it, though the Mariners' media guide lists him this year at 6'3", 195, same as last. Griffey himself claims to have added "about two pounds," shrugging off observations that he seems to stand a full inch taller and that his chest, hips and thighs have all filled out. Says Clines, "I don't think anybody's ever been that good at that age. He's in his own category. He is a natural."
Capitalize that: a Natural. The kind of player after whom babies and candy bars are named.
Last Thursday night's game in Yankee Stadium can serve as a case in point. In a 6-2 Mariners win, Griffey went 2 for 4 and scored a run. Nothing new there. He hits to all fields with power and has been swinging a hot bat since spring training. As of Sunday he had hit in 13 of his last 14 games; he led the American League in hitting with a .395 average and was among the league leaders in hits (30), total bases (49), home runs (5) and RBIs (17).
But the play that had everyone buzzing, which even brought Yankee fans out of their seats, was a catch Griffey made on a ball hit by Jesse Barfield that robbed the Yankee rightfielder (if only for a couple of innings, as it turned out) of his 200th career home run. Starting from his position in straightaway center, medium depth, Griffey took off toward the left centerfield wall as Barfield's shot sailed into the night sky. Griffey hit the warning track full tilt, gauged the wall at a glance, and, like a long jumper marking his takeoff, sunk his cleat halfway up the foam padding on the wall and leapt. From the bullpen, which in Yankee Stadium is beyond the nearly eight-foot-high center-field wall, the Mariners pitchers could see only an arm flying over the top, as if disembodied. Then the arm whiplashed back, out of sight, and the ball, which had appeared so briefly, vanished with it.
"As I jumped, I thought, I got a chance," Griffey said afterward, calling it the best catch he had ever made. "That's the first one I've caught going over the wall, in practice or in a game."