1987: Not necessarily a clear-cut No. 1 pick
Ken Griffey Jr. clearly was the best player in the draft pool, a five-tool kid with a big-league pedigree as the son of Cincinnati Reds star Ken Griffey. He amazed scouts with his play at Moeller High School in Cincinnati to the point that the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, which the Mariners had, was a no-brainer.
One problem, though.
Mariners owner George Argyros felt the club had been burned the previous year when they drafted Patrick Lennon, a highly regarded high school shortstop, with their first pick. Lennon had off-field issues and never achieved the stardom projected by scouts, and Argyros didn’t want to go there again. The owner wanted to draft a college-age player and he favored pitcher Mike Harkey of Cal State-Fullerton.
Scouting director Roger Jongewaard assured Argyros that this was different, that Griffey undoubtedly would become a special player. Argyros gave his approval, although he told Jongewaard he’d be fired if this Griffey kid didn’t work out.
On June 2, 1987, the Mariners selected Griffey with the first overall pick. Harkey went fourth to the Chicago Cubs.
1987: The first pro home run
There’s a small monument to baseball history on the corner of 38th and Lombard streets in Everett. Somewhere near that 90-degree bend just beyond the left-field wall at Everett Memorial Stadium is where the baseball from Griffey’s first professional home run landed.
He hit it on June 17 while playing for the Bellingham Mariners against the Everett Giants. The overflow crowd of 3,122 at the Giants’ home opener watched the 17-year-old Griffey hit an opposite-field homer.
In 1998, former Everett franchise owner Bob Bavasi had a bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk outside the left field fence on the corner of 38th and Lombard. The plaque reads:
“Ken Griffey Jr.’s first professional hit, a home run, landed near this spot on June 17, 1987. During the fourth inning of his second pro game, Griffey, age 17, playing for Bellingham against Everett in Northwest League action, muscled a 1-0 pitch from Everett’s starter Gil Heredia for an opposite-field, three-run home run to left. The ball traveled approximately 387 feet. A crowd of 3,122 was on hand. Everett won the game 7-6.”
1989: First major league hit, first home run
When Griffey went to spring training in 1989, the Mariners had every intention of starting him at Class AAA Calgary in order to prepare him for better competition. However, Griffey batted .359 with two homers and 21 RBI in 26 spring training games and gave the Mariners no choice but to put him on the opening-day roster despite his youth and inexperience.
At age 19, he was the youngest player in the major leagues, but his impact was immediate. Griffey doubled in his first big-league at-bat off A’s pitcher Dave Stewart in the season opener April 3 at Oakland.
And he hit his first major league homer on the first pitch he saw at the Kingdome, hitting it out on April 10 against White Sox pitcher Eric King.
1990: Bronx robbery
Griffey already had established himself as a star center fielder, and he put it on display in the arena that counts the most — Yankee Stadium — on April 26.
That’s when the Yankees’ Jesse Barfield crushed a drive to deep left-center field that seemed destined to become his 200th career home run. Instead, Griffey made a leaping catch to pull the ball back from over the wall and leave Barfield with a puzzled look as he began to round the bases.
Afterward, Griffey ran back toward the dugout unable to hide the big smile on his face, a sign of the unmasked joy he brought to the game.
1990: Like father, like son
While the Mariners did little as a team that season, it was one of Griffey’s most memorable. Despite being 20 years old in his second big-league season, Griffey made the first of his 13 All-Star appearances.
Late in the season, the Mariners signed his father, Ken Griffey Sr., and on Aug. 31 they played together in the same game for the first time. Just a few weeks later, on Sept. 14, the Griffeys made baseball history by hitting back-to-back, father-son home runs in the first inning against California Angels starter Kirk McCaskill.
His power already established after a career-high 27 home runs and 103 RBI in 1992, Griffey made it legendary during an eight-game stretch in late July the following season. He hit home runs in eight consecutive games, tying the major league record held by the Pirates’ Dale Long (1956) and the Yankees’ Don Mattingly (1987). Here is his homer streak.
Date Opponent Inning Pitcher
July 20 at Yankees 8 Paul Gibson
July 21 at Yankees 6 Jimmy Key
July 22 at Indians 4 Jeff Mutis
July 23 at Indians 6 Albie Lopez
July 24* at Indians 5 Matt Young
July 25 at Indians 5 Jose Mesa
July 27 vs. Twins 3 Kevin Tapani
July 28 vs. Twins 8 Willie Banks
* Tied the Mariners’ record of five straight games with a home run held by Richie Zisk (1981).
1995: The Spiderman is shattered
Some called it the make-or-break point in the Mariners’ 1995 season. They had pulled their record over .500 after a winning series against the Red Sox and were on their way to an 8-3 victory over the Orioles at the Kingdome when Kevin Bass hit a fly to deep right-center field on May 26.
Griffey sprinted hard and made the catch at full speed, but crashed hard into the wall after what many described as a “Spiderman” leap. It was perhaps the best catch of his career, but also the most damaging.
Griffey crumpled to the warning track with the ball in his glove but clutching his right wrist. It had been broken badly, causing Griffey to miss 73 games.
1995: Home run that sparked a championship run
When Griffey returned from the wrist injury on Aug. 15, the Mariners remained two games above .500 but 111/2 games behind the first-place California Angels in the American League West.
On Aug. 24, Griffey delivered what’s remembered as one of the most important home runs in Mariners history. The Yankees led 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth inning with star closer John Wetteland (now the Mariners’ bullpen coach) on the mound. Joey Cora tied the score with a two-out RBI single that brought Griffey to the plate.
Wetteland tried to sneak a fastball in on Griffey’s wrists, but he pulled his hands in and drove the pitch into the upper deck in right field to win the game.
It was the first game-ending home-run of Griffey’s career and, with the Mariners convinced that their superstar was back to full strength, it became the launching point to their memorable late-season surge. They won three of four in that late-August series with the Yankees and went on a run through September that produced their first division championship.
1999: The trade
Griffey produced the best years of his career in 1997 and 1998, hitting 56 home runs each year to win the league homer title, and he won it again in 1999 with 48 home runs.
That season was hardly joyous for Junior. There were increasing questions whether he would re-sign with the Mariners when his contract expired, he had sore legs and seldom took part in batting practice, and he generally was an unhappy guy.
In addition, Griffey didn’t hide his feelings about moving from the homer-friendly Kingdome to Safeco Field, often complaining, “Four-hundred million dollars and no heat!”
While it seemed inconceivable that the Mariners might trade the player who helped turn around the franchise, they were in that very real — and frightening — situation after the 1999 season. Griffey had rejected an eight-year $148 million offer from the Mariners during the season and was in a position to dictate his future because his 10-and-5 rights (10 years in the majors, five with the same team) allowed him to veto any trade. With his family having settled in the Orlando area and Griffey indicating he wanted to be closer to them, the Mariners’ trade partners seemed limited.
On Feb. 9, 2000, they struck a deal for Griffey with the Cincinnati Reds, who traded four players to the Mariners — center fielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Brett Tomko and minor league pitcher Jake Meyer and infielder Antonio Perez.
2009: The return
Griffey had reached a point with the Reds in 2008 much like his situation with the Mariners in 2009. Near the end of his contract with the Reds, they traded him late in the season to the Chicago White Sox for their push to the playoffs.
Griffey went into the offseason of 2008-09 facing the possibility of retirement, especially if no team seemed interested because of his dwindling offensive production and the uncertain state of his injured left knee.
Spring training of ’09 began and Griffey remained unsigned. However, speculation increased that the Mariners were interested even though the organization had made a major transformation with new GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu.
Still, the Mariners saw an opportunity to add veteran leadership that could be important in a clubhouse filled with new players. On Feb. 21, the Mariners signed Griffey to a $2 million one-year contract with $3 million in possible bonuses.
Griffey played through more knee problems and batted only .214 amid concerns that his bat had slowed, but he hit 19 home runs and, along with veteran Mike Sweeney, became a unifying presence on the team.
After the final game, a victory that gave the Mariners an 85-win season to erase the painful memory of their 101-loss season in 2008, teammates carried Griffey off the field.
To many, that final scene in 2009 seemed like the perfect way for Griffey to ride into retirement.
He wanted to come back for another season, however, and believed he could be a more productive hitter after having another operation to remove a bone spur removed from his knee. On Nov. 11, he re-signed for another year at $2.35 million with another $3 million in possible bonuses.
When Griffey arrived at spring training, he showed few signs of improved bat speed and rarely drove a ball deep. Things didn’t change when the season began, and through a month of games his average hovered near .200 and he hadn’t hit a home run.
Then, after a May 8 game when Wakamatsu chose not to use Griffey as a pinch-hitter in a key eighth-inning situation, a story broke that he had been asleep in the clubhouse earlier in that game.
Griffey never denied having napped during the game — he said he was awake and available during the time Wakamatsu might have needed him in the eighth inning — but it left a pall on what was looking like a sad ending to one of the great careers in baseball history.
On Wednesday, June 3, Griffey announced his retirement. It officially started the five-year waiting period on what’s expected to become a first-ballot trip into baseball’s Hall of Fame.