M’s almost passed on Junior

Kirby Arnold covers the Mariners for The Herald. His new book – “Tales from the Seattle Mariners Dugout,” chronicling the stars, characters, funny moments and big games throughout the team’s 30-year history – is available wherever books are sold. Today is the second of three excerpts from the book The Herald will publish. Next Sunday’s excerpt will be about Lou Piniella.

The Mariners had the first pick in the 1987 draft, and it seemed obvious to everyone in baseball who they would take.

A skinny high school kid in Cincinnati had amazed every scout who’d watched him show off his powerful swing, his cat-like ability to play center field, and his unbridled joy for the game.

There wasn’t much doubt that Ken Griffey Jr., the son of Reds great Ken Griffey, would be a star.

“The first time I saw him was at a tournament in Texas when he was only about 15 years old, and he was the best player,” said Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners’ scouting director in 1985. “He was the youngest player on the field, but he was the best player. He was special.”

Team owner George Argyros, however, wasn’t so certain that Griffey was a wise choice. Argyros felt the Mariners had been burned the previous year when they used their first-round pick on highly regarded high school shortstop Patrick Lennon, who had off-field issues and never developed into the star they thought he would become.

“George, we can’t afford not to take this guy,” Jongewaard told him.

“OK, but it will be your ass if he doesn’t do well,” Argyros told Jongewaard.

Jongewaard had heard the “this will be your ass” speech from Argyros before, and he wasn’t deterred. Then Argyros gave one more ultimatum: “You can take him, but you’ve got to have him signed. He’s got to agree to our deal prior to the draft.”

Jongewaard wasn’t sure he could overcome this hurdle.

Jongewaard sent one of the Mariners’ top scouts, Bob Harrison, to Cincinnati to meet with the Griffey family and get Junior’s name on a contract. Jongewaard was on the phone constantly with Harrison.

“When we opened the negotiations, Junior wanted a new Porsche and all these things,” Jongewaard said. “We couldn’t do any of the things he asked for.”

The Mariners showed the Griffeys what the Pirates gave Jeff King, the No. 1 pick in 1986, and pointed out that their offer was an increase over that money. What Griffey had to decide, the Mariners told him, was how badly he wanted to be the first player selected in the draft.

Ken Griffey Sr. turned to his son and asked, “Junior, do you want to be No. 1?”

Junior’s response: “Oh yeah.”

“I thought we had a chance then,” Jongewaard said.

On the day before the draft, the Griffeys agreed verbally to the Mariners’ $160,000 offer, but they told Harrison that they wanted to wait until the next morning to sign.

“But Bob,” Jongewaard said. “By then they will change their minds 10 times and everyone they’ve talked with will tell them to get more money.”

“No, Roger,” Harrison said. “They gave me their word.”

Harrison got only a couple hours of sleep before he met the Griffeys the next morning, when they indeed kept their word and Junior signed the contract.

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