Former Bellingham Mariners manager Rick Sweet admits he wasn’t so sure about what he wrote on his 1987 end-of-season report about Ken Griffey Jr. to the parent club’s player development staff in Seattle.
While an 11-year playing career told him his eyes weren’t lying about Griffey’s ability, Sweet didn’t know if it was right to trust his gut. After all, he was just a rookie manager, himself. Was including the four words “future Hall of Famer” in his report going too far in describing a 17-year-old kid? The Seattle Mariners and most of the Pacific Northwest already had great expectations for this youngster after they invested the first overall selection in the draft to obtain him just three months earlier.
“I remember talking to some of the other coaches and scouts that had watched him that year,” said Sweet, now in his 27th season as a minor league manager with the Milwaukee Brewers’ Class AAA affiliate in Colorado Springs, Colo.. “I asked them what they thought about me writing that he could be a future Hall of Famer – for me to say he could be that good – and they all said, ‘You’ve got it right on.’”
Nearly three decades later, Sweet’s words now ring downright prophetic.
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On Sunday, July 24, Griffey will officially remove “future” from that evaluation when he’s enshrined, along with Mike Piazza, into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While anyone who watched the man known as “The Kid” during his 22-year major league career probably had little doubt that he would some day end up in Cooperstown, N.Y., Sweet called his shot two years before Griffey ever appeared on a major league lineup card – back when he really was just a kid.
After selecting Griffey out of Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, the Mariners brought him in for a well-publicized Kingdome workout before assigning him to Bellingham, then their Class A short-season affiliate in the Northwest League. At the time, Seattle did not have a rookie-level affiliate.
“I was actually in the room when they drafted Ken,” Sweet said. “It was funny, I didn’t feel any extra pressure with him being the first overall pick. ... Maybe I should have felt more pressure. But now, I look back on it now and I think, ‘Man, was I hard on those guys.’”
That may have been exactly what a player like Griffey needed.
The perfect prospect
Griffey grew up around the game – his father Ken was a member of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the 1970s and often brought him to the ballpark, allowing him to watch and learn from some of baseball’s greats, such as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Pérez.
“He had the mental aspects because he’d been around the game his entire life,” Sweet said. “Being in the Reds clubhouse with all those great players, he had an understanding of the game that it takes most guys a lot of time to learn.”
Adding that knowledge to his natural gifts truly made Griffey special.
“You could see it in his appearance,” said Bob Lagana, who served as Bellingham Mariners general manager from 1987-89. “He had a great physical presence – you saw that right away in workouts.”
Mariners scout Steve Vrablik graded Griffey as a five-tool player – the equivalent of a 4.0 grade-point average for a baseball player. In his pre-draft report on the 17-year old, Vrablik included among the player’s strengths, “Hitting ability, good bat speed. Quick stroke ball jump off bat. Future outstanding power. Knows strike zone. Above average arm strength. Very good fielding and range. Running ability above average.”
Basically, all the athletic abilities that would lay the foundation for Griffey to become one of the greatest to play the game.
“You could tell he was going to be good – real good,” said Jeff Bearden, who served as clubhouse manager for Bellingham in 1987 and later did some scouting for Seattle. “He had a swing, when you’d watch him in BP (batting practice), his swing was just so natural. It never looked like he was trying to work on anything. ... He’d just go in and hit.”
The legend begins
Two games into his career with Bellingham, Griffey belted his first professional home run at Everett, going opposite field 387 feet off Gil Heredia, who also made it to the major leagues. Outside the left-field fence of Everett Memorial Stadium, a bronze plaque is embedded in the sidewalk near where that ball landed at the corner of 38th Street and Lombard Avenue.
Bearden said he remembers Griffey, who finished the season second in the Northwest League with 14 homers in 228 plate appearances, hitting a home run at Joe Martin Field that cleared the right-field fence and hit the roof of an apartment building across the street.
“I’d never seen a ball hit that far,” said Bearden, himself a teenager at the time. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. To come from a kid that was only a couple years older than me, wow! I still can’t even hit a driver that far.”
But there’s more to becoming a successful baseball player than tearing the cover off the ball. And that’s where Sweet and his coaching staff came in.
Sweet said he later heard from Griffey’s father that once he heard who would be managing his son in Bellingham, he told Griffey Jr.,“Boy, you better toe the line.”
Sweet made sure he did, deciding not to start the young phenom when he needed to get his point across.
“Rick was always fair, and he didn’t get in anyone’s way,” Griffey said in a telephone press conference. “He was a manager who knew his position and what he wanted and how he wanted the team run. Having a former major league player also helps you understand what it takes. It teaches you how to be in the clubhouse and what it takes to get to the big leagues and what to expect.”
Molding “The Kid”
Sweet said he remembers one teaching moment before a game in Eugene, Ore. Griffey wasn’t out stretching and running sprints down the line with his teammates 20 minutes before a game – as was Sweet’s rule. Instead, he was talking to a couple of girls near the dugout.
“It got to be about five minutes before the game, and he was still talking, 10 feet away from me, so I just scratched his name out and put someone else in,” Sweet said. “I went out to give the lineup to the umpire, and when I came back, Ken came to me with tears in his eyes saying, ‘What do you mean I’m not starting?’ I told him, ‘You’re supposed to be out there with your teammates 20 minutes before the game.’
“I ended up feeling pretty bad about it when I realized that when I scratched him out, I forgot to put him down as a reserve. So his name wasn’t even on the lineup card, and I couldn’t have even used him as a pinch hitter.”
But Sweet got his point across.
In 2005, Sweet joined Cincinnati as their Class AAA minor league manager. He ran into Griffey, who was then playing for the Reds, and overheard Griffey telling the story.
“I never told anyone until after I heard him telling the story,” Sweet said. “The funny thing is, he still remembered the girls’ names. He tells everyone I fined him $100, which I don’t remember, and he says I still owe him $100.”
After playing 52 games for Bellingham in 1987, Griffey advanced to high Class A San Bernardino for the start of the 1988 season before moving up to Class AA Vermont for the final 17 games. In 1989, he made his major league debut with the the Mariners to start the season, and it wasn’t long after that until Griffey became a Northwest icon – arguably the largest sports legend the region has ever produced.
But that road to Cooperstown all got started 100 miles north of Seattle, in Bellingham.
“What I’ll remember most about him is how much he loved playing the game,” Sweet said. “I never saw The Kid looking upset or saying ‘I’m tired,’ or, ‘That bus trip was horrible.’ He always wanted to play. The only time I didn’t see him have a smile was when I didn’t play him. ...
“He’s a special, special player, and a tremendous ambassador for the game. You still see kids wearing their hats backward because of him. He was not only a solid baseball player, but a good guy for the game of baseball.”
Video courtesy of KXLY 4 News in Spokane.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s statistics during his 54 games playing for the Bellingham Mariners in 1987, with how he ranked among the Northwest League leaders that year in parenthesis:
43 (18th tie)
9 (33rd tie)
1 (32nd tie)
13 (15th tie)