From the outside, Ken Griffey Jr. appeared to have everything he needed to be a can’t-miss prospect when the Seattle Mariners assigned him to their short-season Class A affiliate in Bellingham in 1987:
▪ A father with 22 years of major league experience who allowed him to grow up around the clubhouse of one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled – the 1970s Big Red Machine in Cincinnati.
▪ An arsenal of natural abilities most Hall of Famers would covet, which is why the Seattle Mariners made him their first overall selection in the 1987 draft.
▪ $160,000 from the Mariners just to sign his name on his first professional contract.
He was homesick a lot. When he was 17 years old and playing with 21- and 22-year-olds, they were going out to a bar while he was going home alone.
Jeff Bearden, clubhouse manager for Bellingham Mariners in 1987
But as it turned out, the road to Cooperstown, N.Y., was not paved in gold for the 17-year-old. Despite all of his talents, Griffey was just a teenager living 2,400 miles away from home, and like most other minor league players at the time, making just $700 a month and trying to live on an $11-per-day meal stipend.
“He was homesick a lot,” said Jeff Bearden, the Bellingham Mariners’ clubhouse manager as a freshman in high school in 1987. “When he was 17 years old and playing with 21- and 22-year-olds, they were going out to a bar while he was going home alone. This was before cellphones and video chatting, and Bellingham wasn’t as big as it is now back then. There were only about 45,000 people here then, and good luck finding something to do at night when you were only 17.”
While Bearden quickly befriended Griffey because of their closeness in age and mutual love of the baseball, Griffey found not everyone in the town was so friendly.
According to Bob Finnigan’s 1992 article in The Seattle Times, Griffey had a midseason conflict with the teenage sons of Bellingham’s team bus driver. According to Finnigan’s story, one of them called Griffey a racial slur, and the other went looking for him with a gun.
“I was really upset, mad,” Griffey was quoted in the story. “Growing up back home, I never had to deal with anything like that.”
Bob Lagana, the Bellingham Mariners general manager from 1987-89, would not go into detail about the incident, but said, “It was handled quickly and internally by management and resolved, and there was no issue after that. ... I don’t think they (the Seattle Mariners) would have allowed him to continue playing here if there had been anything else.”
Though that incident was not the cause of it, it likely added to a state of depression Griffey said he felt after wrapping up play in Bellingham.
He started to miss curfews and continued to stay out late when he returned home. He said he felt hurt and confused, according to Finnigan’s story, and disagreements with his major league father certainly added to those feelings.
“It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there,” Griffey told Finnigan “I got depressed. I got angry. I didn’t want to live.”
In January 1988, Griffey acted on that feeling, swallowing 277 aspirin pills, according to the story, and wound up in an Ohio hospital where his stomach was pumped and he was placed in intensive care.
Although Griffey told Finnigan he thought about committing suicide a number of times, the early 1988 incident was the only time he tried.
“It was such a dumb thing,” he said.
Griffey said he spoke about the incident in the early ’90s to dissuade others from following in his footsteps.
“Kids shouldn’t act impulsively,” Griffey said. “Talk to people. Go another way. Don’t kill yourself. It ain’t worth it, and I’m a great example. No matter how bad it seems at the time, work your way through it. Who knows how your life is going to turn out?”
For Griffey, it turned out that he had a Hall of Fame career awaiting him.