Funny as it may seem, less than a week before he enters the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr.’s assignment to Bellingham to begin his professional career in 1987 wasn’t a very big story in town. In fact, it might not have even been the largest story surrounding the Bellingham Mariners that year.
Nearly four years before the 17-year-old reached the legal drinking age, Griffey’s professional debut was overshadowed by the opening of the beer taps at Joe Martin Field for Baby M’s home games.
“I was surprised when I got here that they didn’t allow the sale of beer in the ballpark,” said Bob Lagana, the team’s general manager from 1987-89. “I think we were the only team in the country – or at least one of the few – that didn’t sell beer.”
Lagana said he listed the issue as one of his top priorities during the news conference announcing his hiring before the 1987 season.
Getting it done wasn’t as easy.
Lagana said he and the team’s owners had to take their proposal before the parks department and the City Council, which held a public hearing on the matter before the Baby M’s could even apply for a liquor license. The field is owned by the city of Bellingham and operated by the parks department.
“There was a good month of stuff on the radio talk shows, and The (Bellingham) Herald had a lot of coverage and ran a full page of letters to the editor about it the day before the hearing,” Lagana said. “The public hearing, it was really packed – it was full top and bottom, and it was about 50-50 from the people who spoke. I got a little bit worried, but they (the council) passed it 5-2.”
Now that beer was part of the game in Bellingham, would there also be a buzz surrounding the first overall draft pick and one of the most highly prized prospects in years coming to town?
Let’s just say that Bellingham lived up to its reputation as the City of Subdued Excitement.
“If you asked today, you could probably find more than 8,000 people in town that said they watched every game and never missed an at-bat Griffey took here in Bellingham,” said Jeff Bearden, the team’s clubhouse manager in 1987. “But back then, the Baby M’s probably only drew about 300 or 400 people per game. I think there was probably more excitement the first couple of games we played in Everett than there was for our season opener in Bellingham.”
In 1987, the Baby M’s drew 22,183 fans for their 38 home dates – 7,267 more than the team drew in 1986, but still nearly 2,000 behind the next lowest Northwest League team in 1987.
Not that Griffey went unnoticed.
Seattle-area media invaded Joe Martin Field, especially during early season practices while the excitement over Griffey’s selection in the draft was fresh. Lagana said he remembers seeing TV trucks from all the major Seattle stations in the parking lot when he showed up at the ballpark for work, and a number of newspapers throughout the region sought access to the phenom.
“I remember there was a lot of hype and pressure surrounding him,” said Rick Sweet, who managed the Bellingham Mariners in 1987. “One thing the (Seattle) Mariners asked is every interview he did, I had to be there with him. You can’t always trust the press with a 17-year-old leading him and getting him to say something he shouldn’t say. But I remember he handled it all pretty well.”
On the field, neither Sweet, Griffey nor any of the other five players on the Baby M’s roster who ended up advancing to the major leagues ended up having the impact you’d expect. Bellingham finished 30-46 – last in the Northwest League – one year after it won the league title.
A year later, Griffey took his next step toward the Hall of Fame, moving up to Class-A San Bernardino. And at least the beer continued to flow at Joe Martin Field.
From the Baby M’s to the majors
Ken Griffey Jr. was one of six players who played for the Bellingham Mariners in 1987 who reached the major leagues:
Major league teams (years)
Mariners (1990-91), Giants (1992-95, 2004), Reds (1995-97), Indians (1998-2002), Rangers (2002), Brewers (2002-04)
Mets (1990-91), Cardinals (1992), Marlins (1993-95), Brewers (1996-97), Astros (1997)
Mariners (1990), Red Sox (1991-92), Expos (1993), Tigers (1993-95)
Ken Griffey Jr.
Mariners (1989-99, 2009-10), Reds (2000-08), White Sox (2008)
Expos (1992), Cubs (1994-96), Mets (1998)