Ken Griffey Jr. was less than a month removed from his high school graduation and five months short of being old enough to vote when the Seattle Mariners selected him the with the No. 1 overall choice in the draft and assigned him to the short-season Class A Northwest League affiliate in Bellingham.
No wonder the talented 6-foot-3, 190-pounder earned the nickname “The Kid.”
“While he was in Bellingham, he loved playing baseball,” said Jeff Bearden, who served as the Bellingham Mariners’ clubhouse manager in 1987. “But he was just a kid. Sometimes he was more interested in going to the Lynden Fair and riding the rides than he was in going to BP (batting practice) that day.”
Bearden, who was a freshman in high school in 1987, said he met Griffey on his first or second day in Bellingham, and the two of them immediately “hit it off” because of their mutual love of baseball and because Bearden was closer to Griffey’s age than most of his teammates.
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Griffey was the youngest player on the Baby M’s roster in 1987 and the third-youngest player in the Northwest League that season.
“We used to talk about everyday things,” Bearden said. “Everyone else just wanted his attention and autographs. He was just a 17-year-old kid that wanted to play baseball, and he couldn’t understand why people wanted his autograph or equipment.”
Like most 17-year olds, Griffey was just maturing, but unlike others, he wasn’t just working some summer gig to make a little bit of money – he was beginning his career. He was facing players three, four, five or even more years older than him.
And he had the expectations of the Seattle Mariners firmly on his shoulders after the investment they’d made to acquire him.
“I think the organization directed (Bellingham manager Rick Sweet) not to mess with me too much,” Griffey said in a phone press conference. “They just wanted him to let me play. I was a young kid, and they wanted to see what I could do. If you’re a 21-, 22-, 23-year old in A-ball, then maybe they’ll give you a whole lot more advice. But at 17, they wanted to see how I could handle a bat and see how I played.”
And he definitely showed he could play.
In 54 games with the Baby M’s, Griffey hit .313 (57 for 182) with nine doubles, 14 homers and 40 RBI and stole 13 bases.
But there’s more to the game than just hitting, catching and throwing a 3-inch ball covered in white cowhide and red stitching.
“Rick taught me a lot of the little things,” Griffey said. “Not so much about playing the game, but things like, ‘This is how you come to the ballpark,’ or, ‘On the road, this is how you act and how you tip.’ He taught me all the little things you had to learn that you just don’t know when you’re 17.”
But Griffey came to Bellingham already knowing quite a bit about what it took to be successful in the sport he loved.
If you work hard, you get rewarded. My father has always told me there are more second, third and higher up draft choices in the Hall of Fame than guys drafted in the first round.
Ken Griffey Jr.
He said he learned a valuable lesson about the reward of hard work at a young age from his parents and grandparents.
“My father always said, ‘Hey you’re not me, and I’m not you,’” Griffey said. “I remember we had a talent show in third or fourth grade, and I imitated all the (Cincinnati) Reds in their stances, and a couple of friends and I sang, ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ We got out in the parking lot and my dad reminded me that I wasn’t him. I learned at a young age to just be myself. Now I tell my kids that Michael Jordan’s name has already been taken. Work hard and make your own name.”
One of the best ways Griffey found to do that was through giving everthing he had and being a good teammate.
Sweet remembers Griffey’s father flying up to watch the Baby M’s play a game in Salem in 1987 and asking to take the team out to dinner after the game.
“When Senior left, he gave Junior a box of bats and a couple boxes of batting gloves and some fielding gloves,” Sweet said. “Next day I got there and Junior had given everything to the other guys on the club. A week later I was talking to Senior and he said Junior had asked him for some bats and he asked, ‘What’s up? Is he breaking a bunch of bats?’ I just laughed and told him, ‘You know what happened.’
“That was just Ken. He didn’t act like he was better than anyone else. He played hard every game and he played with a smile, because he loved to play.”
And those lucky enough to build a friendship with Griffey saw him exactly the same way off the field.
Bearden said he still occasionally speaks to Griffey and is friendly with the entire family. When Griffey’s younger brother, Craig Griffey, was assigned to Bellingham in 1992, he told younger brother to look Bearden up, and the two of them became roommates and were “thick as thieves,” Bearden said.
“You know, it’s surreal for me to see Ken going into the Hall of Fame,” Bearden said. “To men’s he’s just Kenny. What he means to the game of baseball and to every Mariners fan is huge. I’m so happy for him. He deserves it, and he worked his butt off to get there.”
Starting ’em young
The youngest players in the Northwest League during the 1987 season:
July 2, 1970
Dec. 24, 1969
Ken Griffey Jr.*
Nov. 21, 1969
Oct. 12, 1969
Dec. 21, 1968
*Made it to major leagues during career