Baseball scouting is not an exact science. Opinions, even those about elite players, vary. Different eyes see different things.
That was never the case with Ken Griffey Jr. — not as a kid who grew up around major league ballparks, nor as a teenager seen as the best five-tool prospect in decades and an overall No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
“His skill set was easy to identify,” said Tom Mooney, who was a Mariners’ scout living in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s. “He really was, at age 16 or 17, a man playing against boys.”
Early on, he was a boy who could play with some of the best.
Growing up the son of Ken Griffey Sr., one of the members of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine — the Reds won six National League West Division titles, four NL pennants and two World Series titles in the 1970s — afforded Griffey Jr. an early look at big-league competition.
Every year, hours before one of their weekend tilts, the Reds would host a father-son game at Riverfront Stadium. As many as 30,000 fans would often attend to watch the children of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose play.
Griffey was the self-proclaimed star of those games starting at age 7.
“Everyone talks about the ‘Big Red Machine’ being the greatest team on earth,” Griffey said. “And I keep telling everybody they are the second best because they couldn’t beat us 9-year-olds.”
By the time Griffey got to high school, his father had been traded to the New York Yankees. Griffey attended Archbishop Moeller, a private, all-male Catholic school in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Historically, it was known more for its five national titles in football than it was for baseball.
Its coach was Mike Cameron, who started at the school in 1967. That year, he had two players taken in the MLB first-year player draft. One of them was Buddy Bell, who had an 18-year major league career and a son, David, who teamed with Griffey in Seattle.
“At the time, I couldn’t tell you if (Bell) had the skills to play 10-15 years in the big leagues,” Cameron said. “By the time Kenny came, I had refined my skills observing and seeing talent.”
Forgoing baseball his first two years of high school, Griffey tried out for the Crusaders in the spring of 1986. Cameron — who has since retired and is now the official scorekeeper for the Reds — remembers that first day well.
“We had stations in our hitting facility,” Cameron said. “I was excited to see Kenny hit off the tee, and see what he could do.”
On Griffey’s first swing, with plenty of teammates watching, he flat-out missed the baseball.
“I knew he felt uneasy,” Cameron said. “He said he had not hit much off a tee, and told me, ‘Griffeys don’t hit off tees.’ And I said, ‘At Moeller, that is what we do.’ ”
Cameron sensed it was a good time to transition Griffey to the live batting cages. While there, he saw that sweet, left-handed swing hammer baseball after baseball.
“There was a big, ‘Wow!’ ” Cameron said. “The other players, they just stopped what they were doing to turn around and look at him.
“He was the real thing.”
It was later that summer when Griffey first attracted the Seattle Mariners’ interest.
Veteran talent evaluator Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners’ director of scouting at the time, watched Griffey play games in a Connie Mack tournament in Texas. Jongewaard, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 76, had also selected Darryl Strawberry No. 1 overall in the 1980 draft while with the New York Mets. .
“We knew Junior was one of the five or six guys we were going to focus on,” said Mooney. “The problem we had back then was that the Mariners were so bad, there was a push to go with a college player because he would get to the big leagues sooner.”
That directive came from former Mariners owner George Argyros, who had grown cranky over seeing a string of high draft picks not pan out. Argyros reportedly preferred pitcher Mike Harkey, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander from Cal State Fullerton. He was the most coveted prospect in college before the 1987 draft.
“Roger stood his ground,” Mooney said. “He knew (Griffey) was the best player in the draft.”
Seattle sent various scouts to Griffey’s games, including Mooney, Bob Harrison, even longtime evaluator Steve Vrablik, who had started his scouting career in 1959.
That year, Vrablik caught two of Griffey’s games, and filed his thoughts in a Mariners’ report in early May. Some of the highlights:
▪ Physical traits: “Tall, rangy, strong body build. Long arms and legs. Solid thighs and buttocks. Not fully matured. Should get stronger.”
▪ Skill-set strengths: “Good bat speed. Quick stroke. Ball jumps off bat. Future outstanding power. Knows strike zone. Above average arm strength (in outfield). Very good fluid and range.”
▪ Skill-set weaknesses: “Tendency to short-arm throws. Doesn’t set himself right. Will uppercut, but he’s a good low-ball hitter. Over swings at times.”
Vrablik’s walkoff comment in his report was the most indicative: “Top prospect for me with outstanding skills.”
Griffey had a stellar senior season, batting a school-record .478 with seven home runs and 26 RBI. Three of those home runs came in one game against Fairmont High School.
He mainly played center field. Occasionally he would pitch.
Griffey was not only named the Greater Catholic League player of the year for a second consecutive season, he was also the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 1987.
Cameron said that spring, scouts showed up to games mostly to “figure out … whether (Griffey) would sign, and for (how) much.”
As the June draft crept closer, Mooney said the organization debated over three players for that top spot — Griffey, Harkey and Mark Merchant, another speedy prep outfielder out of Oviedo High School in Florida.
“(Merchant) was like Junior — a center fielder and gifted,” Mooney said. “But the things that did not come easy for Merchant did for Junior, and that was a separator.”
In the final few weeks, it was Mooney who spent a day at the Griffey household issuing a pre-draft, cognitive 160-question test — similar to the Wonderlic test given to NFL draft prospects.
“I spent two or three hours at the home, and I was struck by how open it was,” Mooney said. “Kids from the neighborhood were coming and going from the home. They had a game room with Ping-Pong.
“It was not a stuffy house. … Everybody felt comfortable there. And as soon as I left, I got on the phone with Roger and said, ‘This is a very special opportunity we have here. I think Kenny has his head on straight.’ ”
When the night of June 2 came, and the Mariners were solid on one choice: Griffey, who reportedly inked a signing bonus between $160,000 and $175,000.
Somewhat reluctantly on-board with the decision, Argyros issued an ultimatum to his scouting department, directed mainly at Jongewaard and Mooney.
“After the draft, George called me and said, ‘(Mooney), you better be right on that,’ ” Mooney said.
Griffey was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 MLB draft. There were 32 players drafted in the first round, which also included the likes of future All-Stars Jack McDowell, Kevin Appier and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio:
Ken Griffey Jr.**
AB Moeller HS
St. Anthony HS
Cal State Fullerton
Chicago White Sox
Henry B. Plant HS
Los Angeles Dodgers
Kansas City Royals
Antelope Valley College
San Diego Padres
Shelby County HS
Seaford Senior HS
St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants
Toronto Blue Jays
North Shore Senior HS
New York Mets
Boston Red Sox
Imperial Valley College
J.M. Tate HS
Ocean View HS
Boston Red Sox
* — All-Star; ** — Hall of Famer