Sunday, July 7, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Griffey And Mays -- A New Legend Catches On: Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. Draws Comparisons With Hall Of Famer Willie Mays For His Defensive Ability -- The Kid And The Say Hey Kid

Ken Griffey Jr., having just had a close encounter with the Kingdome outfield wall, was supine on the trainer's table when the Mariners' hitting coach eased his pain.

"Junior," Gene Clines told him after that May 25th game, "that was the best catch I've ever seen, without a doubt. It was better than any catch, period."

Griffey's left ankle was jammed and his back sore, but he had made his finest catch as a professional. With the Mariners holding a 2-1 lead over Texas in the fifth inning, Griffey moved with the crack of Ruben Sierra's bat. Neither the ball nor Griffey gave up speed as they approached the right-center-field wall at the 375 mark.

Griffey caught the ball and scaled the wall almost in the same instant, jamming his ankle into the wall, then falling and landing hard on his back.

It was a catch that not only required considerable athletic skill, but courage to take on the wall at top speed. If you look closely, you can still see a wrinkle in the padding where Griffey's spikes clawed at it.

Clines' praise is significant. As a former player with the Pirates, Mets, Rangers and Cubs, he has seen some of the best, among them Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.

Clemente "was the best I've ever seen, day in and day out," Clines said. "Willie got that great jump on the ball and was very graceful, making those basket catches.

"But if Junior stays healthy, he'll continue to make those kind of catches, just like them."

Perhaps, after only two and a half seasons in the majors, it's unfair to compare the 21-year-old Griffey to Mays, a Hall of Famer. However, as Griffey heads for his second All-Star appearance Tuesday in Toronto - this time as the American League's top vote-getter - he goes not so much for his bat but because he is recognized as the best defensive outfielder of his generation.

Nearly four decades ago, in a generation vastly different by any standard, a young center fielder from Birmingham, Ala., brought a dimension to baseball no one had ever seen.

In 1954, Willie Mays , then 23, won the batting title (.345), helped the New York Giants capture the World Series and made a renowned basket catch at the Polo Grounds. He played defense as if graced by God.

"I've seen (Tris) Speaker, (Ty) Cobb, all the great outfielders, but I've never seen anyone who was better than Willie Mays," said Al Bridwell, one of the game's early stars who retired in 1915. "Cobb was a better hitter, but Mays - I don't know - there's just something about him."

Say Hey Willie, now 60 and retired for nearly 20 years, still conjures reverent memories for those who grew up with him. He was among the first wave of young black players who entered the game after Jackie Robinson's brave effort to break the game's color line.

Mays won over fans and teammates with his skills. "Willie is the greatest player I ever laid eyes on," said Alvin Dark, his former teammate and manager. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who brought up Robinson, said Mays "is the greatest fielder who ever lived."

Early in the 1954 season with New York, Giants Manager Leo Durocher told the outfielders that Mays had priority on all fly balls in the gaps. Don Mueller, the right fielder beaten out by Mays for the batting title that year by three points, needled Mays on his special status.

"Say, tell me," Mueller said as he passed Mays' locker one day early that season, "Is it true you're the best center fielder in the game?"

Tying his shoe, Mays said without looking up, "best right fielder, too."

Now Mays, the standard by which all outfielders are measured, has another challenge to his legend - young Griffey.

"First it was Andre Dawson, then Tim Raines, then Eric Davis, now Griffey," said Mays, from his home in Atherton, Calif. "I don't get involved in that. Don't put him on a pedestal so quickly.

"I try to stay away from that. Next year, it'll be someone else."

Even Griffey says, "I just want to play. I can't say `wow, Willie Mays did this, I need to do that.' No, I want to be Ken Griffey Jr."

Yet people can see the similarities. Those who saw the greatness in Mays don't demur in raising Griffey to his measure.

"Both are similar in the fact that they go the extra step," said Al Jackson, pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles.

Jackson, who played with the Pirates, Mets and Reds from 1959 to '69, saw plenty of Mays. He also has watched Griffey grow the past three seasons and was at Memorial Stadium April 30 this year when Griffey bounded into the center-field wall, breaking a support post and knocking down a panel section to run down Chris Hoiles' fly ball.

"A lot of guys might go halfway up the wall, but they both go to the top," Jackson continued. "I've seen Griffey and he's outstanding. There's no stopping him. He'll tackle anything.

"There's no holding either of them back. They are people with their thought process so quick. They don't think three seconds before, it's split seconds."

Jim Kaat, who pitched for several teams in the 1960s and '70s and now a ESPN broadcaster, said although the Mays and Griffey styles differ, the results have been the same.

"Griffey seems to have that relaxed style, as if always in control," Kaat said. "He kind of lopes to the ball, but all the time he's got it measured and makes it look easy.

"Mays had a more excited style, almost like a kid, with that wide gait racing to the ball, his hat flying off. He seemed to put more effort into it. But they both can catch up with the ball."

When great catches are mentioned, one of the first ones is Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series against Cleveland. Early kinescope film captured Mays' reckless style as he raced into the center-field abyss at the Polo Grounds, his back to home plate, to bring down a shot by Vic Wertz.

Mays then spun around with a stunning throw back to the infield that kept Larry Doby from scoring from second base. The Giants went on to a four-game sweep against the Indians, who had set a league record with 111 regular-season victories.

That one catch built a reputation and even generated a book. Arnold Hano, sitting in the center-field stands that afternoon, would later write about it in "A Day in the Bleachers."

"It was a long, low liner," Hano wrote, "then I looked at Willie and alarm raced through me, peril flaring against my heart. To my utter astonishment, Mays was turned full around, head down, running as hard as he could, straight forward toward the runway between the two bleacher sections."

Hano said Mays, without looking, appeared to slow down, "then he thought better of it and continued the swift race with the ball that hovered quite close to him now, 30 feet high and coming down. He simply slowed down to avoid running into the wall, put his hands up in a cuplike fashion over his left shoulder, and caught the ball much like a football player catching a leading pass in the end zone."

Griffey, who admits "I never did like history, even in school," has seen that play, known as The Catch. It's the only Mays catch he has seen.

"I've seen that one over-the-shoulder catch," Griffey said. "I've never done that, not over my opposite shoulder."

But basket catches such as those "are not that hard," he said. It's natural because that's the way he learned to catch them. "The hardest ones are the sinking line drives."

Griffey has made over-shoulder catches a half-dozen times. He did it against Milwaukee last year, May 29, on Chris Spiers' blast at the Kingdome. Comparing that catch and Mays' catch on film, side by side, both Griffey and Mays have nearly identical body position and technique.

But Mays' catch needs to be put in the perspective of time and place - World Series, national audience, national impact.

Both players could suggest a dozen others that were as good or more difficult, but in the 1964 film documentary "A Man Called Mays," Mays says his "was a money play, and people always remember it because in was in the World Series with thousands watching it.

"Every day game you probably make better plays, but not too many people realize it."

Kaat supports the argument that great catches must be put in context. He says the finest catch he ever saw was by teammate Bob Allison when Kaat was on the mound in the 1965 World Series. In Game 2, Allison made a diving catch in the left-field corner that saved at least two runs as the Twins eventually won the game. The Dodgers, however, won the Series in seven.

The batter that day was a rookie second baseman, Jim Lefebvre.

"It was right down the right-field line and Allison comes out of nowhere to make this spectacular catch, saving two runs," said Lefebvre, now the Mariner manager. "Junior is the same way. Many of his catches have come at critical times.

"Junior has a great sense where he is and a great sense of timing. He gets a great jump on the ball and has tremendous speed. There'll be a ball in the gap and you think he doesn't have a chance, then all of a sudden he's climbing up the wall or over it.

"He has no fear once he's locked in on the ball."

As Griffey matures as a ballplayer, fans may see fewer spectacular catches, for a couple of reasons.

"The older he gets, the better he'll know the hitters," Jackson said. "He can position himself better, he'll know where the ball will be. It'll make him an even better outfielder."

Griffey agrees, but for a more personal reason. "Yeah, your body gets older, and you get smarter . . . you don't see me running into as many walls this year.

"Those walls are hard. Every time I get hurt I think, `Darn, that was stupid.' "

Mays, who said he hasn't seen Griffey play a lot, said: "I wish him all the luck in the world, but let him play and enjoy himself. The kid's just trying to play. Let him play a little longer and see what happens."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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