Young Cry For Help -- At 17, Griffey Jr. Attempted Suicide; Now He Warns Others
TEMPE, Ariz. - Contrary to what people might imagine, not everything was easy for Ken Griffey Jr. growing up. The eldest son in a well-known, well-to-do family, talented enough to be picked first in baseball's amateur draft, he still had the same problems experienced by other teenagers.
"It seemed like my father and I were always fighting," Griffey said. "I know a lot of kids go through that with their families, but it was hard for me. You see, I'm real stubborn."
The problems increased when he became a professional athlete while still a teenager, away from home for the first time. Missed curfews. A conflict that involved one kid hurling a racial slur at him and another kid, he said, looking for him with a gun.
He has since become perhaps the brightest, most exciting player in baseball. But at age 17, all he felt was hurt and confusion.
"It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there," Griffey recalled. "I got depressed. I got angry. I didn't want to live."
So he took a step that too many take. He tried to take his life.
In January 1988, Junior swallowed 277 aspirin, by his own count, and wound up in intensive care in Providence Hospital in Mount Airy, Ohio.
He thought about killing himself a couple of times, he said, "with my father's gun or something."
"The aspirin thing was the only time I acted," he said. "It was such a dumb thing."
The story emerged during a recent wide-ranging interview, in which Griffey spoke about some of the ups and downs of his teenage years. He agreed to make it public in the hope it might dissuade someone else from seeing suicide as a solution.
"Don't ever try to commit suicide," Griffey said he wants to tell kids. "I am living proof how stupid it is."
Griffey came home in the fall of 1987 after his first year in pro ball. He had spent the season at Bellingham and then gone to the instructional league in Arizona.
"He had no supervision," said Ken Griffey Sr., who retired last year after a respected 17-year major-league career and now is a special-assignment scout and instructor in the Seattle organization. "I had people tell me what he was going through, keeping late hours and all, very late hours."
In Bellingham, he had a serious conflict with the teenage sons of the team bus driver. One of them allegedly called him a "nigger" and another allegedly was looking for Kenny with a gun. "I was really upset, mad," Griffey said. "Growing up back home I never had to deal with anything like that."
When Junior came home, he kept staying out very late.
"I understood and all, but at 17 years old you can't be out until 3 or 4 in the morning," Senior said. "I was able to sleep. But my wife was staying up worrying. So I tried to talk with him. My idea was that if he was living with us, he should be more thoughtful. I said he should be home by 1 o'clock, which I think is plenty enough for a 17 year old."
"Dad wanted me to pay rent or get my own place," the son said. "I was confused. I was hurting and I wanted to cause some hurt for others."
So Griffey emptied a large bottle of aspirin and swallowed them, despite efforts of a girlfriend and her brother to stop him.
According to Dr. Larry Pedegana, one of the Mariners' doctors, what Junior did could have killed him, in a slow and painful way. "Ingesting a lot of aspirin will cause metabolic acidosis, which can be fatal," he said. "It causes tremendous problems."
Junior said he got in his car and threw up ("What I brought up was blue"). The girlfriend's mother drove him to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped and he was placed in intensive care.
Senior said that when he found out, he "was scared. I was angry, too."
He rushed to the hospital, where he and his son had another argument. "I ripped the IV out of my arm," Griffey, Jr. said. "That stopped him yelling."
"I was mad, but what could I do?" Senior said. "It made me realize kids have their own set of problems and pressures. They forget that parents were kids, too, not always Mom or Dad. But we forget life has changed a lot. It can be tougher in a lot of ways."
Griffey's mother, Birdie, stayed out of it. "She knew the problem was between my father and me," Junior said. "And our relationship changed. Maybe it was a case of me growing up. I did need to do that."
Later, Griffey and his parents decided he should get a condominium.
"Birdie didn't like that much, but it was best, so she helped him get it," Senior said. "Then he started coming over all the time. I said to him, `What are you doing here after I threw your butt out?' He said, `I just came over to talk to you.'
"And we did talk. Oh, we'd still argue. But there was more understanding on both parts. I think we realized we didn't know everything there was to know about life."
Apparently, the father-son talks were enough. Griffey said he never spoke to any doctors after the incident. "The problem was with me and my father," he said. "I'm smarter than most people think I am, although what I did was not smart. I knew what I had done and got over it. There weren't any deep problems with me afterwards."
Just over a year later, Junior not only made the Mariner team, but began making the organization credible. In the three years since, he has made himself a role model for kids while turning center field into a wonderland, a Gold Glove playhouse.
"I play to have fun, and I love to see kids have fun," he said. "I love kids. When I get married I want a lot of them. I just like to see them laughing and happy, just as I always want to be."
Life in such high profile is not always thus, of course. Griffey has his down times, and then he seeks privacy.
"Junior deals with it all well, overall," his father said. "Sometimes all the attention gets to him. It would get to anyone. But sometimes the only privacy he gets is out in center field."
"I try, really, to talk with kids, to sign (autographs) for them," Junior said. "I can say no to adults easy, and have, but not to kids. It tears me up to see one put his head down disappointed."
For all his talent and accomplishments, though, something was lacking until the middle of last season. He had made the All-Star team for the second consecutive season, leading American League players in votes, but he had not achieved the true greatness expected of him.
A talk with his father, he said, turned him around. He had been hitting .280 with nine homers and 36 runs batted in; the rest of the season he hit .372 with 13 homers and 64 RBI.
"It all came down to patience," Senior said. "He sometimes expects it all to come easy. Even Junior has to work. He was talking `I . . . me . . . me.' I told him to stop that and think of the team. Do the little things to help them and you'll see changes go on all around you. He did and he saw what happened."
At times, he has been accused of being spoiled. Son of a star player, he has become a star player. He has a young person's penchant for collecting. Now it is automobiles. He has two Mercedes, two trucks, loads of audio equipment.
"When people have said he is spoiled, it may be so in terms of material things," Senior said. "I wanted the boys to have the things I never had. But while Kenny was growing up, if he screwed up, he didn't get any access to those things. So I don't think he ever really was spoiled. Neither boy. They've always been good boys and they still are."
This spring, Ken Jr. has been a joy to his team, fun and funny, boisterous but not obnoxious. A kid, but a young man confident, knowing what he has done and that he can do it again - for many years.
"Some things change," he said. "But I'll always be The Kid."
But even now, burdened by the terminal liver cancer of his grandmother, Katherine Crump, he has lost his patient approach.
"We talked this week," his father said. "We talked about his grandmom. They were really close and it is tearing him up.
"But baseball makes demands on you that compete with personal problems. And here in camp, Junior wants to be ready in one day, yesterday. He has to realize you have four weeks of camp to get sharp. Patience, patience. Hard work and patience. And believe me, he works. He may not look it, but he works."
The talks with his father, so much easier since the Mariners signed Senior in August 1990 to make them the first father-son teammates in major-league history, have become part of their life's rhythm. And now the connections are constructive where once they were conflicting.
"The biggest change is that I learned my dad wasn't just trying to boss me around," Griffey said. "He was trying to help me. I listen to him a lot more than I used to. It may not look it, but I do."
Senior said he learned to let Junior talk out his problems. "Even to this day in baseball, he talks fast and can be silly. But I realize now that's just him blowing off steam. I let him do it and then we talk seriously. Most of all, we talk of patience."
Junior said the biggest change in him as a player is patience.
"I don't know if I'll ever have it completely, that's why I need to talk to him all the time," he said. "He's my best friend . . . along with Mom and my brother, of course."
Looking back on the time he tried to kill himself, Junior says, "It scared all of us. It scared me for sure, but I didn't take the time to think.
"Kids shouldn't act impulsively. 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?"
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.