Ten Years Ago: Drafting Ken Griffey Jr. -- Sign Of The Times
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
Some professional sports signings are overdone, all whoops and hollers and Hallelujah Chorus, flash bulbs and folderol as if heads of state were putting their names to a nuclear test-ban agreement.
The ceremony of signing Ken Griffey Jr., generally looked upon as one of the most significant in recent decades in any sport, wasn't quite like that. It had its complications, too.
The sweet rolls and butter and jam had to be put aside. And the coffee, of course. Don't want anything spilled on a document that could be the Magna Carta of Mariner baseball.
The kitchen table at the Griffey house in Cincinnati had to be cleared for the occasion, 10 years ago this week.
"Some things you never forget," said Bob Harrison, a senior scout who signed for the Seattle Mariners that morning. "I'll never forget that contract signing. It was simple, honorable, like the Griffey family. Good people. Good sign. Great player."
Before the contract that was to put a Polaris in the Seattle firmanent, Tom Mooney, the Mariners' Ohio area scout, had reported Griffey as a can't-miss prospect, adding that Griffey was a man among boys in the Greater Cincinnati prep leagues. And not just because of the pedigree. Senior, a good man, was a good player. Junior looked as if he might be better.
As a senior scout, Harrison crosschecks the work of area scouts. Following the strong recommendations of Mooney, who now works for the Houston Astros, Harrison saw Griffey play twice for Moeller High School in May 1987.
With the first pick in the draft, Seattle didn't want to go wrong. There was a hulking right-handed pitcher at Cal State Fullerton named Mike Harkey, who was also very high in the pro scouts' evaluations.
"In fact, both Griffey and Harkey graded out to a 70" out of a possible score of 80, Harrison said. "We all knew in the organization that George Argyros, our owner, loved to take college players, and if we had both Griffey the prep guy and Harkey the college guy at the same total, Argyros would insist we take Harkey."
So Harrison figured out a way to get around Argyros. "I just added two points to Griffey's totals to break the tie and make Griffey our first pick," he said. "As I remember, I added a point in both hitting and hitting for power."
The overall hitting number was hardly a gamble. Griffey hit .487 in his junior year and again as a senior. The power may have been a stretch. "I used to go the other way, spray the ball around," Griffey said. "Remember when I was in the minors and when I was a rookie, my homer totals weren't so high."
Griffey filled out, although he still is not a classic power hitter. "I'm not that strong," he said. "I think Joey (Cora) benches more than me. I'd be lucky to get 200 pounds. My power comes from bat speed, hands, weight shift, all that technique stuff. I don't try for home runs. They just happen."
Yet Harrison wrote on his report that Griffey's bat would get him to the majors, "with the power that could hit 30 HR in a season someday . . . has all the tools to be a superstar."
"And I turned out to be right," said Harrison, now a senior scout for the Anaheim Angels. "I just remember George Argyros saying, `OK, but you guys better be right.' "
Much of what separated Griffey from the others couldn't translate to the raw data of statistics, judgment or projection. Griffey was a strong kid with an easy personality who loved the game and had fun playing it.
"I remember seeing him play, seeing him laughing a lot," Harrison said. "But I watched him take batting practice, too. You know how these days you often see guys around the batting cage break up over something Kenny has said? It was the same back then."
The scouts saw opposing outfields play Griffey with a prevent defense on fields that had no fences. They saw him hit balls over those distant defenders.
They met him and laughed with him. Harrison recalled asking Griffey about his hitting and laughing at his response. "Are you questioning the `Griffey Swing?' " Junior joked.
That is why Harrison was not troubled to add points to Griffey's evaluation. It was not stacking the deck in the player's favor. He was doing his duty to his team.
"I knew we had to have this kid," Harrison said. "He was the best I had ever seen, and still is. And I've seen a lot."
All that was left was to get the player to put his "George Kenneth Griffey Jr." on a contract.
Three days before the early June draft, Mooney set up a suite at the Clarion Hotel in Cincinnati. Mooney had done a good job putting the Griffeys at ease, as well as their agent, Brian Goldberg.
"Birdie, the mom, liked Tom," Harrison said. "That's invaluable. You have to have trust. But Tom wasn't experienced back then negotiating a deal. That's why I had to go back in."
They sat at the hotel, waiting for Ken Griffey Sr. to fly in from Atlanta, where he had played a game with the Braves. He had an off day ahead, in case negotiations became drawn out.
"Senior got there and we sat down," Harrison said. "We talked for a couple of hours and weren't done, but weren't far apart. Dad did all the negotiating for them."
Seattle was offering $150,000. The Griffeys were looking for a bit more money and some travel expenses so Birdie could come to the West Coast and watch her son. Also, they wanted Junior invited to spring training the next year so Seattle's major-league manager and coaches could get a look at him.
Harrison countered with the idea that Griffey spend a week in Seattle working out with the big-league club before going on to Bellingham to start his pro career.
Finally, Griffey Sr. suggested the family head home to discuss it in private and get some rest.
"Tom was nervous," Harrison said. "But I told him, `We're going to get him.' I really thought they wanted Kenny to be the first pick in the country."
According to Griffey, Harrison was right. "While we drove home, Dad asked me what I wanted to do," Junior said.
They had spent weeks talking this out. Senior told Junior that Seattle would be a smart place to sign because the Mariners had few outfield prospects and would be a fast track to the big leagues. "That's what I wanted more than anything," Junior said. "I was fortunate to have a father who played and knew people to talk to and get good advice. Everyone said the Mariners had a good developmental system, so that was good enough for me."
In response to the big question, Griffey told his dad, "Yeah." "Then I went to bed," he said, as if it was the obvious thing to do.
Senior called Harrison. He asked if the Mariners could increase their offer.
Harrison called General Manager Dick Balderson and Roger Jongewaard, Seattle's scouting director. Jongewaard had a 10 a.m. flight to Southern California to negotiate with Harkey, if the talks with the Griffeys did not get a deal.
They gave their permission for a slight bump in the money.
At 4 a.m., Harrison called the Griffeys and said, "We'll come up $10,000, and we think that's fair."
It was quiet for a moment or two.
Senior said, "OK, we'll take it."
Harrison said he and Mooney would be over to the house immediately. Senior said the family wanted to rest for a bit. They would get together at the house later to sign.
This bothered Harrison. Years earlier, scouting for St. Louis, he had heard the same thing from shortstop Garry Templeton, only to have the family renege and the deal have to be rescued.
"It bothers me some to wait; you have to want Kenny to be our guy," Harrison said. "As hours go by, you may change your mind."
Senior responded: "You've got my word."
"Then, that's good enough for me," Harrison said.
Later, when the deal was done amid the rolls and the coffee - for a signing amount of $180,000 as Junior recalls it - Senior told Harrison, "Bob, he'll be a better hitter than me."
"I don't know, Ken," Harrison said. "I think he'll hit some home runs."
When they meet, the father and the scout remind one another of this exchange. Both were right.
This week, Baseball America rated Griffey the best No. 1 pick in the 31 years of the draft, with Alex Rodriguez (1993) second. Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones (1990) was third, which reminded Harrison that if the Braves had taken pitcher Todd Van Poppel that year as everyone expected, "we picked next and we'd have taken Chipper Jones. And how would Seattle look now?" The Mariners wound up with California high-school outfielder Marc Newfield.
A perennial all-star and Gold Glover, Griffey has been one of the youngest to hit 200 and 250 homers.
"Kenny's the best I ever saw," Harrison said. "And he's turned out even better than I dared project him; best of all, he's still a great kid. I guess somehow, no matter how old we get, I'll always think of him as that skinny kid we loved so much."
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