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Monday, July 12, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Griffey Cherishes, And Guards, His Privacy -- Forever Young -- Ken Griffey Jr.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Asked for some time to talk about an immense career that at 10 years plus has likely passed its midpoint, Ken Griffey Jr. agrees.

"Meet me in the clubhouse after I take batting practice," he says.

This is an old ruse used by some players after they hit to avoid taking a turn at running down balls others will hit.

Griffey shakes his head. "It's not that," he says. "I really have to go in and sit down. I'm an old man now. I need my rest."

The Mariner center fielder, about to make his 10th All-Star Game appearance after topping the fan vote for the fifth time in six years (he was injured in 1995), is exaggerating but not totally kidding.

While everyone looked yet no one noticed, Griffey has aged, steadily, imperceptibly, gracefully. With his 379 career home runs more than halfway to Hank Aaron's all-time best 755, he was recently ranked by the Society for Baseball Research as the 53rd greatest player in baseball history and the third among active players behind Cal Ripken Jr. and Roger Clemens.

Achieving this, he has stayed true to his energy and dedication to the game and to its young fans, yet he has changed.

Four months from age 30, Junior is no junior any more.

While the Griffey grin has not dimmed, his face in repose and in certain thoughtful expressions looks more and more like his father.

"I've changed, more mentally than physically," he says. "Remember, I was on the field here faster than most 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds. I was in the big leagues for two years before I could go into a bar."

In those days, 1989-93, he was The Kid, a name he announced he didn't want anymore in 1994. "I have a son, so I don't think it's proper for me anymore," Griffey said then, referring to Trey, who had been born a month earlier. "He's The Kid now."

Trey and Taryn, who was born just weeks after the Mariners were eliminated from the 1995 playoffs, have wrought the most obvious changes in Griffey. Trey is the benchmark. "He's in school," Griffey said. "That's how I know I've been around for a while."

"My life has changed in the sense that I'm more aware of the passing of time. I value my privacy more since I have a family. The best times are spent with (wife) Melissa and the kids."

Remembering his quick passage through the minors and bursting into the big leagues as a teenager, Griffey recalled doing pretty much what he wanted. "Being single and stuff, your only responsibility was to yourself.

"Being married, my life maybe has become more like everyone else than people might think. It's not `Let's go' anymore. Now, when you want to go somewhere, even for the day, you need three changes of clothes for the kids - one for morning, one for evening, one in case of accidents."

Over the years Griffey has become more guarded with his privacy, at times at the park, almost always away from it, especially where his family is involved.

"He's more responsible now, with a family," said Frank King, a friend since age 13 back in Cincinnati who now helps Griffey with business and personal matters. "But he never did like to go out much. Basically, he's always just preferred to hang close to the house and talk."

Children need activity and entertainment, although Griffey discounted one story that he rented an entire theater just to see a movie, "but maybe only because once in a while the folks over at Factoria Cinema call and say, `We're going to start cleaning the place. Would you like to come and see a movie while we do?' They're great."

He sometimes avoids a scene by going with the kids earlier in the day when it's less likely adults will recognize him. "We went to Star Wars a few weeks ago. The kids liked it. Trey is a big Darth Vader fan."

Melissa knows there are places her husband feels he can't go. "I can't take you anywhere," she kids him.

"But we can't even take the kids a lot of places, like the zoo, for instance," he says. "It just gets to be too big a hassle."

People stop and talk and usually ask him for an autograph for their kids. Griffey understands this, and sometimes will stop and sign for as long as he can. But he says many fans don't understand when he is reluctant, since those minutes mount up until he has no personal time or space.

Autograph seekers seem to understand that restaurants are off-limits, that even a star should be able to sit at a dinner table with his family and not be disturbed.

A shopping mall? Griffey snorts in disbelief. "Nope, but that reminds me, I've got to find a way into one in the next couple of days. Melissa's birthday is coming up."

Having nurtured importance of family, Birdie Griffey has seen the maturing of her son as only a mother can.

"He's still having fun," she said, in the midst of the Kingdome's last-game celebration, "but at the same time, he's more serious. I would expect that of a normal person growing up. He has grown as his family has, and that all comes with age and maturity. If he didn't, I'd say something to him."

Citing privacy, Griffey asked that Melissa not be interviewed about the changes she has seen in him over the years. But she was at the Kingdome with Birdie, and when the talk turned to him and the kids, she said simply, "He's a great dad. He loves his family."

Birdie has a unique comparison of her oldest son and her husband, who was a respected player for 18 years and is now the Cincinnati Reds' hitting coach.

"His dad wasn't much of a stickler for working out when he was younger, then he started to pay more attention," she said. "For a while it was, `I can do this without any trouble,' and he could. Then the years go by and work habits are a little more developed, and I see Kenny pay more attention now to conditioning, getting in shape in the offseason."

The similarities between father and son extend far beyond the field. "He looks just like his dad and many of his mannerisms are similar," she said. "They even walk alike.

"He plays like his dad. Ken caught a lot of balls where you'd say, `Oh, my goodness.' Junior just looks more graceful going after the ball."

Signing quickly after he was the top pick in the June draft of 1987, Griffey drew comparisons with his father when he came to the Kingdome to work out with the Mariners for the first time.

"He had that big-league swing," recalled Dick Balderson, who was Seattle's general manager then and now scouts for Atlanta. "But the thing I remember most was how easily he fit right in with the major-league players. He strutted right out to the batting cage and put on a show. In fact, I hate to admit this, but he drove the ball a lot better than a lot of guys we had in our lineup."

The one change baseball men see in Griffey is his power. His climb up the all-time home run list is a road map of the latter half of his 10 years in the majors. This year he started in 53rd place with 350; now he is in 38th, tied with Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez. He was the fourth youngest to hit 250 homers, second youngest to 300 and youngest to 350, a full season ahead of Jimmie Foxx - all while maintaining a .300 lifetime batting average.

"When he was younger, you could possibly find a spot to pitch to him successfully for a while," said Texas scout Mike Paul. "But as he has matured as a player that has gotten almost impossible."

Left-handed pitching doesn't bother him (he led the league in home runs against lefties last season with 21) and pitching away doesn't bother him. And pitching in to Griffey is asking for trouble.

"One of his greatest assets is one of those unseen things, his ability to adjust quickly," Paul said. "You make a good pitch on him and as often as not, he'll foul it off until you make a mistake and, believe me, he doesn't miss many mistakes."

Ken Griffey Sr. does not let pride as a parent get in the way of analyzing his son as a performer.

"Changes? Not many," Senior said. "The obvious ones like maturity and size and strength, which are part of the maturing process. To me, he's not a total player yet. I don't think he will be until age 30-31 when he slows down a bit and gets more patience. And takes a few more walks."

But did the man who saw those abilities at their dawning have any inkling Junior would be this good?

"Yeah," Senior said slowly, trying not to overdescribe. "I kind of sensed it when he started to grow, about age 16. I was throwing batting practice to him then and I was struggling to get him out. It was about that time I was telling him, stay close to that approach and you'll stay close to being a good player."

He thought his son might have some significant power potential to go with bat speed, foot speed, arm and glove, but "this is not to say I knew he'd hit 50 with any kind of regularity. I figured 350 to 400 for his career, but he's got a chance at 600 to 700."

When he speaks to Junior, sometimes during games if he's seen something wrong with The Swing on a satellite feed, he'll say what he always has: "Keep your weight back, keep your shoulder closed, get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard."

Through all the years, Junior has stayed connected to younger fans. The only change here is that he no longer hangs out with them in hotel lobbies or hallways as he did in his earliest years as a big-leaguer.

"I was only five or six years older than those kids, remember," Griffey says. "I never thought of any difference between them and friends I had back home. I've always been more comfortable with kids - they don't have an opinion of you. It's like, `You want to play catch? Get your mitt. We'll play catch.' "

Being good with kids seems as natural to Griffey as an over-the-head catch on the warning track. He says he never thinks of it; he just responds when it won't cause a frenzy in a ballpark.

"Maybe it's because they see me being honest, and the biggest thing to kids is being true to yourself," he said. "It's not a role model thing. I'm not trying to show anyone how to live. I'm just being me. My mom and dad raised me and (brother) Craig to do the right thing as best we could, and try to keep it that simple."

Is he the player he dreamed he might be?

"I can't say," he said. "I'm not meeting goals because I never set them. Well, only one: to win a World Series, then two, then three."

He muses. He doesn't know if he's having the career everyone expected. He says he doesn't have expectations, either. "Only to do my best each day. Expectations are for people who look at other people."

Obviously, he won't admit to thoughts of the Hall of Fame.

"Wow," Griffey said, as if the thought had just hit him. "That would be so far from now and I'm a guy who doesn't even think of tomorrow. Only today, only what I have to do each day to help the team win."

Griffey looks pensive for a moment. He waves his hands around the clubhouse, still mostly empty except for war horses like Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner who need to come in and sit for a time, too.

"It's not the same fun," he says quietly, almost sadly. "As you get older, the game gets more serious. You can have fun but it's not the same as when I was 17 or 22, just running around out there. The older you get, the more you appreciate that time has its limitations and you want to win to accomplish something for your team."

Quickly, Griffey says this is no complaint. "Don't mistake that I'm saying it's become a job. I'm fully aware how fortunate I am and the other guys (are) to be able to play baseball. It's fun to put on a uniform and play, but there is more preparing for each game now, and that's no fun."

He spends more time each year in the training room, being wrapped before games, being treated after. If fame has taken a toll on his lifestyle, then a decade of play has done the same to his body.

His knees bother him (the left in particular). Yet when he hasn't twisted or broken a body part, he plays 150 to 155 games a year at a level that awes his peers.

"We've seen him mature as a player and set in his ways," Manager Lou Piniella said. "He knows what to expect of himself and his expectations are rightfully high. I've been in baseball 30 years and seen some great players, and Junior is right at the top of that list. He's a superstar and he carries himself like one, and yet he doesn't act like one. He's as good a teammate as he is a player."

Yet the business of baseball has intruded upon Griffey's patience when he is not in the one place where he is totally at peace, playing. For instance, he grows impatient fending off queries about his contract, his future, hither or gone.

"The most basic change in me personally over the years? I tell people exactly how I feel when I want to. I give people, some media people, enough rope to hang themselves before I stop talking to them."

His mother laughs at this. A no-nonsense woman, as Senior taught Junior to be on the field, she did the off-field mentoring. "I taught Junior to express himself, and he took those lessons to heart," she said.

Time is passing for this current Mariner club to succeed, and Griffey frets more over that than his own place in the game now or historically.

Gone is the kid who according to legend didn't know which hand Frank Tanana threw with. "I still don't know if some pitchers are left or right," he says. "The day you worry about who's pitching is the day you should start worrying about not playing anymore."

With Griffey, there is no crying for lost youth, for the passage of time. Among his special talents is an ability to make the rest of us, for a while each summer, forget that the years are disappearing behind us.

That like him, between the first inning and the ninth, we are forever young. ------------------------------- TOP 40

Most all-time home runs (through yesterday)

1. Hank Aaron 755 .

2. Babe Ruth 714 .

3. Willie Mays 660 .

4. Frank Robinson 586 .

5. Harmon Killebrew 573 .

6. Reggie Jackson 563 .

7. Mike Schmidt 548 .

8. Mickey Mantle 536 .

9. Jimmie Foxx 534 .

10. Willie McCovey 521 .

Ted Williams 521 .

12. Ernie Banks 512 .

Eddie Mathews 512 .

14. Mel Ott 511 .

15. Eddie Murray 504 .

16. Lou Gehrig 493 .

17. Mark McGwire # 485 .

18. Stan Musial 475 .

Willie Stargell 475 .

20. Dave Winfield 465 .

21. Carl Yastrzemski 452 .

22. Dave Kingman 442 .

23. Andre Dawson 438 .

24. Jose Canseco # 428 .

25. Billy Williams 426 .

26. Barry Bonds # 420 .

27. Darrell Evans 414 .

28. Duke Snider 407 .

29. Al Kaline 399 .

30. Dale Murphy 398 .

31. Joe Carter 396 .

Cal Ripken Jr. # 396 .

33. Graig Nettles 390 .

34. Johnny Bench 389 .

35. Dwight Evans 385 .

36. Frank Howard 382 .

Jim Rice 382 .

38 Ken Griffey Jr. # 379 .

Orlando Cepeda 379 .

Tony Perez 379 . ( # -indicates active player) . List provided by STATS, Inc. .

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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