Rick Rizzs Catches Up With Ken Griffey Jr.
A new feature we are excited to share with you is guest blogger Rick Rizzs. Rick is entering his 27th season in the broadcast booth for the Mariners, and is synonymous to Mariners fans with catch phrases like Goodbye Baseball, Holy Smokes, Happy Totals and Everybody Scores! Throughout spring training, and the 2012 season, Rick will take a stroll down Mariners memory lane and share with you his thoughts. Today he shares his memories of a young Ken Griffey Jr. We hope you enjoy!
I still call him “The Kid” because that’s the way I’ll always remember him.
He always sported that “boyish” grin, ever-present smile and cherub look that tried to hide his “devilish” and playful persona which you knew was lying underneath it all.
That “Kid” is Ken Griffey Jr. and he showed up in spring training camp for the first week of games just a few days ago. He tried to come in under the radar, but that was impossible. Things are just different, just better when Junior’s around.
Well he’s 40-something now and has 3 kids of his own. His eldest, Trey, is getting ready to attend the University of Arizona and play football next fall. Where has the time gone?
I said, “That’s great he’s found a place to play.” Junior said, “Not really, Melissa (his wife) is already crying crocodile tears her baby’s leaving the house and now I might have to buy a house in Tucson!”
So, after catching up about our families, we were able to sit down the other day outside the Mariners clubhouse on a quiet, sun-lit morning at spring training. We reminisced for about an hour about the days when he was really a kid trying to make the club in his first big league camp.
I took Junior back to the spring of 1988. I asked him, “What was it like when you first showed up for spring training in Tempe?”
Junior recalled, “I remember how scared I was, seeing all these guys I watched on television. Now I’m on the field with them and I didn’t have my dad around this time.”
It was tough and fun, but I was fortunate I had Mickey Brantley and Henry Cotto around, teaching me and pushing me. This is what we’re going to work on. Henry, who played with my dad with the Yankees, was really good because he showed me some shortcuts on certain drills so I didn’t have to run so far!”
Junior added, “It was nerve-racking every day, day in day and day out, but it was a great experience.”
My first spring in ’88, I spent most of the time as a defensive replacement. I was just hoping to get some at-bats.”
As things turned out, Junior would spend the 1988 season in the minor leagues with Double-A Vermont, but you knew it wasn’t going to be for long. He had too much pedigree, too much talent to ride on any more buses.
Then along came the spring of 1989.
I had a painful first meeting with Junior. I remember I brought my 8-year old son, Nick, with me to spring training. One morning I walked out of the clubhouse to the field, standing in front of the dugout by myself when I noticed Junior coming out with my son. They were talking for a minute.
Then, Nick walked right up to me and kicked me right in the leg! I said, “What are you doing?”
Nick looked up at me and said, “Junior said if I kicked you in the leg he would give me $50 bucks!”
I looked over at Junior and he was laughing like crazy. I said, “Don’t you give him that 50-bucks!” Then I had to have a little talk with my son.
But, that was The Kid being The Kid…Always having fun!
He also had a lot of fun on the field that spring. You had to be blind not to realize he had a good chance to make the ball club. Junior hit about .400 the spring of ’89 and ran down and caught everything in sight.
Junior said, “In the spring of 1989, the club wasn’t sure if they were going to send me to Double-A or Triple-A that year. I thought I might be going back to Double-A. They kept telling me they wanted to see what you’ve got.”
It was also that spring that Junior ran into someone very special who turned out to be a great influence on his career. As a mentor and a friend.
“I remember calling my dad,” Junior said, “hey dad, there’s this guy here, he never smiles and he wears Double-zero (00).”
His dad said, “Oh, that’s Jeffrey Leonard, he’s alright.”
He sure was. And he made a quick impression on the younger Mr. Griffey.
Junior said , “I’ll never forget what Jeffrey told me the first day I met him,” he said, “Everybody around here is going to kiss your butt…except me! You’re going to play baseball the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Now, let’s fast forward to a game in the Kingdome that year against the Detroit Tigers. Lou Whitaker of the Tigers was on first base and there was a hit into the gap in left-center field between Junior and Jeffrey who played in left.
With his blazing speed, Junior got to the ball on the warning track and fired a laser-beam throw to third base to cut down Whitaker, with the hitter winding up at second base. Junior was feeling pretty good about his throw, but it didn’t last long.
Junior said, “Jeffrey came over to me and said, nice throw but you threw it to the wrong base! You should have thrown it to second to keep the double-play in order.”
Lesson learned. And, there were plenty more after that.
“Jeffrey taught me a lot that spring and that season,” Junior said “Especially about getting ready for a game and being prepared.”
I asked Junior, “How did manager Jim Lefebvre let you know you made the club that spring?”
“Later on during the spring,” Junior said, “I thought I was playing well, but I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on and then I was called into Frenchy’s office (Lefebvre’s nickname). All the coaches knew what was going on and they were playing it up.”
He said, “I walked by Geno (Mariners coach Gene Clines) and he said, “you don’t want to go in there.”
“When I walked into Lefebvre’s office, I sat down and skip just started talking.” He said, “You know Junior, you’re having a good spring, but I’m not going to tell you if you made the ball club, we want to see you play a little longer.”
Then he said, “Ahh…you made the club!”
Later on that season, I asked Lefebvre when he knew Junior was ready for the big leagues. And, he said it was after one at-bat that spring he had against the Rick Sutcliffe of the Cubs.
“I was down 0-2 in the count to Sutcliffe,” Junior said, “and I battled back to 3-2, fouled off a few more pitches on nasty splitters and then walked on another splitter.”
It was a classic battle between a veteran pitcher and a young man who knew what he was doing at the ripe old age of 19 against one of the better pitchers in baseball.
Sutcliffe would later tell Junior, “I threw everything I could at you during that at-bat and you fouled off close pitch after close pitch and then “spit” on ball four! I knew you were going to be alright.”
As the morning wore on, Junior and I turned our attention to spring training and how it’s changed down through the years.
“For me, spring training changed because as a young player you try so hard to make the club,” Junior said, “But, then you get to a certain point in your career when you start to get secure and you realize how hard you worked to get there and then you can really start to enjoy it.”
“It’s a journey “plus”, he said.
It wasn’t long before Junior was helping players, young and old, to enjoy the game.
“Part of this game,” Junior said, “is about how much you can teach someone. I wasn’t afraid to help someone but some guys don’t because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their job.”
“My dad helped a lot of guys,” Junior said, “players like Kirby Puckett, Chili Davis, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Frank White and Warren Cromartie. All these guys helped me because my dad helped them.”
All these guys would call me up and say, “Hey Junior, we’re going out to lunch and we’d talk baseball.” “And on get-away days, they’d get me up and make sure I had breakfast with them.”
And, then at night, Junior had Jeffrey.
Junior said, “After a game, I would go up to Jeffrey’s room, we would have some dinner and talk.”
I asked, “What would you talk about?”
“He’d asked me how I felt,” Junior said, “We talked about what he saw and what I could improve on and he was such a big help.”
I’ll be honest with you, Jeffrey Leonard wasn’t the most likeable guy who ever played the game of baseball, my goodness, his nickname was “Penitentiary Face”. But, deep down under that tough looking exterior was a man who was willing to give back to the game of baseball buy helping this kid.
Junior said, “You know, wearing a Major League uniform doesn’t last long and that’s why you have to help others who can do the same. Helping young players helps the organization and that helps baseball.”
That’s exactly what Junior is doing right now and that’s why he’s here in spring training and why during the season he’ll be visiting with young players at the Single-A and Double-A levels in the Mariners system. Junior, along with his long time friend and former teammate Roger Hansen will make stops in Clinton, Iowa, High Desert, California and Jackson, Tennessee.
How many Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers are doing that right now?
I asked Junior, “What’s it like when you visit these clubs and see these kids? What their reaction when they see you?”
“It’s funny,” Junior said, “The first day I come in…no questions…the second day…nothing…and then the 3rd day…all “heck” breaks loose!”
“Now they finally start to ask all these questions they’ve been thinking about the last two days but didn’t ask!” he said.
What do you tell them Junior?
“I tell them—hey the hardest part is getting drafted, now you’re here.” He said, “Now, don’t fight yourself, just go out and play and have some fun!”
I tell them, sometimes we try to over think things and over-analyze when we’re trying to learn how to hit,” he said, “Just go out and hit! Try to relax and don’t fight it. How many people play well when they’re fighting it? NONE. And, you can’t beat yourself up if you don’t get a hit.”
Junior said, “Here’s what you have to do. Play the game the right way and people will notice.”
When Junior told me that, it was as if I could see the image of Jeffrey Leonard standing right behind him whispering in his ear. Like I said, Jeffrey may have had that scary, scowl on his face most of the time, but I know he had his heart in the right place and he was in Seattle at the right time to help out a young man trying to find his place in the game
Did he ever.
Ken Griffey Jr. went on to hit 630 career home runs, win an AL MVP award, make one incredible catch after another, his defense so stellar that when those who followed made unbelievable plays…they’re now known as “Griffeyesque!”
As we wound down our conversation, I asked Junior a simple question, “Do you miss it?”
Very quickly he raised his head, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “No.”
Then he added, “But, do I miss hanging out with the guys?…Yes.”
Before we said good-bye to go out and watch that mornings Intrasquad game, my visit with Ken Griffey Jr. reminded me that not all the great moments in the game of baseball happens on a baseball field before thousands of cheering fans.
Sometimes the best moments happen on a quiet sun-lit morning sitting around a picnic table, no one else around, outside a clubhouse in spring training…just talking baseball.
My son Nick is 32 now. As I walked away I wondered if Junior would still give him $50 bucks to kick me in the leg again. I bet he would.
I’m happy to report…“The Kid” is still a kid.
What a joy.