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Seattle Mariners

Out of Right Field: To Ken Griffey Jr., Father’s Day always meant more

Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr. kid around on the bench in Seattle during the Mariners’ game against the Detroit Tigers, Aug. 31, 1990. Father and son wear the same uniform for the first time in Major League history.  (Associated Press)
By Gene Warnick The Spokesman-Review

Picture a kid and his father throwing a ball around a nearly empty field. The kid’s younger brother and mother are standing nearby, with maybe two or three bystanders.

Just a pleasant, start-of-summer afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.

There was a bit of banter, especially when either the son or dad would try to fool the other with a curveball or knuckler. That would draw laughs from the rest of the family.

But this wasn’t just any kid. It was “The Kid.”

It was the summer of 1992 and Ken Griffey Jr. was standing in the infield at Joe Martin Field in Bellingham, where he had made his professional debut five years earlier at age 17. Junior, already a star in Seattle, had sprained a ligament in his right wrist while trying to make a diving catch, sending him to the disabled list for the first of 12 times in his Hall of Fame career.

His father, Ken Sr., had retired from the Mariners that spring, after 19 seasons in the majors, because of a bulging disk in his neck.

His younger brother, Craig, was in his second professional season, playing in the short-season Northwest League for the Bellingham Mariners, often referred to as the “Baby M’s.”

With the big-league club on the road, the Griffeys traveled to Bellingham so Junior could get in some rehab work and the entire family, including mother Bertie, could reunite with Craig.

After the workout, Junior walked across the parking lot to the Baby M’s clubhouse in the bowels of Civic Stadium, the adjacent football field. He joked around with Craig and his new teammates, as the NWL season had just begun. He brought along some big-league bats, which he gave to Craig. The younger brother kept a couple and shared the rest, just as Junior would have done.

After Junior had cooled off and the Baby M’s started preparing for their own game, the team’s beat reporter, a college kid working part time, asked Griffey if he had time for two questions.

“Just two?” he replied. “OK, better make them good.”

I asked how his wrist was feeling.

“Fine,” he said.

That was it. One word.

At this point, a feeling of dread came over me. Although I had interviewed Junior a few times before and was in the press box the night he hit his first professional home run at Everett Memorial Stadium, I knew it would be difficult to write a full story without a little bit more from him.

So I took a breath and started down a bit of a winding path, talking about fathers playing catch with their sons and finally asking what that meant to him.

To my great relief, Junior hit it out of the park.

I can’t remember his exact words, although I probably have the following day’s newspaper clipping sitting in the bottom of a box somewhere. He went on for a minute or so, talking about how it was all he had ever known and was normal for him. The rare bit of introspection from a professional athlete, in the days before they were coached to say nothing to the media, made the story.

Perhaps that makes it fitting that MLB Network is debuting its newest documentary, “Junior,” on Father’s Day.

For all that Junior accomplished on the field, his family meant more. His grandfather, Buddy, was a teammate of Stan Musial’s growing up in Donora, Pennsylvania. Griffey’s son, Trey, has spent time in the NFL.

The way Junior played, almost effortlessly, belied his deep interest in and knowledge of the game. He talked about dinners as a child when Joe Black, the former Negro League pitcher who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers five years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, would come over and tell stories all night.

While Junior and his father occasionally butted heads, there was a strong bond there.

Junior’s 500th career home run came on Father’s Day in 2004 with Ken Sr. in attendance. It was Junior’s 2,143rd career hit, the same number his father had.

That marked the fourth time to that point in his career that Junior had homered on Father’s Day, plus eight more on April 10, his dad’s birthday.

After circling the bases, Junior walked to a box on the far end of the Cincinnati Reds’ dugout, for whom he was playing at the time, and embraced his dad, telling him, “Happy Father’s Day, I love you.”

“It was a nice Father’s Day present, but it’s an easy way to get out of giving me something. He ain’t getting off that easy,” Griffey Sr. jokingly told reporters after the game. “He used to do that for me for my birthday all the time. He’d hit one and call me, ‘Oh, happy birthday, Dad. I hit a home run.’ ”

A laughing Junior responded that he gets his dad the same thing every Father’s Day: “I always buy you Old Spice, underwear and ties. You have a drawer full of them.

“My dad hit 152 home runs and that’s the person I wanted to be like,” he added. “My hero growing up. That’s the person who taught me how to play and is still telling me how to play.”

Just a father and son together, sharing a laugh or two, like that pleasant, start-of-summer afternoon in the Pacific Northwest long ago.