OBSERVATIONS: ‘The Real Ken Griffey Jr.,’ in my relationship

By HAL McCOY

UNSOLICITED OBSERVATIONS from The Man Cave waiting for the NBA and NHL to start. But I fear I’ll be waiting until 2021 for any Major League Baseball to start.

—ESPN is featuring a special Sunday night at 8 p.m. on Ken Griffey Jr., the most misunderstood player in baseball.

While most media thought him aloof, a boor and unapproachable, my relationship with him was impeccable. Never a cross word between us.

WHEN HE WAS traded to the Cincinnati Reds by the Seattle Mariners, there was a huge press conference and when I asked the first question, Griffey said, “I checked up on you. I asked my dad (Ken Griffey Sr.) about you and he said you are all right. So you are all right with me.”

Unfortunately, due to injuries, Reds fans never got to see the player Griffey was in Seattle. But he was still outstanding when he could play.

THE FIRST YEAR of spring training after I lost a good portion of my eyesight, Nadine called me every day at noon during her lunch break as a teacher.

I was always near the batting cage watching batting practice and Griffey was always nearby. Obviously, he was listening in. After about a week of Nadine’s calls, Griffey grabbed the cellphone from me when it rang before I could answer.

“Nadine,” he said. “He is OK. We are all looking after him, taking care of him.” And they were.

IT WAS AT baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville in 2002 when I was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just five minutes after it was announced, my phone rang in the press workroom.

“Hal, this is Junior,” he said. “I’m not calling for a story. I’m just calling to congratulate you on making the Hall of Fame. They’ll let anybody in won’t they?”

IN 2003, GRIFFEY, played hurt and had one home run in April. The fans and media were all over him. I wrote a column and said, “If Griffey stays healthy and if he doesn’t hit 30 home runs, I will eat this column on Courthouse Square and I’ll bring the ketchup.”

In late August in Washington, Griffey hit his 30th home run. After the game I was standing outside the clubhouse door when Griffey came up behind me and flipped me a baseball.

He had never mentioned the column, never acknowledged that he read it. On the ball was inscribed: “Home run #30, career home run #532. To Hal: Thanks for your friendship and support. Ken Griffey Jr.”

JUST ONE DAY after Griffey suddenly retired in mid-season in Seattle, my phone rang that night. It was Griffey. “I’m driving by myself from Seattle to Orlando,” he said. “I need somebody to talk to.” We chatted for an hour.

That’s the Ken Griffey Jr. I knew and I know.

—QUOTE: From comedian Henny Youngman: “If at first you don’t succeed, so much for skydiving.”

—Outfielder Champ Summers, a utility guy, played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, an affable guy who didn’t play much.

But one game in Riverfront Stadium is memorable. Summers hit an inside-the-park home run, sliding into home plate. But he stayed on the ground, didn’t get up.

Trainer Larry Starr rushed to his side, believing Champ was injured. He noticed his face was green.

“Are you all right, Champ?” Starr asked.

Speaking with choked words, Champ said, “Yeah, I just swallowed my chewing tobacco.”

Summers never achieved much on the baseball field and probably was a better basketball player. He averaged 18.8 points a game at Southern Illinois, including one game during which he scored 53 points.

QUOTE: From iconic Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown: “Never hire a black man just because he is black. And never don’t hire a black man just because he is black.”

—A nifty tidbit from Jon Bauer about Sparky Anderson:

In 1966 Sparky managed the St. Petersburg Cardinals of the Class A Florida State League to a 91-45 record.

During that season, though, the Cardinals lost a 4-3 game to the Miami Marlins in 29 innings, the longest uninterrupted game in professional baseball history. It lasted seven hours and finished at 2:30 a.m.

The league had a 12:50 a.m. curfew, but the umpires were not aware of it, so the teams played on. And on and on and on.

The Miami manager was Billy DeMars, later a Cincinnati Reds coach. At one point, about the 26th inning, Sparky and DeMars approached the home plate umpire and agreed that they’d call the game after 30 innings. It wasn’t necessary.

“My catcher, Charles Sands, caught all 29 innings and lost 10 pounds,” said DeMars. “And he caught nine innings the next afternoon.”

The big question is this: Who was pitching at the end for the Cardinals? As manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Sparky was known as ‘Captain Hook’ because he yanked pitchers at the first sign of distress.

On this day, he used only five pitchers and his starter went nine innings.

—QUOTE: From comedian W.C. Fields: “Horse sense is a thing a horse has that keeps it from betting on people.”

Recently I bet on a horse named ‘Always First.’ What a liar. He finished last.

4 thoughts on “OBSERVATIONS: ‘The Real Ken Griffey Jr.,’ in my relationship

  • June 15, 2020 at 3:28 pm
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    Could not agree with you more on how misunderstood Jr. was and what a nice person He is. Athletic trainers loved him. Since I knew him as a toddler, he was always respectful and extremely generous with his time. The long time Seattle head athletic trainer, Rick Griffin, says he was and is the nicest player he ever had. Loved your story on your relationship with him!

    Reply
  • June 15, 2020 at 7:30 pm
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    A masterpiece Hal, normally I giggle through your columns, but today reading what you said about Junior I had tears. Too sweet. The Champ Summers story brought the giggles back. You’re still the best.

    Reply
  • June 16, 2020 at 9:03 am
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    A person who was much more than a baseball player. Thanks for sharing.

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  • June 16, 2020 at 7:58 pm
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    Yep, yep, yep, Hal. thanks. Great, great player. His father was great, too, even if he did go sign with the Yankees.

    Reply

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