From a historical perspective, 1989 was a significant year for the Seattle Mariners as a franchise.
In May, after months of trade speculation, the Mariners dealt Mark Langston, their ace pitcher, to the Montreal Expos for three players – including a 6-foot-10 future Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson.
In August, the franchise was sold by owner George Argyros to a group headed by Jeff Smulyan of Indianapolis.
Jim Lefebvre, previously a coach with the vaunted Oakland A’s, was brought in as the Mariners’ seventh manager (including interims) in six years, looking to provide stability. A core group of established players – among them Langston, Harold Reynolds, Alvin Davis, Dave Valle, Jim Presley and Darnell Coles – were tired of losing and eager to make the Mariners contenders in a rugged American League West.
Mixed in were a crop of young players eager to make their mark, among them Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Omar Vizquel … and Ken Griffey Jr.
“We were still trying to figure out, like, what does it take to get to the top of the (standings) and become a threat in our league?” Davis remembered. “We were a talented group, and our opponents would tell us that: ‘You know, you guys have a lot of talent; you’ve just got to put it all together.’ So into this, now you insert a young Ken Griffey Jr. … and we knew we had potential.”
It’s not a stretch to draw some parallels from that ’89 team to the 2021 Mariners, now entering Year 3 of a deliberate rebuild. There are proven veterans – Kyle Seager, Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, James Paxton, among them – ready to help the team take a leap, trying to forge a path forward. They are buoyed by one of baseball’s top-ranked farm systems, which includes Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ two most touted outfield prospects since … Griffey.
Of course, it’s not fair to liken anyone to Griffey, a once-in-a-generation talent. Kelenic had his sights set on the opening-day roster this year, but a knee injury has complicated that. He and Rodriguez represent the best hope to eventually lead the franchise back to the playoffs.
It might be instructive to look back at Griffey’s breakthrough as something of a blueprint for this rebuilding plan – and how one dazzling spring training helped accelerate the arrival of the 1990s Mariners.
A prank gone bad
As the legend goes, Lefebvre called Griffey, the 19-year-old wunderkind, into his office in Tempe, Arizona, on one of the final days of spring training in 1989.
The Mariners hadn’t expected Griffey to make the opening-day roster, but the kid – not yet The Kid – was leaving no doubt he belonged in the major leagues, even as a teenager. He was tearing up major-league pitching that spring, taking a .397 batting average into the last day of March and setting club records for hits and runs batted in during Cactus League play.
So when Griffey sat down in Lefebvre’s office, he surely must have been expecting a congratulatory handshake and confirmation of his place as the Mariners’ starting center fielder to open the 1989 season. Instead, in an elaborate prank gone awry, Lefebvre made Griffey cry.
The Mariners, Lefebvre claimed, had completed a trade for Atlanta star Dale Murphy, who would take over as the everyday center fielder. Griffey, Lefebvre told the kid, would have to go back down to the minors.
Details of when and how the prank went down differ depending on who’s telling the story. But just about everyone in the Mariners’ clubhouse was in on it. Langston had conceived the idea – he was pranked in similar fashion as a rookie and was eager to pay it forward as a rite of passage – and Davis and Reynolds, among others, played key roles.
Those veterans huddled outside Lefebvre’s closed door, stifling laughter as they waited for Griffey to emerge.
“I felt soooo bad,” Reynolds said in a recent interview. “We didn’t know he would take it the way he did. He started bawlin’, man.”
Added Davis: “I don’t know how things (like that) would go over now. But we’re talking about the late ’80s, and that was part of the clubhouse culture.”
Longtime team trainer Rick Griffin remembered it more as a light-hearted prank, but said the excruciating part was that Lefebvre had actually waited a while – until the team had gathered on a back field for stretching – before finally revealing the truth to Griffey.
“For about a 15-minute period there, you talk about the saddest guy on the planet,” Griffin recalled. “And then everybody just grabbed him and started hugging him and slapping him around.”
Decades later, Griffey was good-natured about the prank when he mentioned it during a speech before a sold-out crowd at then-Safeco Field as part of the ceremony for his No. 24 being retired by the club in August 2016. Griffey, of course, had his own version.
“I told (Lefebvre) I wasn’t going (to the minors)!” Griffey told the crowd.
Griffey’s rapid ascent, of course, was no joking matter. In an interview shortly after it was announced that he had made the opening-day roster, Griffey said the news was “the best thing” that had ever happened to him. Then he revised that statement a bit.
“It ranks in the top three,” he said. “Along with ‘You can go get the BMW’ and my parents saying, ‘I love you.’ “
The spring breakthrough
Griffey was 18 when he was invited to his first major-league spring training in 1988. The Mariners were never going to call him up to the majors that year, despite protests from then-manager Dick Williams.
“There were grumblings in the clubhouse that year: ‘Why isn’t he on the team? He’s the best athlete?’ ” Griffin recalled. “The reason was because he was 18. That was the reason. It wasn’t because of the talent level.”
A year later, Mariners management wasn’t planning on Griffey opening the season with the major-league club.
“We’ll take a look at him,” Mariners general manager Woody Woodward told The Seattle Times in an article published Feb. 12, 1989. “If he shows us he is ready, he could conceivably make our club. But it isn’t likely at this point.”
Griffey had never played above Class AA when he came to spring training in ’89.
“Dick Williams had fought to keep him the year before,” Reynolds said. “But that didn’t happen. So he comes in to camp in ’89, and he was the best player in camp. He was lighting up the Cactus League like it was nothing. We were like, ‘Man, it’s not supposed to be this easy.’ “
Added Davis: “It became pretty obvious once we got into drills and then transitioned into games that Junior was by far the most talented player we had.”
Griffey wound up hitting .359 in 26 games that spring, with two homers, three triples, six doubles, 21 RBI and five stolen bases. He took a 15-game hitting streak into the final week of Cactus League play.
“We were all still trying to figure out where this kid’s ceiling is, because we had not seen it up close and personal on a regular basis,” Davis said.
Griffey’s reputation was growing by the day. Reynolds remembers a spring-training game against the Brewers and having separate conversations at second base with Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, future Hall of Famers who were in awe of Seattle’s new center fielder. “That kid … ” they would tell him, almost in disbelief.
“He was already building a mystique,” Reynolds said.
That mystique escalated once the regular season began. Griffey doubled off Oakland ace Dave Stewart his first major-league at-bat. He homered a few days later in his first at-bat at the Kingdome. By May he had a candy bar named after him, and by the end of the season he had baseball’s second-most popular poster (behind Bo Jackson). He was on his way to becoming the Mariners’ first national star.
Soon, for the first time, Davis was seeing fans at Yankee Stadium wearing Mariners hats – and wearing them backward because of Griffey.
“I mean, golly, there’s no way I can sit here and say I saw (that Griffey would be) arguably one of the greatest players of all time when he was 19,” Davis said. “I’d be lying if I said that. But I did see a phenomenal talent and makeup and total package that I had never seen before.”
Becoming The Kid
On road trips, Griffey soon began bringing two portable TVs onto airplanes and would connect his video-game system to one of them and play games for the entire flight.
“That’s when we started calling him The Kid,” Reynolds said, “because he really was just a kid.”
Fun is a word that comes up a lot when describing a 19-year-old Griffey and his spring breakout.
“The energy level that he had, it had never been seen before,” Griffin said. “Here is this kid and he’s having so much fun, and he was just so energetic. That particular team that we had was a good core group of young players who were really good. But they were also, you know, a little bit afraid and there was a little bit of intimidation because we had a brand-new manager – you know, how should I act? And what should I do? But Griffey just went out there and had a blast.”
The Mariners didn’t instantly become contenders because of Griffey. They went 73-89 his rookie season (he missed a month that summer because of a broken hand); they didn’t post a winning record until two years later, and they didn’t make the playoffs until four years after that.
But they were on their way.
More than three decades later, a new crop of kids are on their way up for the Mariners. No one is suggesting they should be able to replicate what a young Griffey did in 1989. But Griffey did leave some proverbial breadcrumbs behind in the Arizona desert, some legendary tales to pass on. And if there are lessons to be learned from Griffey, maybe this is the most important one: Just enjoy the ride, and don’t stop being a kid.