Ken Griffey Jr.: The Kid Debuts

April 3, 1989

Opening Day is beloved by fans and players for many reasons. The baseball world is filled with optimism as a new calendar begins. Opening Day is also a big day for young players. Some who were role players or September call-ups in previous years are anxious to prove themselves in new starting roles, and true rookies are eager to make an impression. In the Mariners’ opener against the A’s on April 3, 1989, one much-heralded rookie not only showed he belonged, but gave a glimpse of what most consider one of the greatest pure talents to ever play the game.

In 1977, the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League in another expansion move by Major League Baseball. In 1969, the Expos, Royals, Padres and Seattle Pilots had been added, as baseball’s popularity was growing around the country. All of those franchises had moderate to excellent success over the next 20 years, except the Mariners. To put it bluntly, the Mariners were consistently awful.

They rarely had young talent and didn’t have the financial bearings to attract top free agents. In their first 20 years of existence, the best season the Mariners could muster was a 78-84 record in 1987. However, on April 3, 1989, there was reason for optimism. The Mariners finally showed the ability to develop young players. Alvin Davis and Mark Langston finished first and second in the 1984 Rookie of the Year balloting and went on to good careers, and Harold Reynolds and Jim Presley were solid everyday players.

The Mariners also had high hopes as they started 4 rookies on Opening Day of 1989. Omar Vizquel and Edgar Martinez started on the left side of the infield, and highly-touted Greg Briley started in left. They had young stars in the rotation like Brian Holman, Erik Hanson and Randy Johnson, all 25 or younger.

However, the real reason for optimism was the 19-year-old who started in centerfield that day: Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey was clearly the top pick in the 1987 MLB Draft and put up great numbers in his two-year minor league stint. Griffey batted .318 with 27 homers and 49 steals in just 140 games while displaying eye-popping athleticism in centerfield in the minors. The son of popular veteran Ken Griffey Sr. was destined to be a star, and everyone knew it.

Barry Foote, who played with Griffey Sr. as a member of the Yankees, knew Griffey Jr. as a kid and as a big leaguer: “When he was a little kid, he was always around the team,” said Foote. “We played under the stands and he used to hit little plastic balls in the cages. He was just a great player, God gifted him and he took advantage of it.”

Stanley Jefferson, an outfielder who played against Griffey throughout his career, recalled seeing Griffey as a rookie during spring training: “They told us he was a teenager. Well he was the biggest damn teenager I’d ever seen! He was just knocking the ball a zillion miles in batting practice and then went out to the outfield and throwing cannons in from centerfield. We were all like, ‘He’s 19? I wanna see a birth certificate!’”

Holman, who would come over later in the 1989 season with Randy Johnson in exchange for Langston, knew Griffey would be special right from the start: “I saw him do things on the field that you’d never seen before. It was just special to see such pure God-given ability in a 19-year-old.”

While rookie manager Jim Lefebvre protected Briley, Martinez and Vizquel by batting them at the bottom of the order that Opening Day, he saw that Griffey was too valuable to hide at the bottom. He placed the 19-year-old in the second spot as the starting centerfielder and he became the youngest rookie to play in a game since Dwight Gooden for the Mets in 1984.

The Mariners had the unenviable task of facing Dave Stewart, possibly the most feared pitcher in baseball at the time, and the powerful Oakland A’s. The Mariners countered with Langston, their all-star lefty, who’d accumulated 70 wins over his then five-year career.

While the Mariners featured four rookies in their lineup, the A’s trotted out some of the biggest names of the 80s on Opening Day. Mark McGwire was in his third full season in the big leagues, but had already established his reputation as a feared power hitter. Veterans Carney Lansford and Dave Parker anchored the rest of the lineup, which also featured talented youngsters like Terry Steinbach and Tony Phillips. José Canseco was usually right in the middle of them all, but he missed much of the ’89 season with a broken wrist.

The Monday night game began with Stewart on the mound in the first and he retired Reynolds to start the game on a fly ball to center. Griffey then came up to the plate next for his first major league at bat. He took the first pitch for a strike as Stewart looked to get ahead. Griffey had a classic lefty swing and loved the ball low, and Stewart’s forkball played right into Griffey’s strength. He got the forkball on the second pitch and drilled it to the centerfield wall for a double.

As Griffey stood on second with his trademark smile, his manager looked on in awe. It took just that one at bat for him to recognize that Griffey belonged and would be the key to leading the Mariners out of their doldrums. Davis then followed with a fly ball to right, and in a veteran move, Griffey got a good read on the ball and tagged up to third. He was stranded though, as Stewart got Darnell Coles on a groundout.

Griffey took his next at bat leading off the fourth with the Mariners down 3-0. He caused some anxious moments for A’s fans as he flew out to the warning track in left field for the first out, as it was clear Stewart was now in a groove. However, the Mariners would finally get to Stewart in the fifth as Martinez singled right to drive home Jeff Leonard to make it 3-1.

After Langston retired the top of the A’s lineup in order in the bottom of the fourth, the Mariners inched closer in the bottom half of the inning. Reynolds led off with a strikeout before Griffey came up for his third at bat. He coolly worked out a walk to get things started for Seattle. Davis then reached on an error and Coles followed by grounding a single to left, driving home the speedy Griffey to make the score 3-2, knocking Stewart from the game.

Griffey’s next at bat came against A’s reliever Rick Honeycutt, with the Mariners still down 3-2. Griffey fell behind 0-2 on Honeycutt, but again played the part of a veteran. Griffey fouled off pitch after pitch before launching the ninth pitch to deep centerfield. A’s centerfielder, Dave Henderson, ran the ball down in the deepest part of the park for an out, but the at bat left an impression on everyone nevertheless.

In the ninth, the A’s called on Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley to finish the win, which he accomplished by retiring the side in order to seal a 3-2 victory. The A’s were off to a fast start in a season in which they would lead the majors with 99 wins. They captured the World Series title in a Bay Area showdown against the Giants that was marred by the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake.

Even though the A’s won the game, everyone was talking about the kid in centerfield for the Mariners. Lefebvre kept it simple, but his words were prophetic. In a Seattle Times article by Blaine Newnham, Lefebvre said, “The kid has God-given talent that comes, I guess, from being around the game…Ken Griffey knows what to do.”

Vizquel, who along with Griffey would go on to play in four decades, had a tough time, going 0-for-3 with an error on his first chance of the year. Martinez fared better, going 1-for-3 with an RBI. The Mariners wouldn’t have the success they wanted in 1989 though, as the team went through growing pains associated with having such a young team. “We’d go out and beat the A’s and Yankees, but then lose to some of the bottom teams. It was all part of our youth, but what a great time it was. I have nothing but great memories,” said Holman, who says that a large number of his teammates still remain close friends.

The Mariners finished 73-89 in 1989 but had their share of highlights. Griffey got off to a hot start as he batted .325 over his first month in the bigs while belting three home runs. He batted .274 for the year and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind pitchers Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon.

In the offseason, the team was sold to a group led by Jeff Smulyan, the founder and CEO of Emmis Broadcasting. This again injected more life into the up-and-coming franchise. Holman recounted their Opening Day win in 1990, a game in which he started and out-pitched future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. “After the game we gave Mr. Smulyan the game ball for his first win as a major league owner. He just had the biggest smile and looked like a little kid. He loved it; they were special times,” recalled Holman.

The Mariners would finally put together their first winning season in 1991 as the seeds sown during the ’89 season began to flourish. In addition to the four rookies who started on Opening Day in 1989, young stars Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson and Erik Hanson got their starts and would eventually form the backbone of the team as they began a successful run in the late 90s. Unfortunately Holman, who won 32 games over three seasons and came within one out of pitching a perfect game against the A’s in 1990, underwent three separate arm surgeries and didn’t pitch in the majors after the 1990 season.

Holman’s injury aside, it was clear Seattle was the place to be on the baseball landscape in the early ’90’s: “I was traded from the Yankees to the Mariners in 1992 and I couldn’t have been more excited,” said Tim Leary, a World Series champion with the Dodgers, who pitched 13 years in the bigs. “I was part of that great young staff in ’93 when Randy Johnson broke out for his first big year. It was exciting to watch.”

While the Mariners had their ups and downs in subsequent years, they were no longer looked at as the doormats of the American League, and Griffey’s career speaks for itself. He played 22 years in the majors, and despite fighting through injuries in nearly 1/3 of his seasons, he clubbed 630 home runs, including 56 each year in ’97 and ’98. He was a 13-time all-star and 10-time Gold Glove winner. Like most people, his manager had him pegged as a superstar from the start: “We saw the debut of a great talent tonight,” said Lefebvre in the Times article. “That’s a great talent.”

Veteran Major League umpire Ted Barrett respected Griffey tremendously as a player and a person.

“I can’t say enough good things about Ken,” started Barrett. “He had an incredibly sweet swing and anything in the air you just knew he was going to track down. He just had so much fun on the field as well.”

Barrett continued, “I remember one time the Mariners asked to check Albert Belle’s bat for cork, so we had to remove it from the game. Belle was furious, as were the Indians. In return, the Indians asked us to check A-Rod’s bat. It turned out that A-Rod was using one of Griffey’s bats at the time and he was in the on-deck circle. A-Rod was young and he just had this stunned look on his face. Meanwhile, Griffey was in the on-deck circle laughing and joking. He got the biggest kick out of the whole thing.”

Foote puts Griffey among the best to ever play the sport, despite his injuries: “If he didn’t have all of those injuries, I believe you could have placed him among the top five players or so of all-time,” said Foote. “Even with his injuries, I’d still put him somewhere in the top 20.”