A sports journalist I know (OK, me) had a newspaper article published on July 30, 1978, for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Not only that, it was the first thing ever written about some guy named Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey was 8 years old at the time.
Now, 38 years later, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter. When I got my ballot a few weeks ago, I rushed to place my biggest checkmark next to Griffey's name, and I'm still in awe over this whole thing. On Wednesday, it was officially announced that "The Kid" was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with more than 99 percent of the vote (a HOF record).
For one, I'm humbled to know I'm among the few persons ever to pull such a double-double of writing the first story ever about a future Hall of Famer and then actually having a vote later to send him to Cooperstown. For another, I'm still shaking my head over how I witnessed little Griffey flash more than a few signs that he'd transfer his extraordinary skills from his youth baseball team to the Major Leagues someday.
That's right. Everything Griffey did for 22 seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox, he foreshadowed as a pint-sized megastar on his Mt. Airy D-1 team in Cincinnati's Knothole League. You knew little Griffey would continue to slam a bunch of home runs as big Griffey (630 for sixth on the all-time list). You knew he wouldn't quit hitting for average (seven Silver Slugger Awards along with a .284 lifetime mark). You knew he would keep playing effortlessly on defense (10 Gold Gloves in center field). You also knew he was headed for several trips to the All-Star Game (13), winning a league Most Valuable Player Award (American League in 1997), making something like baseball's All-20th Century Team and entering something like the Halls of Fame of both the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Reds.
As for the Hall of Fame, I envisioned baseball immortality for little Griffey, because he remains the greatest player I've seen under the age of 10. He also ranks among the elite of the elite along those lines in the Cincinnati area. In fact, diamonds throughout southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky have produced the significant Major League likes of Pete Rose, Barry Larkin, Jim Bunning, Dave Parker, David Justice, Buddy Bell, Jimmy Wynn, Claude Osteen, Leon Durham, Don Zimmer and others.
None of them was scarier to opponents than little Griffey in the summer of 1978. There also was his younger brother Craig, who turned 7 the month before I saw both of them play. They starred on a Knothole League team for the ages, and the Griffeys' dominance made sense. Their father, Ken Griffey Sr., was the starting right fielder for a baseball dynasty called the Big Red Machine, which won more games in the 1970s than any other franchise. Those Reds also powered their way to consecutive World Series championships, with Hall of Fame players Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, baseball's all-time hits leader in Rose and perennial All-Stars such as George Foster, Dave Concepcion and Ken Sr.
Which is why I almost botched this Griffey story.
There I was that July evening, covering a Reds game at old Riverfront Stadium, and one of the veteran groundskeepers waved me over to the side of the batting cage.
"Got a great idea for you … Ken Griffey," said the groundskeeper, nodding while searching my face for a reaction.
I thought the groundskeeper meant the Reds right fielder who had just spent his first full three seasons in the Major Leagues hitting over .300 and reaching the last two All-Star Games. I started to mention I'd already done something on that Griffey, when the groundskeeper added, "Ken Griffey Jr."
Ken Griffey Jr.? I thought, with raised eyebrows. That kid? The one who joined Pete Rose Jr., and Perez's son, Eduardo, for dashes around the clubhouse as if they were climbing trees in their backyards?
"Yep," said the groundskeeper. "Check him out in a game."
After some doubt, I did. Wow. The only player nearly as impressive as Ken Jr. that day was Craig. The headline on my story in the Enquirer said: "Ken Jr. and Craig Are Griffeys, And Play Like It."
Here were my opening paragraphs:
Ken Griffey is too good. Ken Griffey, Jr., that is.
He's the eight-year-old son of the Cincinnati Reds right fielder, but the name of Junior's game is pitching. He whirls baseballs so fast for his Mt. Airy D-1 team that opposing players approach the plate in tears.
That's if they bat at all.
"Some of them just don't want to face him," said Griffey's coach Duke Hail. "Of course, in D League, kids don't have to bat if they're crying."
Griffey's team finished 12-0 that season, and five of those victories were combined no-hitters featuring You Know Who. (Note: In that league, most batted balls in fair territory are called hits). When Ken Jr. wasn't pitching, he was playing first base, and regardless of his position he hit third or cleanup in the lineup -- you know, just as he would in the Major Leagues. Craig was the team's starting center fielder, and he was the leadoff hitter. As Hail said back then, "[The Griffeys] are good for about five runs a game. We can count on Craig always getting on base, and Kenny hits one out about every game."
Sounds like big Griffey. Then again, according to many during his Knothole days, he actually was big Griffey as a youth. The same tag was applied to Craig, who never reached the Major Leagues after seven seasons in the Minor Leagues during the 1990s. Even so, Craig and Ken Jr. played at such an advanced level as teammates during their 1978 Knothole League days that opposing coaches and parents didn't believe they were actually 7 and 8, respectively. Nasty arguments among grownups became a regular occurrence before, during and after games involving the Griffeys. Ken Sr. was off trying to help the Machine keep rolling, but his wife, Birdie, attended all of her sons' games, and she stayed calm during the majority of the turmoil.
Once, an umpire kicked the opposing coach and his wife off the premises for their loud and animated bickering, and they even demanded to see the birth certificates of the Griffeys.
It didn't happen.
What did happen was a splendid baseball life for Ken Griffey Jr., and I've documented much of it through the decades …
Even from the beginning.