By: Chris Harris
The Jackson Generals received an unexpected visitor this past week during their homestand with the Huntsville Stars. The sure-fire first ballot Hall-of-Famer and owner of 630 career home runs and 10 gold gloves, Ken Griffey Jr. made a visit to Pringles Park, unbeknownst to most everyone.
Griffey is now a special consultant with the Mariners and makes visits to different spots around the Mariners’ organization. This Generals team has caught the eye of most in baseball, and Griffey Jr. is no different.
“It was pretty neat to see the player’s reaction to him,” said Generals manager Jim Pankovits. “I think what is lost with this generation a lot is the history of the game, and certainly (Griffey) has made an imprint in that.”
Griffey did not want to make his visit to Jackson about him, so he stayed mostly out of sight from fans and media during the Generals’ games Monday and Tuesday night. Griffey did not want anyone to know he was even in town. Trust me, it was hard not screaming to the world that I had just met Ken Griffey Jr.
That approach of staying out of the spotlight impressed Generals infielder Rich Poythress. “He was here for us. He talked to us as a whole and individually. He wants to talk about things on the field and off the field. We talked about his successes in his career, and he is just a good guy and very down to earth.”
One player Griffey has made his mark on is Joe Dunigan, who is batting .304 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs.
“Ever since Griffey came back to the Mariners in 2009 I have had several opportunities to work with him,” replied Dunigan. “He has taken me and a few guys under his wing by taking us out to dinner and teaching us different things about the game. We kind of know him more as ‘Grif’ instead of the guy who hit all the home runs.”
One player that can draw comparisons to Griffey in the Generals’ clubhouse is right-handed starter Taijuan Walker. Griffey broke into the majors with Seattle at age 19, and Walker is currently 19 years old and listed as the top prospect for the Mariners.
“Every time I see him I get a little star struck,” said Walker. “You grew up watching him and playing him on a video game. It is pretty cool being around him, and he is a really cool guy and funny.”
Walker has talked to Griffey a few times, but not necessarily about their career paths. “We really have not had a conversation about baseball. I get kind of scared and shy when I see him, so hopefully next time I see him I can open up a little bit with him.”
Walker did have a funny exchange with “The Kid” about playing a game of basketball. “He thinks he can beat me, so I had to tell him I don’t think he is ready for that,” Walker said jokingly.
Players at this level are around former stars all the time, but Griffey is at a different level than most they see.
“He is a little different than the normal former major leaguer that is around, but that’s because of his easy going personality and is extraverted. So he really takes the pressure off when you are around him,” said Poythress.
Joe Dunigan added pretty much the same thing. “The first time I met him it was crazy, because you think about your favorite player growing up and you don’t know how to act. Then as time goes on you get more comfortable. He welcomes you and is so down to earth. He far reached every expectation about a superstar or Hall of Famer.”
Griffey’s brief visit hopefully will be the first of several to Pringles Park, with all of Seattle and most of the baseball world watching what is happening in Jackson.
I asked Jim Pankovits if he considered placing Griffey in the lineup. “No doubt he could probably get a couple of hits. It would be nice to see him out there again, but I am hoping we can get him back in Jackson and see him out on the field,” Pankivits said smiling.
The chances of getting Ken Griffey Jr. back on the field are slim, but you just never know when you might see that “Kid” with the sweet swing back at Pringles Park.