During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Ken Griffey Jr. sits in front of his office computer at his Florida home, his fingers racing across the keyboard, searching to ensure his memory is as pristine as his baseball swing.
There it is, he found it: April 13, 1989. His major-league debut in the Seattle Mariners’ season-opener against the Oakland Athletics. He scans the box score.
Harold Reynolds batted leadoff. Griffey was the No. 2 hitter. First baseman Alvin Davis batted third. Darnell Coles was the cleanup hitter. Jeffrey Leonard was at DH. And Greg Briley was their left fielder.
The first six players in the Mariners’ starting lineup were Black, with five other Black players on the team. The team they were facing that day, the Oakland Athletics, had four Black players on the field with Tony Phillips, Dave Henderson, Dave Parker and starting pitcher Dave Stewart.
The next year, the Mariners had seven Black position players, including Griffey’s dad.
Griffey keeps scrolling, and just a few years later, there it was: just him as the Mariners’ lone Black player.
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Ken Griffey Jr. was once the face of Major League Baseball. Now he looks to help grow the game in more ways. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)
The Black population of players in Major League Baseball stood at just 7.8% on the 2020 opening-day rosters. Three teams did not have a single Black player and 16 teams had two or fewer on the roster.
Griffey knows he can’t single-handedly reverse the trend, but he’s going to do everything in his power to make a difference.
He has been hired by MLB as a senior advisor to commissioner Rob Manfred to help grow the game, with “an emphasis on baseball operations and youth development, particularly on improving diversity at amateur levels.’’
The irony of his new job?
Griffey’s oldest son, Trey, played football at the University of Arizona before a short NFL career. His daughter, Taryn, played basketball for Arizona. And his youngest, Tevin, plays football at Florida A&M.
So here he is, trying to convince kids to play baseball, hoping it becomes their sport of choice when his own kids picked other sports. Then again, he says, how do you explain fellow Hall of Famer Barry Larkin’s son playing in the NBA and NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas’ son playing baseball at Western Illinois?
“We all laugh and say our kids don’t even want to play the same sports we played,’’ Griffey told USA TODAY Sports in an expansive, 90-minute interview. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t want to be compared to their dads or what. You look around, and people may have a first love in one thing, and may end up doing another thing. Michael Jordan’s first love was baseball. So was Bo Jackson’s. The beauty in this is to try to get kids back to playing."
Still, even with his own kids ultimately choosing sports other than baseball, Griffey plans to stress to kids and parents that they should not be confined to one sport. He remembers how playing basketball and football helped him in baseball. His kids not only played all sports, but also the piano. Why limit anyone’s potential?
“You’ve got to draw them in early and show them the cool things about the game," he said. "Not everyone has cable, or is able to watch ESPN or MLB Network, but 95% of them have a phone. We can show through social media how to play the different positions. We could have them send in videos of themselves to MLB and scouting networks to help them, and track their growth. Once interested, and they think they have a chance, it makes all of the difference in the world.’’
Most important, too, is teaching the parents how to act. Too often Griffey has listened to parents screaming and berating their kids. He has seen far too many coaches pulling kids out of a game for making a mistake. If the parents lighten up, so will the kids.
“People have to understand the difference between getting excited and that jackass in the stands,’’ Griffey said. “I see parents just wearing out their kids. Some parents want their kids to be X, Y and Z, and that puts so much pressure on the kid. Pressure is going to come from outside influences, you don’t want it to come from the house, especially in sports.
“I coached Pop Warner football, and I never pulled a kid out from making a mistake. You’re going to make mistakes in life, it’s how you bounce back. If you make a mistake, and I pull you, what did you learn? That you can’t make a mistake? … The only thing these kids should be worrying about is who has got the best snacks at the end of the game.’’
Griffey, 51, has wanted to assist MLB’s efforts to reach kids for years, particularly Black kids and other kids of color. He told Manfred and Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, he wants to stay strictly in his lane. He won’t get involved in any labor disputes. He’s not about to take sides. He’s here to help grow the game of baseball, badly wanting to make an impact.
He once was the kid who made the big leagues at the age of 19, wore his cap backwards, and brought the next generation of swagger to the game. Now, he wants to spread the word that even if you don’t have anything remotely close to his talent, anything is possible in the game.
His family should know. Griffey’s dad, Ken Griffey Sr., was a 29th-round pick who wound up playing 19 seasons. The MLB baseball landscape is filled with players no one believed had a legitimate shot.
Yet, even for those who never make it the big leagues, or even play past college or high school, Griffey plans to accentuate other job opportunities off-the-field in baseball.
There’s only one active general manager, Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners, who played Major League Baseball. Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox is the only head of baseball operations who has major-league experience. Most GMs in the game never played past college, or even past high school. And Kim Ng just became the first woman GM in baseball history this winter with the Miami Marlins. It’s no different than with managers, coaches, scouts, farm directors, public and community relations, videographers, research developers or those in analytics.
“People don’t understand there are people who weren’t ever going to make it in baseball and they got jobs in baseball," Griffey said. "They got to be around the game they love. They can say, “I may not be able to play it, but I can be around it.’
“I want to make sure they realize how many opportunities there are in baseball.’’
It’s going to take time, of course. When the best young athletes can go straight to the NBA or play Sundays in the NFL, riding busses for a couple of years in the minors isn’t necessarily appealing.
The Oakland A’s believed they had one of the best young athletes in America when they signed Oklahoma outfielder Kyler Murray after selecting him ninth in the 2018 MLB draft, only to watch him win the Heisman Trophy playing football for the Sooners that fall. He changed his mind, gave back his $4.66 million signing bonus and signed a four-year, $35.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals, including a $23.6 million signing bonus.
Some things, like convincing kids to bypass potential stardom in the NFL and NBAor at least to try and become two-sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, are going take time.
“We’re going to have to figure that one out,’’ Griffey said , laughing. “That has to be done by the Commissioner’s Office and the union to manage how to handle that. I’ll just work on the kids.
“If I can get them to start playing early, and get that love of the game, maybe the rest will take care of itself, and we can get this game back to where it belongs.’’
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
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