VERO BEACH, Fla. — One day this summer, Ken Griffey Jr. walked into an empty office at the old Dodgers spring training complex, a cup of blue Gatorade in one hand. He winced as he sat.
“I have diverticulitis,” he said, cringing, his stomach ailment worsening because of his inability to resist a friend’s Bahamian pasta. A league official tossed him a new bucket hat, which Griffey patted lovingly. Nothing is better than a bucket hat for keeping the sun away on the golf course, which is where Griffey takes most of his swings these days.
Yes, “The Kid” is now 51, more than a decade removed from his last major league at-bat. But once he gets going, that can be easy to forget. More than once, he slipped into the present tense when talking about his swing or the way he used to mold his glove so flyballs would stick.
It’s not always obvious that Griffey is old or official enough to hold the title he does: senior adviser to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. He wore a comfortable pullover and the latest version of the Griffeys, released by Nike for the 25th anniversary of his first signature shoe. He tossed jokes at his MLB colleagues, telling more than one old friend that he “doesn’t talk to pitchers,” then continuing to jab at former pitchers anyway.
All of it — the levity, the enduring youthfulness, even the sneakers — is why Griffey was here, in the same halls Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella used to walk. When he made his major league debut in 1989, 16.5 percent of players on major league rosters were Black. When he retired in 2010, that number was less than 8 percent. In 2020, it was less than 7. Griffey is tasked with getting Black players back to baseball.
He was in town to talk to 200 of the nation’s best Black high school players, assembled here for the Hank Aaron Invitational, a showcase held by MLB and the MLB Players Association’s Youth Development Foundation.
“You look at all the things that have given me a chance to be who I am, a chance to live out my dream and everything else. And you want the next generation to feel that way,” Griffey said.
Part of Griffey’s new job requires offering constant credit to MLB and the union, saying all the right things, thanking all the relevant people. But he seems to know that crediting the right baseball people, that keeping up stodgy baseball appearances, isn’t what will bring Black communities back to baseball. Showing up is.
“We want these guys to understand, ‘You’re not alone,’ “ said Jeffrey Hammonds, a Stanford graduate who played 13 years in the majors before joining the staff of the MLBPA. “We’ve had the same struggles, we had the same concerns, we had the same anxieties.”
Hammonds remembers Griffey coming across the field to welcome him to the big leagues when the two first crossed paths early in his career. Hammonds remembers knowing exactly who Ken Griffey Jr. was. But what he remembers most is that Junior knew who he was, too.
“These kids don’t feel sometimes that they can be seen,” Griffey said. “Nick Saban, John Calipari — all these great coaches can come to a kid’s house and have dinner with them. The NCAA allows that. But the NCAA doesn’t allow a professional team to go visit a kid they may or may not draft. If Nick Saban shows up at your house, everybody in the neighborhood knows it, so the notoriety is there. We don’t have that.”
Griffey always knew he existed within a storied tradition. When he addressed the kids in Vero Beach, he was flanked by retired Black players including Hammonds, Eric Davis, Marquis Grissom and more — flanked the same way he had been since the days when his father was in the big leagues.
He was flanked by his dad on this day, too. So much of Junior’s message, to a reporter in that office or to the hundreds of kids in folding chairs, centers on the importance of being a part of this rare fraternity built on a shared understanding that transcends generations.
“We’re trying to introduce them to this history,” said Hammonds, who long pushed for Griffey to be a part of efforts like this. “It’s one of those scenarios where we can show these kids [that Black players] exist. It’s not a myth.”
Griffey was born into that tradition. Nearly every piece of serious advice he gave the young players devolved into a story of the camaraderie of his playing days, including the time he and his dad became the first father-son duo to hit back-to-back homers in the big leagues (and how dad’s homer went farther but Junior’s left faster).
But as much as Junior bantered like he was one of the guys, everyone up there knew he always was — and still is — something bigger.
His best years coincided with some of the most complicated in baseball history, including the 1994 strike that canceled the postseason, alienated fans and left MLB desperate to pick up the pieces.
The next fall, Griffey’s Mariners made a spirited run to the postseason, knocking off the New York Yankees in an American League Division Series in which he hit .391 with a 1.488 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The Mariners’ magical run ended in the next round, but the game’s greatest star had delivered an upset on the game’s greatest stage.
A year later, Nike signed Griffey and released the first signature shoe for a baseball player, an acknowledgment that the sweet-swinging kid with the backward hat had brought “cool” to a game that wasn’t always known for it. He graced video game covers 15 years apart, including one, “MLB The Show 17,” seven years after he retired.
When LeBron James was beginning his NBA career, surrounded by hype and expectation, he met Griffey through a mutual acquaintance at Nike, and the two became friends. Griffey, James wrote in an email, was one of the few people who could relate to what he was going through as a phenom. Now, Griffey remains one of the few baseball players in history who maintains the cultural clout of guys like James and Michael Jordan.
“He has that cool factor about him,” James told The Washington Post in a statement sent by his agent. “He was an incredibly athletic, good-looking kid, had a signature shoe with Nike, everything you aspire to as a kid.”
Many of the teenagers in Vero Beach were too young to have seen him play, but they flocked to him for selfies anyway. One kid, surrounded by his friends in a tight circle just out of earshot of Griffey, was too nervous to approach him for a picture.
“You have to go!” one of his fellow attendees said.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” another yelled at him. Reluctantly, the kid wandered over to Griffey, who posed and chatted readily.
“Coming from Las Vegas, there’s not a lot of people that look like me,” said L.J. Mercurius, one of the players invited to Vero Beach for the event. “Seeing dudes who look like me who played baseball at an extremely high level and were Hall of Famers, it gives me a sense of family and community that I can actually relate to and be a part of.”
Hammonds watched as the high-schoolers clamored for Griffey’s attention and then scattered across the turf to play catch.
“These are the influencers,” Hammonds said. “They put on his shoe and all of sudden it’s back in the hallways. The ‘Swingman’ still has a brand. Why not get it on the backs of these future generations who want to become him not only on the field but off the field?”
In the years since Griffey retired, the conversation around Black baseball players has changed. The police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 inspired more than a hundred Black big leaguers to start the Players Alliance, a group whose goals include building equitable systems and creating “an inclusive culture within baseball and the community.”
MLB, normally a follower on issues of social and racial justice, moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta after Georgia passed voting laws many activists argued will contribute to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. Last year, MLB painted BLM on its mounds to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement.
Griffey has not been at the center of those conversations, at least not publicly. To the extent that he talks about his own experiences with racism, he usually tells a story from his childhood. He was sitting with his father, a Yankee at the time, in the dugout at Yankee Stadium when a security guard told him that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn’t want kids around the field. The father told his son to look at third base, where Graig Nettles’s son was taking groundballs.
A few years later, Junior led the Mariners to victory over Steinbrenner’s Yankees in the ALDS. His mere presence drew Black fans to a sport when football and basketball were far more popular among kids than it might have been among their parents.
“Our culture, at one time, this was a pillar in our community,” said former player and manager Jerry Manuel, who helped organize the Vero Beach event. “After church? Fried chicken, ballgame. That’s just the way it was. That was our culture: religion, fashion, music, baseball. That was us. That’s our thing. But we lost a bit of that.”
Before this official role in the commissioner’s office, Griffey made change his own way, less with words than by example. In April 1997, Griffey asked to switch his Mariners number from 24 to 42 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut. He did it again 10 years later, but this time MLB invited anyone who wanted to follow his lead to do so. Now, everyone in uniform across the game wears No. 42 on April 15.
“For the Black community in particular, we didn’t have a lot of people who looked like us in baseball to look up to,” James wrote. “But who he was and what he was able to do had that appeal to everyone. And he didn’t have to do too much talking. He let his game do the talking.”
Many of the questions Hank Aaron Invitational attendees hurled at Griffey were more lighthearted than serious. He politely declined to answer when someone asked for his least favorite baseball player. He rattled off about a dozen names when asked for his favorite.
But one of the young players asked Griffey what advice he would give to someone who was the only Black player on his all-White high school team.
“You just have to work hard,” he said. The idea, Griffey went on to say, was that if Black players worked hard and played well, they would be seen eventually — especially because making them more visible is part of his goal.
Griffey said he envisions a video database where former big leaguers can see young players and advise them on skills, growing the MLB pipeline for Black players. Black kids should know they don’t have to be elite players to be a part of major league organizations, Griffey said; the game has places for them elsewhere, too. More than anything, Junior said, he wants to give the kids a sense that this game is theirs — and so is a tradition of Black players who want others to follow more frequently, and more comfortably, in their footsteps.
“Up here, you have guys that played that want to help you. We’re hoping that in 20, 30 years, you’re sitting up here teaching the next generation,” Griffey told the kids that day. “We want to be those old guys sitting in the barbershop, talking about: ‘Hey, I saw him when he was this big. And now he’s here; look where he’s going.’ “