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That Time the Mariners Almost Didn’t Draft Ken Griffey Jr.

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Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling so it goes, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners were meant to be. This is the story of how they almost weren’t.

Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners

You can’t think of the Mariners in the 1990s without thinking about Ken Griffey Jr. The image of his swing, his backwards cap, and that race around third to beat the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS are likely the first things that pop into your head. He wasn’t just the face of the Mariners in that decade though; he was the face of baseball. In video games, on television and in movies, and shilling various products in commercials he could be found, smiling and laughing. He was ours; our first real superstar. The Mariner that made the Mariners. It’s impossible to imagine them without him, and in fact, they likely wouldn’t exist as the Mariners without him.

He almost wasn’t a Mariner though. Owner George Argyros (in a move 2019 Jerry Dipoto approves of) wanted to go with a college pitcher, and a Cal State-Fullerton pitcher named Mike Harkey was poised to become baseball’s Sam Bowie. The Pittsburgh Pirates had the second pick in the draft, and although they already had a young Barry Bonds, they were salivating at the chance to scoop up the Junior Griffey. History could have been very different.

“Playing for Keeps” was the slogan of the 1987 Mariners. It became laughable before the season even began. Twelve days before the Mariners were set to open, their owner bought another team. George Argyros had owned the Mariners since 1981. His tenure was marked by threats to move the team, and dysfunction on and off the field (and not even in a “put the fun in dysfunction” kind of way). A native of California who gave every impression of detesting Seattle, he wanted to own a baseball team close to home. When the San Diego Padres went up for sale in November 1986 he saw his chance. His offer to buy the team was accepted and announced at the end of March.

Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XXII - Backstage And Audience
George Argyros and Julia Argyros in 2016, seemingly unconcerned that he once didn’t want to draft Ken Griffey Jr.
Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night

The obvious problem with this is that he already owned a major league baseball team. The tale of his attempted purchase of the Padres is fodder enough for its own article. For now, we’ll stick with the short version. Argyros put the Mariners up for sale the same day he announced the agreement to buy the Padres. His initial plan was for the Mariners to be placed in a trust if he could not find a buyer for them before his purchase of the Padres was complete. However, after calling Padres manager Larry Bowa to offer congratulations on an early-season win, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth stepped in. The team was placed in a trust and Argyros was removed from the day-to-day operations of the Mariners due to the obvious conflict of interest. Chuck Armstrong was named Acting CEO and took over the running of the team. Presumably that meant he would have control over everything from payroll to draft decisions. In a concession to Argyros, Ueberroth allowed him to have the final say on any big moves. Argyros was allowed one supervised phone call a day in order to issue approvals.

Backing up a little bit, in August 1985 the Mariners signed a new lease agreement for the Kingdome that would allow them to leave Seattle after the 1987 season if attendance stayed low and Argyros couldn’t find a buyer who would keep them in Seattle. Shockingly, Argyros’s desire to relocate the team meant that he didn’t put all that much effort into making the team better. King County even claimed that he had failed to invest the required amount of money into the team’s payroll for the relocation clause to kick in.

The next season following the signing of this lease, the 1986 Seattle Mariners finished with 95 losses. They claimed the worst record in the American League, which was good enough to win the first overall pick in the following year’s amateur baseball draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates beat them to the worst record in the major leagues with 98 losses. Back in those days, the two leagues were run separately so the AL and NL switched off draft picks. As luck would have it, despite their three superfluous wins, Mariners would still get the first pick thanks to this switching.

As the 1987 draft approached the near consensus first pick was the son of Atlanta Braves outfielder Ken Griffey. Mariners scout Tom Mooney first saw Junior play as a 15-year-old and knew he was the real deal. Mooney told reporters the day Junior was drafted, “He had physical attributes then and it was just a matter of him maturing physically and mentally. Those were the determining factors of how high a draft pick he was going to be.” Scouting director Roger Jongewaard was positive he wanted Griffey Jr. as well. And senior scout Bob Harrison was so sure about him, he would fudge some numbers to make sure the Mariners would take him.

Also under consideration by the team was Mark Merchant, another high school outfielder, and Mike Harkey, the college pitcher. The team approached Argyros with their decision to draft Griffey. Argyros pushed back. He wanted Harkey. He liked minimizing the risk by taking a college player, he liked that Harkey was a California native, and he believed Harkey would make it to the majors before the 17-year-old Griffey (Harkey appeared in 5 games for the Cubs in 1988, so this ended up being true).

Mike Harkey
Mike Harkey. Not a Mariner.

Jongewaard, Mooney, and Harrison had convinced Armstrong that Griffey was their guy. He joined their quest to convince Argyros. There were just a couple problems that needed to be solved first.

The first problem was questions over Griffey’s mental aptitude. He had trouble keeping his grades up high enough to be eligible for his high school baseball team. Then, he scored extremely poorly on a test the organization gave to potential draft picks, similar to the Wonderlic test. The Mariners draft team knew Argyros would never approve a pick with a bad score. Mooney went to Griffey’s home in Cincinnati to have him re-take the test. It turns out Griffey didn’t have an appreciation for the importance of the test and his younger brother Craig (who would go on to be drafted, by the Mariners in the 42nd round of the 1991 draft) had taken it for him. Mooney went back to personally see that the correct member of the Griffey household took the test. This time, with Mooney making sure he took it seriously, Junior performed well enough for his test results to be presented to the Mariners owner.

The second problem to overcome was the scouting scores the Mariners gave their potential draftees. Both Harkey and Griffey scored an 80. Harrison would change a few pieces of data to bump Griffey’s score above Harkey’s. What’s a little manipulation when you’re going after a generational talent?

Then came the issue of poor drafting by the team in previous years. In 1979, the Mariners had their first first overall pick. They chose a high school outfielder named Al Chambers, who played only 57 games for the Mariners. He is widely considered one of the most disappointing picks in team history. (Chambers himself sees things differently.) In the 1986 draft, the Mariners selected a high school shortstop named Patrick Lennon. Like Chambers, Lennon turned down a football scholarship to sign with the Mariners. He would have many off the field problems and never came close to becoming the star shortstop the Mariners envisioned.

Presenting the evidence, somehow the team managed to convince Argyros during those daily phone calls that Griffey was the one. It didn’t come without conditions though. The draft team from Jongewward to GM Tom Balderson were threatened with their jobs if this kid from Cincinnati didn’t turn out to be as special as they claimed he was. They also had to sign Griffey to a contract before the draft in order have permission to draft him. It took a little bit of convincing, but Griffey just wanted to play baseball and he wanted to get to the major leagues as soon as possible. The Mariners could give him that, with the added panache of being the first overall pick. The morning of the draft, he signed.

*****

In hindsight, it’s such an obvious pick. The scouts raved about Griffey and how easily baseball came to him. Even players with similar skill sets, like Merchant, didn’t look as at ease as Griffey. He had grown up around baseball; his father often had his sons with him in major league locker rooms. Griffey grew up with the game and the game was so embedded within him it flowed out naturally whenever he swung the bat or chased down a fly ball.

Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners

It was a battle until the end. A few days before the draft someone in the Mariners organization called Harkey to tell him he was their pick. This was corrected with another phone call the night before the draft.

On June 2nd, 1987 the Mariners selected George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. out of Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, OH as the first overall pick in the draft.

As they say, the rest is history.

A few notes:

  • George Argyros would not end up purchasing the Padres. Shortly before the draft, the Padres pulled out of the sale agreement, citing the length of time it was taking to complete. Argyros would finally rid himself of the Mariners in 1989 when Jeff Smulyan purchased the team. Argyros would never again own a baseball team, but he was appointed Ambassador to Spain during George W. Bush’s administration.
  • Mike Harkey was drafted 4th overall by the Chicago Cubs in 1987. He would end up being present for a defining moment in Mariners history: Sitting in the California Angels bullpen on October 2nd, 1995 when the Mariners clinched the first postseason berth in franchise history.
  • Mark Merchant would play 12 seasons of injury-plagued minor league baseball (including 4 in the Mariners organization), but would not see a single game in the majors.
  • Ken Griffey Jr would go on to become the first overall draft pick to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is universally considered one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners
Ken Griffey Jr in 2016, not caring that George Argyros didn’t want him.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images