Ken Griffey Jr. was born into baseball, the son of a star outfielder, so even before playing in his first game in the majors, he had spent a lifetime in major league clubhouses. But when Alex Rodriguez joined the Seattle Mariners, he noticed right away that the player who was known to other players as Junior was always the first to arrive at the ballpark daily.
"Always," Rodriguez said over the phone Tuesday, on the eve of Griffey Jr.'s election into the Baseball Hall of Fame. "For a guy who grew up in a major league clubhouse to have that love and passion for the sport is just awesome. He was always the first guy to the clubhouse and the last one to leave."
For a time, Rodriguez tried to beat Junior to the ballpark, futilely, because there were days when Junior arrived by noon for a night game, when Rodriguez would still be at home asleep.
As Griffey killed time at his locker, he sometimes would stretch out in the clubhouse, and while wearing jeans, Rodriguez recalled, Junior would get down in a split so low that his nose would be touching the clubhouse floor. This flexibility, Rodriguez believed, was what made Junior's swing the most defining feature of him as a player, the envy of other players. "What people don't realize is, he's like a cheetah," Rodriguez said. "Not only is he big and strong, but he was probably the most flexible guy I played with, and that flexibility equated to great bat speed and great torque, and great body control.
"Incredible bat speed and balance His swing, it was like Picasso. He would swing effortlessly, and it would go to all parts of the field, and just explode off his bat."
Rodriguez discovered quickly after signing with the Mariners how much Junior valued bat speed. Griffey handed him his bat and said, "Use this, kid."
The bat was 34 inches and just 31 ounces, triple-lacquered, Louisville Slugger, and to Rodriguez, it felt exactly like the Easton bat that he had used while playing high-school ball in Miami. When Rodriguez asked him why he would use a bat at those dimensions, Junior told him that it felt like the Easton bat he had swung in high school.
Rodriguez has used that same bat his entire career, just as Griffey did. "Unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "In today's game, I've played with players who've used four bats in one game -- four different bats. It's fascinating that he used one bat his entire career, and I did the same thing."