Hitting not a guessing game for Ken Griffey
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — The position of the batting practice cage at the New York Yankees' spring training camp here allows the visitor to stand (protected) only a few feet behind the hitter.
At the other end of the cage, 60 feet, six inches away, a Yankee coach feeds baseballs into a pitching machine that can be adjusted to throw fastballs, curves, or sliders up to 95 miles per hour.
If you're a fan, a bystander, or a sportswriter, this is probably the closest you're ever going to come to understanding what it's like to hit against major league pitching. And what it's like at those speeds is scary.
It is where Ken Griffey, the player who will replace Reggie Jackson in right field for the Yankees this season, spends part of every morning.
Griffey is no rookie, but an eight-year veteran who was traded by the Cincinnati Reds last November to New York for pitcher Brian Ryder and a player to be named later. Along with Dave Winfield in left and Jerry Mumphrey in center , Ken provides the Yankees with one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.
But the thing that makes Griffey special, that separates him from most players, is that five times in the past seven years he has hit .305 or better - and he barely missed that figure on the other two occasions. His .307 lifetime batting average is one of the best around, and he is a three-time All-Star who was named MVP of the 1980 game.
Ken says he always looks for the fastball and then adjusts to anything else.
''The best pitch in baseball, when it's thrown properly, is the fastball, because it's either going to have a little tail or a little rise on it that can overpower the hitter,'' Griffey explained ''So you have to be ready for it, and if you're me, you never guess.
''Basically I'm going with the pitch because you give up too much in the way of bat control when you fight the flight of the ball,'' he added. ''I'm not a home run hitter. I'm glad I recognized that for myself when I first started playing minor league baseball, because when you try to be something you're not you only mess things up.
''The thing I demand from myself more than anything else is consistency. I try to hit the ball the same way all the time and drive it between the outfielders if I can. While I don't consider myself a bad-ball hitter, if I see a pitch just outside the strike zone that I think I can do something with, I'll swing at it.''
Asked about slumps, Griffey replied:
''I don't believe in slumps, because once you admit to a problem like that you've got something extra to deal with. However, I do think a player can get himself into trouble sometimes by not recognizing fatigue.
''For example, sometimes after coming home from a long road trip, you are so tired that you unconsciously change things. Hopefully the manager will recognize this, even if you don't, and take you out of the lineup for a day or two.''
Ken says he's also gone through periods when he's hit well and not gotten on base because the ball went right at somebody.
''I guess maybe some hitters consider that a slump, but I don't,'' he explained. ''A slump to me is when you strike out four or five times in a row. Then you know you've lost your timing and you've really got something to worry about. But if you're making good contact and driving the ball consistently, then you're always going to get your share of hits.''
Even at this stage of his career, Griffey still has a baseball hero - a man by the name of Wilver Dornell Stargell, who in the past 19 years has hit 472 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
''When I was 14 and still growing up in Donora, Pa. (which is also Hall of Famer Stan Musial's hometown) Stargell came to visit some friends there and I got a chance to meet him,'' Griffey said.
''I had always admired Willie as a ballplayer and now I wanted to be like him as a man. Of course when I became a player myself I didn't have the body or the strength to hit home runs the way he did. But there was one thing I could go for that he had, and that was consistency.''
Even though Griffey hit either second or third at Cincinnati, Manager Bob Lemon so far this spring has batted Ken first, second, third, and fifth for the Yankees.
''I don't care where Lemon bats me, because I've never felt I had to be any one place in the order to be effective,'' Griffey said. ''The only thing that would bother me is not playing every day.''