The Big League Debuts of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Omar Vizquel in 1989

I noticed that Griffey and Vizquel were on track to become two of the few four-decade ballplayers, from the ’80s into the ’10s, once they make their first appearances this season. I remember them as rookies with the Seattle Mariners in 1989, and looked up what happened in their debut, on April 3 of ’89 vs. the Oakland A’s. Here’s what Bob Finnigan of the Seattle Times wrote:

But for an error by shortstop Omar Vizquel, who also made a handful of dazzling plays, the four rookies who started for the Mariners gave good accounts of themselves.

Ken Griffey Jr., center of attention, hit the second big-league pitch he ever saw to the wall in center field for a double. [It was a forkball from Dave Stewart: Griffey said "It was a good swing. I remembered in a `B' game in Phoenix he threw me fastball, forkball. I was looking for forkball."] He hit two others to the warning track, the second after fouling off five two-strike pitches in a magnificent eighth-inning at-bat against left-hander Rick Honeycutt.

Vizquel misplayed the second chance he had, overthrowing first baseman Alvin Davis on Carney Lansford’s grounder in the third. That mistake was compounded by Mark McGwire on Langston’s next pitch. He drove a ball into the left-field seats which, combined with his first-inning sacrifice fly, put Seattle in a 3-0 hole.

`I was excited, nervous,” Vizquel said. “But never again will I give a runner too much credit like that. I rushed my throw when I should have set myself and made the good play.”

Vizquel followed by showing why, while he might not get Griffey-sized attention yet, he may contribute as much to the Mariner future. In the sixth inning, he was hit in the ear by Dave Parker’s bad-hop grounder, dropped it, picked it up and calmly forced McGwire at second. In the eighth, he robbed McGwire of a hit by going deep in the hole.

Third baseman Edgar Martinez was flawless in the field and hit two line drives, the first of them a single that drove in Seattle’s first run in the fifth. “I feel half and half,” he said. “Good about my play, bad about the game. But I feel like we can play with anyone, and this game showed it.”

Left fielder Greg Briley came up with a key walk in the fifth off Oakland starter Dave Stewart, pushing Jeffrey Leonard into scoring position after his leadoff single. “We were OK,” Briley said, “but we’ll get better.”

Blaine Newnham of the Times covered Griffey’s debut in a column:

There was no way Lefebvre would even try to downplay the talent of Griffey , who became the youngest starter in the major leagues since Dwight Gooden pitched for the Mets in 1984.

“We saw the debut of a great player tonight,” Lefebvre said.

“That’s a great talent.”

A big smile spread across Griffey ‘s face as he headed into second base with his first hit. The pressure of spring, of making the team, of making it while his father, Ken Sr., was still playing, suddenly was gone.

“As I reached second, I said to myself, `So this is what it’s like.’

“My dad had told me to have fun, and all of a sudden, I was having fun,” Griffey continued. “I was trying to talk to him, knowing he couldn’t hear me.”

Griffey ‘s debut was more professional than sensational, although for a 19-year-old and for the Mariners, it was sensational.

He drove the ball to the warning track on two other occasions – covering more than 1,000 feet of outfield – including an at-bat in the eighth inning that had baseball people mildly astonished.

He had his first hit, he’d drawn his first walk, he’d scored his first run. It would have been easy to call it a night, but Griffey was remarkable in a struggle he put up against left-handed reliever Rick Honeycutt leading off the eighth.

“I threw him two sliders for strikes,” said Honeycutt, “and then a fastball that he somehow got the bat on. Then it was slider, slider, slider, and he kept hanging in. He made some very good adjustments on me. He seems to know what he’s doing.”

With two strikes, Griffey fouled off five consecutive pitches from Honeycutt before driving the sixth to the only part of the ballpark – deepest center field – where it could be caught.

“In our park, in most parks, that ball is trouble,” said Lefebvre. “That was a real professional at-bat.

“He gets two quick strikes and then fouls off some pretty tough pitches. He chokes up a half-inch on the bat with two strikes, does it instinctively, without us telling him.

“I’ve got guys who’ve played 10 or 12 years who won’t do that.

“The kid just has both God-given talent and a sense about him that comes, I guess, from being around the game. The great actors hang around the stage and learn what to do.

“ Ken Griffey knows what to do.”

In his season preview article, Bob Finnigan wrote:

With Griffey, [Greg] Briley, Vizquel and [Edgar, of course] Martinez, Seattle’s first-game lineup may not only be its youngest, but the quietest.

Martinez says little, but that’s a lot compared to Vizquel and Briley. When those two roomed together in spring training, their hotel room must have sounded like a Christian Science reading room.

“They don’t say much,” Martinez said. “Good guys, but very, very quiet. Omar is as quiet in Spanish as he is in English.”

Not that any of them is unfriendly. They are as polite off the field as polished on it.

“The most excited I’ve seen Briley and Vizquel was when I told them they had made the club,” Lefebvre said. “They both looked at me and said softly, `Thank you.’ Both of them.

“I heard they talked it up later. But with me, it was just, `Thank you, thank you very much.’ And they were gone.”

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Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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