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Kids' Stuff

A proliferation of exciting young stars has put a fresh face on the game

The three most dominant players in the American League are barely older than the designated-hitter rule. They've never seen a Triple Crown winner in their lifetimes, they didn't play a day in the big leagues before 1989, and they think the prehistoric era dates back to a time when you had to walk to the television set to change channels. Young? The best of them, centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners, plays video games on the team's charter flights. His idea of late-night revelry is to go bowling with his high school buddies at three o'clock in the morning. "Got my own ball and shoes, and they save me a couple of lanes by the wall," he says.

The face of the game has changed—it requires shaving only once a week. Welcome to Baseball 90210. It is a young man's game, with Griffey, first baseman Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and leftfielder Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers at the forefront of what looks to be the best assemblage of young stars in nearly a quarter century. Not since 1970 have so many players no older than 25 accomplished so much and promised so much more. That 1970 group of 25-and-younger standouts included Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver. Today's group of young stars is so dynamic it is changing how the game is marketed, how players are paid and how the record book reads.

So numerous are these young stars that players such as White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez, an 18-game winner; Houston Astro first baseman Jeff Bagwell, a career .295 hitter; outfielder Sammy Sosa, the first 30-30 player in Chicago Cub history; California Angel outfielder Tim Salmon, the 1993 AL Rookie of the Year; and Ranger catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a two-time Gold Glove winner, can't make the cut for SI's 25-and-younger All-Star team.

That lineup of elite young players consists of Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike Piazza, 25; Toronto Blue Jay first baseman John Olerud, 25; Cleveland Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga, 25; Detroit Tiger third baseman Travis Fryman, 25; San Francisco Giant shortstop Royce Clayton, 24; outfielders Griffey, 24, Gonzalez, 24, and the Florida Marlins' Gary Sheffield, 25; designated hitter Thomas, 25; Baltimore Oriole righthanded starting pitcher Mike Mussina, 25; Atlanta Brave lefthanded starter Steve Avery, 23; and Giant reliever Rod Beck, 25.

These are the players baseball is counting on to carry the game to 2000 and beyond. For now, they are invigorating the game and its mass-market appeal. No longer are baseball's ambassadors also poster boys for the geriatric generation. Nolan Ryan and George Brett are retired, even if their sponsorships for analgesic tablets and arthritis balms are not. The torch has been passed to Griffey, whose product tie-in is a full-color, 16-bit, stereo wake-up call: his own baseball video game by Nintendo, backed by an estimated $5 million television and print advertising campaign this spring. Tired, aching muscles not necessary.

"It's in place for these players to dominate the game over the next 10 to 15 years," says Tiger general manager Joe Klein. "You might be talking about a whole group of players who will have Hall of Fame credentials."

It should rank with history's four best groups of 25-and-younger players, rivaling those of 1970, 1912 (Grover Alexander, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Rube Marquard and Tris Speaker), 1928 (Mickey Cochrane, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Travis Jackson, Freddie Lindstrom, Al Simmons, and Lloyd and Paul Waner) and 1957, the Luke Perry of them all (Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson; in addition, Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Koufax and Brooks Robinson were younger than 25 that season but had not yet established themselves as stars).

"We're in a budding renaissance with these young players coming through right now," National League president Leonard Coleman says. "We're on the precipice of another golden age." It may have begun already. Consider what these young players have accomplished so far:

•When Gonzalez and Olerud won the 1993 American League home run and batting championships, respectively, it marked the first time in 28 years, and only the fourth time in league history, that two players no older than 25 won those titles outright. They joined Frank Baker and Cobb (1911), Mantle and Kaline (1955), and Tony Conigliaro and Tony Oliva (1965) in accomplishing that feat.

•Eighteen of the 58 players named to the All-Star Game last year were 25 and younger, including 11 of the 28 players representing the AL, the league with the clear edge in talent.

•Only one player older than 25, Toronto's Paul Molitor, 37, finished among the top five vote getters in the AL Most Valuable Player balloting. Thomas, Olerud, Gonzalez and Griffey finished, in order, 1-3-4-5.

•Only six players have hit more than 120 home runs before their 24th birthday. Two reached that mark last year: Griffey (132) and Gonzalez (121). The other four are in the Hall of Fame: Mel Ott and Mathews (153), Robinson (130) and Mantle (121).

•The simultaneous impact of Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez is unique. Though they became the sixth threesome to reach 40 home runs, 100 runs batted in and a .300 batting average in the same league in the same season, they are the first to do so before their 26th birthday. In fact, in none of the previous five trios were all three players younger than 29.

In the inaugural season of The Baseball Network, the joint television venture designed not only to broadcast the game but also to sell it to advertisers, guess who Major League Baseball expects to drive the promotional engine? "Every time we talk to an advertiser," says Ken Schanzer, the network's president and CEO, "we talk about the young players in the game and the excitement they're generating. We're encouraging clients to take a look at these guys." The new network is less interested in trying to sell the game itself—the Catch the Fever campaign used by baseball in recent years is on its way out—and more focused on selling the players, especially the young ones.

During the recent NFL playoffs, ABC and NBC, which are both partners with Major League Baseball in the new network, aired three different promos, each of which highlighted an individual star—Griffey, Gonzalez and National League MVP Barry Bonds of the Giants, "The first phone call I made when I took this job was to Don Fehr [Players Association executive director]," says Schanzer. "I told him our operating principle is this: The players are the game. We will do everything we can to promote our stars front and center. And they're there."

Players such as Griffey, who has already played in four All-Star Games and yet is younger than both 1993 Rookies of the Year, are the best advertisements for the game, especially at a time when advertisers are concerned that baseball attracts an older demographic audience than other sports. What's more, multisport high school athletes facing career choices need no longer be scared off by the prospect of a lengthy minor league apprenticeship spent riding buses between truck-stop towns. Today's young stars have hung out this enticing possibility: play baseball, get rich quick. "There's a lot to be said for the number of 21-year-old players making it to the big leagues," Klein says. "Kids tend to emulate success."

The arrival of so many good young players is a fortunate happenstance for baseball. Except for this group, what does the game have to sell? The impact of the young players is more pronounced because of an enormous vacuum left by older players who should be the game's flag bearers. What players dominate the game into their 30's anymore? Very few. Of the 22 players who hit 30 home runs last season, only five were older than 29: Bobby Bonilla, Joe Carter, Cecil Fielder, Danny Tartabull and Mickey Tettleton. Of the 12 pitchers who won at least 18 games last season, only four were older than 29: Randy Johnson, Jimmy Key, Mark Portugal and Billy Swift.

In the era of the disposable hero, the generation of players 30 and older includes a wasteland of broken-down, faded and forgotten stars. Look at the guys who were the established 25-and-younger stars entering the 1987 season: Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Eric Davis, Dwight Gooden, Wally Joyner, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Tartabull. None of them made it to the All-Star Game last year. Many of them have been sidetracked by injuries. All of them, with the exception of Clemens, have been derailed on the way to Cooperstown.

"That was the first wave of players who got the really big money," says Cincinnati Red manager Davey Johnson. "I'm talking about them being financially set into the next generation. It's human nature to be less motivated when you are that secure. Now everybody has the money. Maybe now it's the performance of the player, and not the money, that sets him apart from the crowd. I hope we're back to the point of 15, 20 years ago, when the players were after the MVP awards, home run crowns, batting titles and things like that. That would be a big and welcome change."

Thomas, the AL's unanimous MVP last season, is just that sort of player. He became only the fifth player in major league history to hit .300 with 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs scored in three consecutive seasons. The other four all are in the Hall of Fame: Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth. Only Gehrig and Williams did it four straight seasons.

Last October, Thomas signed a seven-year, $45.5 million contract, which included two option years, but he says, "Money is not the issue. I'm going to be set for life. If that's why you're in the game—and I know a lot of guys do feel that way—you're in it for the wrong reason. I love the competition. That's what drives me. I'd like to do some things offensively in this game that have never been done before. That's something I strive for. It's easy to be a good player. I want to be a great player."

Gonzalez, too, is driven to put up the kind of Hall of Fame statistics that require a long career. "I want to have good numbers every year," he says. "Sometime in my career I'd like to experience hitting 50 or more home runs, and at the end of my career I'd like to have 500 home runs, a .300 batting average and 1,800 to 2,000 RBIs. I don't think Hall of Fame at this stage in my career. That would be crazy. I have a lot left to accomplish."

Says Angel manager Buck Rodgers, "We've had people with great talent come along in this game recently. Unfortunately, the trend is the Canseco pace: short and sweet. I hope some of these young guys go the other way: long and lovely."

Baseball executives cite Canseco as the prototypical short-term star, the sort of player that can be distracted by fame and sated by financial security. In 1988, at the age of 24, he became the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. Thereafter he appeared more interested in becoming a celebrity than a great baseball player. He attracted more attention for what he did off the field than on it. "There was a player who could have done anything he wanted in this game," says one Al general manager. "And the first thing he does is get his own 1-900 number."

Aaron, Kaline, Mays and Robinson all played at least 20 years. Who wants or needs to play that long these days when players with just three years, two years or even one year of service are getting multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts? Not Thomas, for one. "I'd like to play 12 to 15 years if I could," he says. "If I have a chance to get into the Hall of Fame, I'd probably play a little longer." Says Mays, "Twelve years? We had to play as long as we could because it was a means of survival."

Robinson hit .290 in 1956, his rookie year, with 38 home runs and 83 RBIs. The Reds gave him a $6,500 raise, to $12,500. Robinson had to supplement his income by taking an off-season job at an Oakland galvanizing factory. Salmon put up similar numbers in his rookie season last year: .283, 31 homers, 95 RBIs. The Angels rewarded him with a four-year contract that will pay him $7.5 million.

Gonzalez and Thomas are signed through the year 2000. Baerga, Fryman, Griffey, Olerud, Piazza and Sheffield all have long-term contracts too. These players are putting up such huge numbers at young ages that clubs effectively buy away their right to arbitration, which often is the greatest escalator of salaries. For instance, who would dare risk an arbitration hearing and attempt to construct a case against Thomas and his mighty statistical portfolio? Moreover, as Seattle general manager Woody Woodward cautions, "One result of the next labor agreement may be that as a trade-oil' for getting rid of arbitration, players would be allowed to be free agents after three or four years [instead of the current six]. You don't want your young star to be able to leave that soon."

Most baseball executives say players now get to the big leagues quicker than ever before thanks to expansion, improved major-college programs, a thinning overall talent pool and a changing payroll structure. "More and more clubs are paying so much money to their star players that they can't afford to keep as many veterans at other positions or on the bench," says Woodward, "so they're giving younger players a chance."

"From a development standpoint," says Brave general manager John Schuerholz, "it used to be you were cautious. Better to let them be overripe when you brought them up. Now the idea is pick the grape a little earlier and just hope the champagne is a little sweeter."

Players of such prodigious talent as Gonzalez, Griffey, Olerud and Thomas would have made their major league arrival at a young age during any era. The point is that it is easier for them to flourish amid watered-down competition, against others who aren't yet ready. "You have to do more teaching on the big league level now than you ever did," St. Louis Cardinal manager Joe Torre says.

"So many players are forced up here that shouldn't be here," Kaline says. "You look around and you'll see two, three, four players on every team that don't belong in the big leagues."

The shortage of quality pitchers is particularly acute. No young pitchers dominate the game the way that positional players such as Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez do. It's true that pitchers historically take longer to develop (Bob Gibson, Lefty Grove. Gaylord Perry, Red Ruffing, Nolan Ryan and Early Wynn all had losing career records through their last full season before turning 26). Even so, Klein says, "It's baffling to me that pitchers aren't coming through the way the young hitters are. Despite all the advances in sports medicine and training programs, the attrition rate for pitchers has gone up."

When Oriole assistant general manager Doug Melvin comes home from work, his seven-year-old son, Cory, is waiting for him to play their daily game of home run derby. Cory always pretends to be the same three hitters: Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez. "He pulls his sleeves up like Gonzalez, backs off the plate like Thomas and stands upright like Griffey," Melvin says. "Those three are the ones to watch. They could rank with the alltime greats."

Oakland A's special-assignment scout Bill Rigney, a former player and manager, likes the chances of Olerud to be the kind of player he calls "a repeater," someone who puts up one good year after another over a lengthy career. "His swing is so smooth, and he doesn't play a high-risk position so he should just hit and hit and hit," Rigney says.

Olerud, though, did not have his breakthrough season until last year, during which he turned 25. Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez have each put up three seasons already of at least 20 home runs and 100 RBIs. They finished 1-2-3 (in varying order) last season in home runs, slugging and total bases. No set of 25-and-younger sluggers has so dominated a league since 1955, when Aaron, Mathews, Mays and Ernie Banks all reached at least 300 total bases in the National League. Starting that season, the NL lost only four of the next 19 All-Star Games. Now it is the AL—riding a six-year All-Star win streak—that is stocked with most of the best young players in the game.

"There's no comparison," says Cub executive vice president Larry Himes. "Go to the home run hitting contest at the All-Star Game, and you look at all these guys 6'5", 230 pounds the American League is running out there. We've got a ways to go to catch up to that level."

From 1953 through '67, Aaron, Banks, Mathews and Mays won or shared 12 of the 15 NL home run titles. Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez—born 18 months apart—may stage their own home run derby for just as long. Gonzalez won his second straight title last year, with 46 home runs, one more than Griffey and five more than Thomas, who bruised his right arm on Sept. 19.

"Last year we had a great home run race going on, and I could smell it," Thomas says. "I thought I had a chance to win until I got hurt. It was fun. I'd check every day to see what Junior and Juan did. That's what baseball's all about. We've got a friendly rivalry going, and I hope we keep it up."

Who's the best? SI put this question to a cross section of 15 managers and front-office executives: If you could have the next 10 years of any player no older than 25, whom would you choose? Everyone said Griffey.

"Nobody else can do all the things Griffey does," Melvin says. "Not only does he give you so much production at the plate, playing centerfield the way he does, he takes runs away too."

Says another AL general manager, "I love Frank, but I'd take Griffey because of his body. You look at his dad and see that he had such a long career, and Junior has the same genes. Gonzalez has already had some back problems, and you worry about pure power hitters. Frank is already big, and you worry about him getting hurt or getting bigger as he gets older. But Griffey has the kind of body you think will hold up over a long period of time."

Even Thomas agreed, saying, "All around, I would say Griffey's the best. Junior's getting better and better, and his defense is incredible. There are only three guys in this game I'd pay to see play: Junior, Juan and Barry Bonds. Me? I'm just your basic blue-collar guy who works hard at his game. Hittingwise, I don't feel like I have any flaws. I work on all facets."

While many baseball people admire Griffey's talent, they don't have the same regard for his approach to the game. He has had the reputation of a slacker. Says one general manager, "I don't see him serious about the game all the time the way he should be. I still see him silly at times." It bothers the traditionalists that Griffey doesn't always run hard to first base on routine ground balls, that he likes to wear his cap backward and fraternize with opposing players and that last season he directed an obscene gesture at Tiger manager Sparky Anderson after hitting a home run. And as Griffey admits, "I'm usually the first one out of the clubhouse" after games.

He toys with the game. Baseball is another video game to him, his bat a joystick. He claims to have only one goal: to steal 20 bases in a season (his career high is 18). He acts completely uninterested in the historic possibilities for his career.

"I was never good in history," he says. "I was better at math and science. I've heard all the things said about me. Well, I don't have a face like Will Clark. I take my game seriously, but I don't play like I'm serious. I play to have fun. You play better when you're loose. All I want is to be the best player I can be, not what people think I can be. When I'm done playing, I want people to say about me, 'He could flat out play. He had fun while he played. And I enjoyed watching him play.' That's all."

Truth is, Griffey is getting more serious about his job. He played in a career-high 156 games last season, his first after signing a four-year, $24 million contract; he also set personal bests in hits, home runs and RBIs. "I was skeptical after he signed that big contract, but not anymore," says Minnesota Twin general manager Andy MacPhail. "He really is something special." This spring Griffey was first in line whenever it was time for running drills in training camp. "No one asked him to do that," Seattle manager Lou Piniella says. Griffey studies videotapes of his hitting at home, a giant leap from his cavalier early years. Once, upon learning he was to hit against Bert Blyleven, he had to ask, "Is he a lefty or a righty?" He also is a first-time father proud enough to describe how 2½-month-old Trey Kenneth Griffey loves to nestle against his chest and fall asleep.

"When I was younger, it was me, me, me," he says. "Not anymore. Now it's him and my wife and then me. Now I have to watch what I say around the house and what I do. In a way, that's good. It makes me feel responsible."

Says teammate Mackey Sasser, "He doesn't even realize his own talent yet. He's still a kid. I've watched Barry Bonds play, and he's every bit of Barry Bonds—only younger. He's the only guy I've ever seen who can call his shots. He said he was going to hit one out on Mother's Day, and he did. Said he was going to hit one out on Father's Day, and he did. Sometimes he'll just say, 'Watch this, I'm going deep,' and then hit one out."

With his youthfulness and all-around skills, Griffey would seem to be the most marketable of the young stars. Yet he exhibits little passion for gaining a higher profile. He took a small part in a movie, Little Big League, over the winter, but only after agonizing for six weeks about whether to do it. "Because it's not me," he explains about his hesitation. "I just want to be me. I'm not a fame freak. The only ego I have is I know I can play."

Thomas has snared some endorsements, but not on the level of many basketball players. The 6'5", 257-pound MVP was virtually lost in the shadow of Michael Jordan during spring training. Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican, can be engaging but is still working to improve his English. Olerud is as boring as C-SPAN and admits to it. Fryman, despite three straight 20-homer, 90-RBI seasons, has no identity outside Detroit, and the one he has there is that of a hardworking wooden soldier who refers to hi£ general manager as Mr. Klein. As Q ratings go, these ballplayers are no speed skaters.

Other members of SI's all-star lineup are just now making a name for themselves. Piazza is a charismatic catcher who hit 35 home runs last year—the second-most ever by an NL rookie—only five years after the Dodgers drafted him in the 62nd round as a favor to family friend Tom Lasorda, the Los Angeles manager. Baerga has put together the best two consecutive offensive seasons for a second baseman since Rogers Hornsby. Sheffield, who two years ago was the youngest batting champion in 30 years, is being moved from third base to the outfield for the sake of improving his offense. "He never felt comfortable at third and was taking his concerns about defense to the plate with him," says Marlin general manager Dave Dombrowski.

Avery has won 50 games in the big leagues, started 10 postseason games and pitched in one All-Star Game—all before his 24th birthday. Mussina, though bothered by tendinitis last year, has a 36-16 career record, a Stanford degree and his own official fan club. Beck has converted 87% of his save chances over the past two years (65 of 75).

"Which one of these guys will become a household name?" asks Woodward. "Who will be the next solid player to be outspoken like a Reggie Jackson? We don't know."

Says one frustrated Major League Baseball executive, "Magic Johnson understood better than anyone what it meant to all players to sell the league. Then Larry Bird came along. Michael Jordan did it, and Charles Barkley plays that role to the hilt. One of the things we have to get baseball players to realize is that they have the power and responsibility to promote the game."

On the other hand, maybe what makes this group so special is that they are not salesmen in the commercial sense of the word. Maybe they are wise not to go dancing on this minefield called fame. Maybe, as MacPhail says, the way to avoid another mass flameout is for these young stars "just to stay focused on the game of baseball. A certain opportunity is there to excel for a long period of time and to be identified with the greats of the game. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see them take advantage of."



Steve Avery