EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey.
CINCINNATI – Paul Smith saw Ken Griffey Jr. jump flat-footed and dunk a basketball effortlessly while at Moeller High School.
Griffey could throw a football 70 yards and punt it the same distance in high school. He played wide receiver as a junior.
And the 1987 Moeller graduate would drive his teammates and coaches nuts on the bench with his joking antics.
“One of the things I remember about him, Kenny – he was just a kid,” said Smith, a Moeller baseball assistant from 1973 to 2003. “He had the smile on his face. He was so good to the guys on the team.”
“Kenny” played primarily center field his two years for the Crusaders. He still holds the school’s career batting average at .478.
But, there was a time he pitched in relief for the Crusaders in a game against Princeton on a cold Sunday night after Moeller had played five consecutive games leading up to that day.
The game was in the seventh inning and Moeller had used every pitcher it had. Enter the prodigy from West Chester.
“We waved to him and he comes running in like a wild man,” Smith said.
Griffey hit 91 miles per hour on the radar gun during the course of his eight warm-up pitches. He struck the first batter out on three curve balls.
Then, after a wild pitch to the backstop on the next batter, Griffey tagged the runner out at home to secure the win.
“Who wrote this script?” Smith thought to himself at the time. “What else can this kid do? He was a once in a lifetime player.”
That script now includes Cooperstown. He received the highest voting percentage (99.3) in history.
Griffey, a 1987 Moeller graduate, will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame July 24 in Cooperstown, New York. The ceremony begins at 1:30 p.m.
Smith and former longtime Moeller head baseball coach Mike Cameron will be there along some of their family members.
Cameron leaves Thursday for the trip and is looking forward to yet another celebrated moment from his coaching career.
“Kenny was such a talent at every level, from high school to the majors,” Cameron said. “It’s really hard to put into words or say. I don’t know quite the feeling until I get there and see him up there (on the stage).”
Hall of Famer High School
Griffey will be the second Moeller player inducted into the Hall of Fame after 1984 graduate and longtime Reds shortstop Barry Larkin achieved the honor in 2012. Cameron was in Cooperstown for that occasion, too.
“My thought ran back when Barry was running around Malsbury Park and Moeller High School,” Cameron said. “He was a kid who was very talented. But, I couldn’t begin to fathom he would be in the Hall of Fame.”
Griffey was on the path to stardom from an early age. He hung around Major League Baseball spring training camps his first two years of high school. He used to bring Rickey Henderson's cleats and other big league equipment to pass out to his Moeller teammates.
Cameron was the man in charge of Big Moe during those years. He won 767 career games in his Moeller coaching career that went from 1969 to 2007. He won four state titles and the players and teams he coached are significant to area high school history.
Griffey, in a conference call with reporters last week, said he respected the way Cameron dealt with the Moeller players. Griffey also liked the way Cameron checked on his progress in the classroom.
"He was a coach who treated everyone the same," Griffey said. "There was no favorites. You miss practice then this is what happens — you don't play. He pulled you to the side and talked to you without embarrassing you."
An official scorer for the Reds, Cameron likes to reflect on how blessed he was to have such talent. Coaching Griffey was like a divine gift.
“It’s incredible,” Cameron said. “Going back almost 50 years ago when I started my career I had no thought of coaching a Hall of Famer. I was just hoping to coach an all-league player and maybe an all-city kid. It’s very rewarding.”
Griffey, who was the 1987 Gatorade Ohio baseball player of the year, never wavered from what he believed was his destiny — a big-league career.
During October or November of Griffey's senior year, Cameron asked Griffey if he ever considered college.
"He kind of looked at me like I was really strange or that this was a stupid question," Cameron said. "He said, 'coach I was born to play baseball. That's what I am going to do.' He didn't say it in a bragging manner. He just knew that's where he was gifted and that's what he was going to do and going to college made no sense to him at all."
The Legend of Kenny Grows
The baseball stories about Griffey at Moeller are legendary. There is non-audio footage of the signature sweet left-handed swing on YouTube in a game at St. Xavier. There are photos of the 1980s teams too, but not a whole lot else.
The word-of-mouth stories almost make the prep legend grow to new heights with each decade.
During his junior year, Griffey hit three home runs in the second game of a doubleheader at Kettering Fairmont. He hit the ball so far the scouts had to move their cars.
There was the game played in the snow at Millcrest Park in Norwood. Griffey hit the top of the roof of a roller rink on Sherman Avenue approximately 430 feet away. Other stories like a ball he purportedly launched at Western Hills into the Frisch's parking lot may or may not be true.
To those who knew him back in the late 1980s, Griffey was Ken, Kenny or Griff and not Junior. He was just one of the guys. It just so happened his dad was part of the Big Red Machine and often showed up at games with the likes of George Foster and Dan Driessen.
In fact, his only kryptonite at Moeller games may have been when Ken Griffey Sr. showed up to watch. Junior would often strike out when his dad was there.
“It was just not good,” former Moeller teammate Andy Nagel said. “It was kind of funny in a way.”
There was nothing comical about Griffey's offense to pitchers. He could launch a ball at any time.
Griffey hit 10 home runs his junior season and despite being pitched around his senior year, he added seven more in ’87, according to Moeller archivist Dick Beerman.
But Griffey’s defense was equally awesome in center field.
“There were a couple of plays he made defensively – he was like a gazelle,” Smith said. “Even in the majors he was just so smooth.”
Moeller played at the old Malsbury Park in Blue Ash without fences his senior season. Beyond right-center field was a Little League field.
A St. Xavier batter blasted a ball to a deep part of the outfield and Griffey ran between the youngsters during their practice to make a catch.
Later that night Smith’s 9-year-old son, Michael, had a story for his dad.
“Mr. Griffey was yelling at me, saying ‘watch out Little Smitty, watch out!’” Smith recalled.
Another time against Portsmouth, Griffey snagged a 350-foot blast to the power alley and threw a runner out on one bounce at third. The Portsmouth coach said he conceded between innings.
“It was phenomenal,” Smith said.
Nagel, the director of baseball operations at the University of Cincinnati, was a pitcher and utility player for Moeller during Griffey’s senior year.
Nagel started the last regular season game of 1987 at a packed house at the Grooms Sports Complex’s Riverfront Stadium field.
A Sycamore leadoff batter hit a ball to deep center and Griffey tracked it down, hitting the fence while making the out.
“He was down,” Nagel said. “He didn’t get up. Everybody runs out there to check on him. I remember him looking up and saying, ‘don’t ever throw that pitch again.’”
Remembering His Roots
A short time later, Griffey was selected No. 1 overall in the 1987 Major League Baseball Draft by the Seattle Mariners. He was on the fast track to the majors and everyone knew it.
But he didn’t forget his Moeller days. He returned to a football game at Welcome Stadium not long after he was in the minor leagues in San Bernadino, Calif., in 1988.
Later in his career, he gave two of his special bats – for home runs Nos. 598 and 599 – to Smith and Cameron. Both were flattered that Kenny still remembered the good times at Moeller.
Griffey caught up with Nagel and others at the Reds Hall of Fame ceremony in 2014.
Smith called Griffey last week and the two have kept in touch.
“I’m excited for him,” Smith said. “Cooperstown is a special place. “
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