SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ken Griffey Jr. stands behind the batting cage Tuesday afternoon at Salt River Fields, studying Team USA catcher Kyle Higashioka’s swing, and giving him feedback between rounds of batting practice.
Suddenly, Higashioka is locked in, crushing the ball on every pitch.
“That’s a Michael Jackson right there!’’ Griffey yells.
Higashioka, stops, and looks back.
“Michael Jackson?’’ he asks.
Griffey: “Yeah, Off the Wall. (Jackson’s 1979 album). Get it?’’
Higashioka laughs, shakes his head, swings at the next pitch, and drives it over the left-field fence.
“That’s got a chance to make 65,000 happy,’’ Griffey says, “or 65,000 pissed off.’’
And so it goes like this every day during batting practice since Team USA’s arrival into town, with the players listening to Griffey’s advice, laughing at his jokes, and mesmerized by his stories.
Griffey, 53, who hasn’t put on a uniform for this length of time since he retired from the Seattle Mariners in 2010, and inducted five years later into the Hall of Fame, is Team USA’s hitting coach.
It’s the first time he has coached a soul since his kids grew up, and now that his competitive juices are going, well, it’s got a man thinking.
“I may be coming out of retirement in three years,’’ Griffey tells USA TODAY Sports. “I may have to play in the 2026 WBC. I’ve got to defend my batting title.’’
“Yep, look it up,’’ he says, “I hit .524 in that first WBC.’’
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Sure, enough, he did, while also hitting two doubles, three homers and 10 RBI in just 21 at-bats.
Yep, just another reason why he’s idolized by every single player on the United States team, with players and coaches from opposing teams in the tournament nearly hyperventilating just seeing him across the field.
When USA played an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium last week, Griffey drew so much attention from the fans, he nearly had to leave the ballpark. Even wearing a sweatshirt without his name at the WBC games at Chase Field in Phoenix, he tries to stay out of sight, hoping not to draw attention.
“People from all walks of life come up saying they watched you grow up, thanking you, and whether they take a picture or want me to sign something,’’ Griffey says, “it’s a highlight for them.
“Well, it’s cool for me, too.’’
Hey, there are plenty of hitting coaches in the game, but as Griffey points out, with a pair of Nike Men’s Air Griffey shoes: “You got to be a bad man to be a hitting coach with your own shoes.’’
Everyone laughs, but not nearly as hard as Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson’s reaction the other day when Griffey blurted out: “You know I built my home with no kitchen.’’
Anderson looked at him.
“When I hit,’’ Griffey says, “you couldn’t get in there.’’
It’s a miracle Anderson didn’t strain an oblique muscle laughing so hard.
He was the face of baseball when he played, a 13-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, 7-time Silver Slugger, an MVP, and a 630-home run hitter.
Now he’s a hitting coach, a mentor, an icon and a comedian.
“When these guys got here,’’ Griffey says, “I told them you got to check their egos at the door. I told them there was a time when I was batting seventh in the lineup in the big leagues.’’
Griffey broke into a slow, expansive grin, and said, “Now, I didn’t tell I was just 19 years old at the time.’’
Why, when Griffey burst into the big leagues in 1989 with the Mariners, players on Team USA like center fielder Cedric Mullins, 28, and shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., 22, weren’t born yet.
“I didn’t really see him play, but he’s a role model to damn-near every player in this game,’’ Mullins said. “To be able to be under his wing here, for as long as that may be, is so cool.’’
Says Witt: “I know I’ve got his baseball card for sure. A few of them really.’’
Says Higashioka: “I had his Nintendo video game. I wore it out as a 6-year-old.
Says shortstop Trea Turner: “I actually caught one of his foul balls as a kid. He was playing for Cincinnati, and I was at a Marlins game in Miami. It’s the only foul ball I ever caught in my life. I need to find it, because I need him to sign it.’’
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Griffey made an indelible impact on the baseball world as a player, and now he’s hoping to leave his legacy as a coach with Team USA. They’ll advance to the next round, the quarterfinals, with a victory Wednesday night [10 ET, FS1] over Colombia at Chase Field.
Griffey knows there is plenty of pressure, but is making sure the players are prepared, spending time studying video of all the players before they ever arrived to camp.
He spends hours talking with them, offering them advice, and is willing to share anything he knows about hitting.
“To be honest,’’ Higashioka says, “that’s one of the things I was most excited about coming here. Just the opportunity to work with him. He’s already given me so much, as far as tips and tricks.
“I feel like he’s almost taken me under his wing, hanging on the bench together, and just picking his brain.
“He definitely knows how to hit.’’
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Mullins and reliever Devin Williams actually tried to persuade him into the cage Tuesday, showing off the swing that had every left-handed hitter emulating while growing up.
“I was trying to egg him on as much as I could,’’ Mullins said, “but he didn’t take the bait.
“Maybe one day.’’
Williams reminded Griffey that if he makes the All-Star team this year, Griffey has to come to Milwaukee, spend time with his Brewers’ teammates, and take him out for a nice steak dinner.
“Hey, all of my spots in that town,’’ Griffey says, “have been closed for 20 years.’’
No problem, Williams says, he’s got a few restaurants lined up. But in the meantime, he did have one question while fidgeting with Griffey’s glove on the bench.
“When did they start making them like this,’’ he said, rubbing his fingers on the stitching of Griffeys’ glove. “They don’t make them like that any more.’’
Griffey looked at him, turned around, and blurted out: “There it is! He just called me old without calling me old!’’
Williams: “No, they just look different. I’ve never seen them stitched like this.’’
Griffey: “Well, you got to win a Gold Glove, and then they make them look like that for you. And when you get 10 Gold Gloves, they’ll change it up again for you. They’re all in my house. If you zoom-call me, you can see all of them.’’
This is the type of banter it has been since Team USA got together, spending $10,000 the first night of town at a Scottsdale steak house, and the rest of the time bonding, trying to quickly come together for another WBC title run.
It’s a 30-man collection of All-Stars, MVPs, and future Hall of Famers, but none of them, of course, are as famous or accomplished as their hitting coach.
“I think for me, once you get over the fan-boy, the starstruck feeling of him being around,’’ Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said, “he’s got some good things to say. I think it’s always a fine line for respecting how great these guys are, but also maybe give them a tidbit or two to help them.
“You can tell how much they enjoy his presence.’’
Having a hitting coach with a resume like Griffey’s, who doesn’t want to hang around with him as much as possible, soaking up anything and everything he says.
“I mean, there’ nobody better than to pick the brains of than Ken Griffey Jr.’’ says Mike Trout, the Angels’ three-time MVP. “It’s pretty special to have him on the staff. He’s definitely the one I’m going to ask questions and see what he has to say.’’
Griffey, part-owner of the Mariners, laughs knowing that as much as the players are loving having him around, really, the feeling is mutual.
He’s having the time of his life, too. He really didn’t know anyone that well outside Mookie Betts and Trout before he arrived, but now that he has gotten to know the rest of the guys, he plans to stay close when they go their separate ways.
If he wants laughter, he’ll reach out to shortstops Trea Turner of the Phillies and Tim Anderson of the White Sox, having no idea they’re that funny (“Just they’re one-liners, they are clean, but they’re still funny.’’)
If he wants intensity, there’s no one on the team that can match Mets first baseman Pete Alonso (“We have to have that talk about not letting one at-bat, one batting practice, ruin your day. You got to learn how to forget the pitch that just happened, and worry about what’s coming next.’’).
And he can’t believe the size of Paul Goldschmidt, having no idea he was 6-foot-3, 220 pounds (“It surprised he how big he was, and how good of a hitter he is. I knew he was good, but not the way he takes pitches, and does all of the little things right.’’)
He has been with the team for 10 days now, and really, it has felt like 10 minutes.
“It’s just so fun to watch these guys all at once, knowing they are the monsters of their team,’’ Griffey says, “but there’s no egos. You see everyone talking to each other, teasing each other, making sure that everyone is right.
“Man, it’s so good to be back.’’
Griffey closes his eyes, slowly opens them, and feels those competitive juices flowing through his veins again, just like ol’ times when he was wearing his cap backwards, climbing walls to steal home runs, with a smile that had every kid dreaming of being him.
“This is chance to get out and help,’’ Griffey says, “instead of just showing up and doing nothing. You get the opportunity to do some things, and learn from the guys. 'What’s a guy like to throw? What’s a guy like to hit? What’s right? What’s wrong? What are they looking at? What are their keys?'
“I am so glad I’m doing this.’’
Who knows, maybe one day, there will be a time when he’s called, ‘Coach Griffey.’’
“I’d have to see,’’ Griffey says. “Maybe just be an intern. That’ll be good enough, 'Intern Griffey.’
“I’m having fun, a lot of fun, but I’m also pretty intense. This is for two weeks, not eight months. I know I can handle two weeks.
“Any longer, well, who knows. Let me get past this first.’’
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