From 1991-95, Dave Fleming pitched for Seattle alongside a young superstar named Ken Griffey, Jr. Dave won 17 games for the ’92 Mariners, and he and Junior (both 22 at the time) were the sole hopes for a team that lost 98 games.
Dave is now a teacher in Connecticut, and I caught up with him to hear his thoughts on the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame …
I’m a big New England Patriots fan, and I think about what it must be like to be Tom Brady when Rob Gronkowski is injured. I was never Tom Brady, but that’s how it felt to pitch when Ken Griffey, Jr. wasn’t player center behind me.
I’ve never pitched in front of a guy who gave you a greater comfort zone. I know sometimes people thought he didn’t give 100-percent effort, and I never saw that. Especially on defense. He got to balls nobody else would reach. He would dive, he would run into walls. He once made a ridiculous over-the-head catch for me on a ball hit by John Flaherty—I think of that one. The biggest game of my career was my first start at Yankee Stadium, being from New York and all. And he made some tremendous plays in that game. The guy just knew how to do it.
I think there was a perception he was cocky. I don’t know. He made things look easy, because to him they were easy. I remember Buck Showalter gave him a hard time for wearing his hat backward. Some people didn’t like that stuff, but—why? What was the big deal? We were the same age, and I remember watching him and thinking, ‘I would never want to deal with all the attention he’s getting.’ I don’t know if he felt completely comfortable with it. I think he just wanted to play baseball and go about his life. Same thing I wanted, only it was a lot easier being me.
People think because you’re teammates you’re best friends. It’s sort of silly. I played with Griffey for four seasons. We didn’t hang out, we didn’t talk much. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like him. I did. But pitchers hung out with pitchers. Sometimes someone will say, “Have you talked to Ken?” Ha—no. A couple of years ago I found our roster with all our phone numbers listed. I’m thinking his has probably changed.
You want to know what I think made him great? He was smooth, he was graceful. He was also gifted. The best athletes make it look easy, so we sometimes wonder how hard they work. Back in 1992 or ’93, I remember a guy was walking around spring training, telling us Griffey did absolutely nothing all offseason. Didn’t train, didn’t lift weights. Nothing at all. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But here’s what I can tell you—the first swing he took in a game against live pitching he hit for a home run.