Going deep into the night


Well past the time when David Letterman and Jay Leno are signing off on the East Coast, lucky folks in the Pacific Northwest are getting a glimpse at a new form of nighttime entertainment.

Its title: "Late Smash with Ken Griffey," and unlike the late-night talk shows, where the emphasis is on making the viewers laugh, the Seattle Mariners' center fielder is anything but funny to opposing pitchers.

"He's been hot before," said Seattle right fielder Jay Buhner after Sunday's game, in which Griffey hit the 152nd homer of his six-year career. "I mean he hit home runs in eight straight games last year. But never like this. He's telling me before he goes to the plate what pitches they're going to throw him and what he's going to do with those pitches. And then he goes up and does it."

Griffey is challenging one of baseball's most momentous single-season records, Roger Maris' 61 homers in 1961, and has a shot to become the majors' first Triple Crown winner since the Boston Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

"He's the best there is," said Joe Morgan, a Hall of Famer and current ESPN analyst. "I don't know what he can do, and I don't think anybody else knows, either."

Seattle reliever Rich Gossage said: "If there were another league, he'd be in it. And he'd be the only one there."

Said Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley: "I've played 20 years and he's the best I've ever seen. I used to think Rickey [Henderson] was, but now it's Griffey. He has put it all together: power, defense, everything. He's the best."

Texas Rangers first baseman Will Clark played last season with the San Francisco Giants and batted ahead of left fielder and three-time National League Most Valuable Player Barry Bonds, widely acclaimed as baseball's best player.

Clark, whose Rangers were swept last weekend in Seattle, sees some of the same qualities in the precocious 24-year-old that he did in Bonds.

"You know what kind of offense you're going to get from Bonds, but it's the defense that really impresses you," Clark said. "I'm seeing the same thing with Ken Griffey. He's obviously on a roll offensively, but he ran down some balls in center field that were very impressive. Those two guys are probably the best in each league."

Griffey has won four Gold Gloves in five full seasons, but it is his bat that is attracting the most notice.

With five games left in May, Griffey, with 21, already has eclipsed Mickey Mantle's record for most homers in the first two months of the season. He is on pace to pass Maris by the end of August.

Though Griffey trails the New York Yankees' Paul O'Neill by more than 100 points in the batting title race and is behind the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter for the RBI crown, it is not far-fetched to think that he could make a serious run at either category, as well as win the home run championship.

"He's playing in a park in which the ball carries good, and that field is AstroTurf, so that should help his batting average. He's got a shot," Clark said.

Morgan, a teammate of Griffey's father, Ken, when both played for the Cincinnati Reds, hopes that the younger Griffey doesn't make a run at Maris' mark until later in his career.

"From a friendship standpoint, I hope he hits 50-something or whatever," said Morgan. "I hope he has a good year. But I would hope that he doesn't challenge -- doesn't get close -- to 61 at this stage of his career. I mean, look what it did to Roger Maris. Maybe when he's 38, I'll pull for him. But not at 24."

So far, Griffey seems concerned only about taking things at the proverbial "one day at a time" pace.

"I've done so many things at 24, I don't have time to sit back and think about what I've done," Griffey said. "I've got to think about tomorrow and the next day. When my career is over with, then I'll sit back and look at the things I've done. But right now . . . "

For right now, Griffey has done more than enough to get him thinking.

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