The 1998 American League Rookie of the Year, Ben Grieve batted .288 with 18 home runs and 89 runs batted in for a mediocre Oakland A’s club in his first full season in the majors. Grieve’s early success was not unexpected; his long, easy lefthanded stroke wowed scouts and quickly gave him a reputation as one of the best prospects in baseball. The rookie’s smooth swing drew comparisons to Ted Williams, but his maturity, poise and calm most impressed his coaches and teammates.
Grieve lived up to the high expectations in his first taste of big-league action in 1997. In 24 September games with the A’s, Grieve batted over .300 and drove in 24 runs. In his major-league debut against the San Francisco Giants, the young slugger had five RBIs and consecutive doubles in the sixth, seventh and eighth. A two-bagger in the opening frame the next day gave him doubles in four consecutive innings. Ten days later, Grieve hit his first big-league home run off Detroit’s Willie Blair. Without any bats of his own, Grieve was forced to give a fan one of Jason Giambi‘s bats in exchange for the ball.
The Franchise,” as teammate Kevin Mitchell referred to him during his rookie season, was born with baseball in his blood. His father, Tom, played nine seasons for the Senators, Rangers, Mets and Cardinals and later became the GM of the Texas Rangers. As soon as he could walk, I bought him one of those plastic whiffle bats and a balloon,” recalled Tom, who coached Ben in Little League. “It was pretty obvious at that young age that he had some ability.”
Ben graduated less than ten miles from the future site of The Ballpark in Arlington. As a senior at James W. Martin High (the alma mater of fellow phenom Todd Van Poppel, who had graduated in 1990) he hit .486. His father used to take Ranger players — including future teammate Kenny Rogers — on outings to see his son play. Likewise, Ben would often visit Arlington Stadium to see his father and meet the team. “A lot of them were pretty nice to me,” Grieve recalled during his rookie season. “Especially guys like Steve Beuchele and Geno Petralli.”
When the Oakland Athletics chose the younger Grieve second overall in the June 1994 draft it marked the first time in baseball history that a father and son had both been selected in the first round. Rather than holding out for a huge signing bonus, Grieve signed with the A’s on his graduation day. Incredibly, the younger Grieve’s “modest” $1.2 million bonus was more money than his father had earned during his entire playing career.
After two solid but unspectacular minor-league seasons, Grieve blossomed in 1997. Between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Edmonton, Grieve blasted 31 home runs, led all minor leaguers in slugging average and on base percentage, and was named Minor League Player of the Year by USA TODAY and The Sporting News. Including his September stay in Oakland, Grieve batted .344 with 34 home runs and 160 RBIs in 151 games.
Saddled with lofty expectations following his gaudy 1997 numbers, Grieve led AL rookies in hits, homers, runs, doubles, and RBIs in 1998, but not without some bumps in the road. The 6′ 4″ right fielder was booed early in the season for defensive lapses, endured a second-half slump, and was nearly involved in a bench-clearing brawl after being hit with a retaliatory pitch thrown by Arizona’s Russ Springer in early June.
In July, Grieve was named to the All-Star squad, joining Mark McGwire (1987), Jose Canseco (1986), Matt Keough (1978) and Wayne Gross (1977) as Oakland’s only rookies to ever attend the Midsummer Classic. The reserved 22-year-old was so in awe of his achievement that when he arrived in Coors Field for the game, he couldn’t bring himself to approach eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, whom he had idolized as a youngster and had met at the age of ten at a baseball camp he attended with the sons of players Art Howe and Tom House.