Long road ends with Griffin in baseball

Tim Klobuchar

Ben Griffin, preparing for his fourth different school and enduring his third injury in four years, was making a visit to an academic counselor in June of 1995 when he decided to stop by the Gophers baseball office.
Griffin was not enrolled yet at Minnesota, nor had he ever spoken to Coach John Anderson. But that didn’t prevent him from telling Anderson that he was going to play for the Gophers, and also, that he deserved to play ahead of some those already on the team.
“I’ve always been confident in my ability,” Griffin said. “I think you have to be to play this game. I think I got his attention.”
If only Griffin’s path to Anderson’s office had been as direct as he is.
He said he’s wanted to play baseball for Minnesota since he was 15 years old, when he watched players, such as Brent Gates and Mark Merila play. But it’s only this season, his first and last as a full-time player for Minnesota, that Griffin has fulfilled that wish. He’s the team’s starting first baseman and clean-up hitter and leads the team in batting average (.366), extra-base hits and runs batted in..
Griffin showed he was both defiant and determined during his visit to Anderson’s office, qualities that first set him on his strange journey, then kept him traveling despite a myriad of problems.
Griffin’s extended road trip was ignited when the Gophers didn’t recruit him while he was at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn. This angered him enough to give up baseball for awhile.
He first stopped at St. Olaf College, where Griffin planned to play football, a sport that seemed a better match with his intensity. He earned the starting middle linebacker spot but got a concussion in the first game of the season. It wasn’t severe, but it was enough to spur Griffin to pursue baseball full-time — but not at St. Olaf.
“I went to the first week of classes, and I knew it wasn’t for me,” Griffin said. “There was no way I was going to settle for Division III-level baseball.”
After a three-month stint on a cement crew, Griffin enrolled at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Tex. He didn’t like Texas, and his teammates were rude to him, so Griffin left at the end of the year having never played there (he was redshirted).
The next year, he was at Arizona Western Junior College in Yuma, Ariz. He earned a starting spot, but injured his left knee and missed the entire year.
Finally, his sophomore season provided hard evidence that backed up his confidence, still intact after all his wanderings. He hit .373 and helped Western to come within one game of the Junior College World Series.
Shortly after his return to Minnesota, Griffin made his visit to Anderson’s office, still unrecruited. Soon after, he fell flat on his face — sort of.
Two herniated disks caused him such excruciating pain that he couldn’t sit in a chair for his classes. Instead, he had to lie on his chest in class for his entire first quarter at the University.
That injury limited his playing time last year, as he hit .385 in just 20 games. He came perilously close to having back surgery this fall, but his fortunes suddenly changed — then changed again. His back got better, but he also developed appendicitis, which kept him out of four weeks of fall practice.
Even now that he’s finally in the lineup to stay, Griffin isn’t about to give up the attributes that got him there, such as his intensity and outspokenness.
“He’s a little more vocal this year,” Gophers designated hitter Phil McDermott said. “He plays a pretty intense, emotional game. He’s got a little attitude, but not so much in a bad way. You need guys like that.”
Anderson said that Griffin, while never shy about telling him his opinion, has never shown him disrespect. Until recently, the same couldn’t be said in his surroundings after he struck out.
“In my earlier days I probably broke a bleacher or two,” Griffin said with a laugh. “Now after a bad at-bat I’ll use a good expletive, take a swig of Gatorade, throw the cup in the garbage, call myself a few names, and it’s over.”
Griffin said he’s been able to ease up because he’s simply older and wiser. It can’t hurt that he knows he can now play regularly.
“Last year was so tough because I wasn’t part of the team as much,” he said. “But this year I’m right there, and it’s a lot more rewarding.”
Now, at long last, Griffin is healthy — relatively speaking. Although nowhere near painful enough to keep him out of the lineup, his back still hurts. Finally, he’s at a school to stay — for this year, anyway. His brazenness when he first came to Minnesota, though, has undeniably been justified. He’s in the middle of the season that he’s been waiting for, one he thought about all through his seemingly unending series of frustrations. It is, said Anderson, “his big opportunity. His big dance.”
“I don’t think they knew I was coming,” Griffin said. “But somehow I knew this is where I’d end up. It’s kind of like there’s no place like home.”