Remembering... Ty Griffin
Even now, some 27 years later, Ty Griffin still draws inspiration from the gold medal he and his Team USA teammates won in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
And sometimes others do, too. Case in point, two years ago Griffin – head coach of the Tampa Catholic baseball team – was looking for something to give his Crusaders players an edge against crosstown rival and traditional powerhouse Jesuit and its ace (and former USA Baseball alumni with the 2010 18U National Team) Lance McCullers Jr.
He found it in his gold medal.
Griffin brought the gold medal with him to the game and after he went over the game plan with his players, he reached in and pulled the medal out. “I told them we’re all going to be connected to this gold and that’s how we’re going to play.” When the medal made its way around the group of players, Griffin – “Coach Ty” to his team – slipped the medal back into his pocket. What the players didn’t know is that their coach had also brought with him a fake medal – a lookalike – that was gold and good enough to fool a group of fired up ballplayers. When Griffin dug back into his pocket, he had the fake medal in hand and looked them in the eye. “I told them a win tonight would mean more to me than the gold medal,” Griffin recalls.
And then he wound up with medal in hand – the one the players thought was the real Olympic medal – and threw it over a nearby fence. A brief second of stunned silence. Then the players jumped to their feet, yelling and screaming and some high-fiving. Griffin’s theatrics had fooled everyone, and his inspired players couldn’t wait to take the field.
“They really bought into it,” the coach says with a chuckle. And it worked. Griffin’s Tampa Catholic team defeated McCullers and Jesuit.
Griffin is a veteran of big games, and as a player with USA Baseball, produced one of the organization’s biggest moments when he slugged a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Cuba in the preliminary round of the 1987 Pan Am Games. The victory was historic as it marked the first loss for Cuba in 20 years of Pan Am play, a streak that had reached an astounding 37 straight wins.
As he strolled to the plate with Central Michigan’s Larry Lamphere on base, Griffin – an All-ACC Conference player at Georgia Tech and the first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs (ninth overall) in the 1989 MLB Draft – caught a glimpse of his parents in the Busch Stadium stands. Cuba’s pitcher figured Griffin would be looking fastball and offered up a curve that just hung, and Griffin slugged his way into USA Baseball history. It was the second home run for the switch-hitting second baseman who had hit one left-handed earlier in the game.
“Just an unbelievable feeling,” he says of rounding the bases after the game-winner. “I just remember a lot of people cheering and waving flags.”
That victory served notice to the rest of the field that the Americans were serious about their baseball. The U.S. did reach the gold medal game before losing, but by reaching the championship game they had qualified for the 1988 Olympics.
“I remember Coach [Ron] Fraser coming in and telling us, ‘Look, our No. 1 goal is to get to the medal game,’” Griffin says. “‘And if we don’t, the United States won’t be represented at the Olympic Games.’ That’s what made the Pan Am Games so important is that we achieved our goal for us, but we also achieved it for the United States.”
The Pan Am experience carried over the next year when the 1988 Olympic Team was compiled. Several of the players from the ’87 Pan Am Team also were on the ’88 Olympic Team. And they knew they were good.
“We got a sense that we had a great team when we came back the next year to train for the Olympics,” Griffin says. “It was a great bunch of guys and we just connected and went out of our way to do things for the other players. We understood it was a team of great players.
“We matured as young people [after Pan Am] but also as ballplayers,” he adds. “We came to Seoul with the thought that this was ours to lose. If we played our game we knew it was ours. It was almost borderline cockiness, but we weren’t cocky in the sense of how we played. But the guys on that team fed off each other so well that there never was a time I didn’t feel we weren’t in the game.”
In addition to coaching high school players, Griffin was an assistant coach with the 2014 USA Baseball 14U National Team Development Program (NTDP). His goal is to coach for the organization in international play. Then maybe he can bring his medal out again.