Ken Griffey Jr. surprises top MLB prospects at baseball card photoshoot

Hall of Fame slugger or baseball card photographer? Griffey showed at the Topps Spot in Arizona that he can do both

Kyle Harrison had no idea what he was walking into.

On a recent afternoon following another standard spring training workout, the 22-year-old Giants left-hander arrived at the Topps Spot mansion expecting to sign some of his rookie cards, hang out with teammates and catch up with some other familiar faces from around the Cactus League. For the second straight year, Topps welcomed a bevy of the game’s most promising young stars to a tricked-out property in Phoenix to offer a comfortable and engaging environment for players to sign various editions of their own baseball cards — an important, albeit tedious, task for ballplayers at the early stages of their careers.

Countless rising stars came through the house over the course of the week, but Harrison and a handful of others were treated to something much more than a lavish house and good vibes.

"They pulled us aside, and they're like, 'We're gonna take some photos,’” Harrison told Yahoo Sports. “And as we're walking up the stairs, we're like, who's taking them?

“Oh — it’s Ken Griffey Jr.”

Yes, the Hall of Famer, whose unparalleled on-field performance and personality defined an entire generation of baseball fans, was waiting, camera in hand. The super-cool slugger whose likeness graced some of the most iconic baseball cards of all time was set to take the photos for a new set of Topps cards featuring the next wave of big-league stars.

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'Hey, you need this camera'

In some respects, an assignment such as this was a long time coming. Griffey fell into photography toward the end of his playing career as another way to enjoy his kids’ sporting events.

“I started in 2009 just taking pictures of my kids,” he recalled to Yahoo Sports.

While his older son, Trey, excelled on the gridiron and his daughter, Taryn, found success on the basketball court, Griffey’s new lenses enabled him to “go to sporting events and watch like a normal parent.”

“And then it just snowballed,” he explained. “My friends who work at ESPN in the photography department would be like, ‘Hey, you need this camera.’ And it just became bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Last year, legendary left-hander Randy Johnson photographed a selection of young players as part of Topps’ annual “Bowman’s Best” set. Remarkably, the Big Unit isn’t the only Hall of Famer who starred on the 1990s Mariners before discovering a passion for photography in his post-playing days. So naturally, Griffey was an ideal candidate to get involved for another special set of Topps cards expected to be released later this year.

“We’ve got a great partnership with Griffey,” said Kevin Eger, who has worked for Topps for 16 years and is currently the senior director of talent licensing and authentics for Fanatics Collectibles (which now owns Topps). “2024 Topps Series 1 Baseball has a dedicated set called ‘The Kid’ to celebrate Griffey's career, and so the stars kind of aligned. We let his camp know what we were doing out here and extended the invite, and he was on board.”

The collaboration with Griffey also felt appropriate considering his heavy involvement in MLB’s efforts to promote youth baseball and his regular appearances at recent editions of the All-Star Futures Game. “He's got an eye for the talent, so it felt organic to have him come and hang out with the future generation of big leaguers,” Eger said.

Ken Griffey Jr. surprised future MLB stars with a photoshoot in Arizona. (Illustration by Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports, photos by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)

'Maybe I'll get to say hi'

And so, as the sun set in Scottsdale, Harrison arrived on the roof alongside a couple other highly regarded NL West prospects in Diamondbacks shortstop Jordan Lawlar and Rockies outfielder Jordan Beck. They were the final subjects among a whirlwind of high-profile talent tasked with posing for photos taken by Junior. Brewers outfielder (infielder?) Sal Frelick had started things off an hour earlier, followed by Angels first baseman Nolan Schanuel.

Like Harrison, Schanuel, who raced to the big leagues just a month after being selected 11th overall out of Florida Atlantic University in last year’s draft, was unaware of what (or, rather, who) was on the agenda. “I did not know he was gonna be here,” a practically giddy Schanuel told Yahoo Sports shortly after his photos were finished. “I found out maybe 25 minutes ago. A little birdie said, ‘Hey, one of the greatest hitters ever is going to be here today.’ I thought, ‘Maybe I'll get to say hi, ask for a picture.’

“But he was actually taking pictures of me, which was awesome.”

Nolan Schanuel prepares for his close-up. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)
Nolan Schanuel prepares for his close-up. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)

Padres phenom Ethan Salas, the ultra-advanced, 17-year-old catching prospect who reached Double-A in his pro debut in 2023, was up next. While Salas can be excused for not remembering watching Griffey in his prime — Griffey hit 543 homers in the big leagues before Salas was born — he clearly understood the situation. “I’ve always seen highlights,” he said. “Sweetest swing in baseball.”

Next came Royals rookie Nick Loftin, who was especially thrilled to participate considering his own affinity for collecting cards, a passion he shares with Kansas City teammate Bobby Witt Jr. “Bobby signed a few of his rookie cards for me,” Loftin said.

As locker mates in the Royals clubhouse last September, Witt also got Loftin more interested in collecting football cards, with various editions of Patrick Mahomes cards serving as unsurprising targets for Witt’s rapidly growing collection. “I can't wait to see the stuff that he's gonna be opening up this year,” Loftin said.

While many card enthusiasts seek high-profile targets that could be worth a fortune someday, Loftin views his own collection of baseball cards a bit differently: “I don't ever collect for the value,” he said. “I just had my firstborn son four weeks ago. I think the biggest thing is I want to be able to share this hobby with him and the fact that I played with these guys one day and give it to him when he’s older.”

Andres Gimenez poses for Griffey. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)
Andres Gimenez poses for Griffey. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)

'I better step up my game'

Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez and D-backs catcher Gabriel Moreno, both hailing from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and both fresh off Gold Glove seasons, followed shortly after. Then came another ascendant Venezuelan star: Jackson Chourio, the Brewers’ top prospect who is expected to make his MLB debut perhaps as soon as Opening Day after signing an $82 million extension with Milwaukee over the winter.

Thirty-five years after his own memorable MLB debut as a 19-year-old center fielder, there Griffey was offering words of wisdom to another talented teenager whose debut appears imminent — before making him smile, of course.

Future Brewers star Jackson Chourio meets Ken Griffey Jr. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)
Future Brewers star Jackson Chourio meets Ken Griffey Jr. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)

In between taking shots of the ballplayers, Griffey paused to show off pictures from his most recent adventure. Not long before he was snapping pictures of future All-Stars in Arizona, Griffey was in Kenya on a safari, photographing spectacular landscapes and a vast array of wildlife.

“We just came back from Africa,” he said. “I took 24,000 pictures in 10 days. And I went with other photographers, and the first day I took 600, and one of the other guys took 2,200. I was like, ‘I better step up my game.’”

Ken Griffey Jr. recently went to Kenya to photograph wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Ken Griffey Jr.)
Ken Griffey Jr. recently went to Kenya to photograph wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Ken Griffey Jr.)

'He's calling the shots — we're just following'

It comes as no surprise that someone considered one of the best of all time in his profession holds himself to an extraordinarily high standard, no matter what he’s doing — and that extended to the Topps photoshoot.

“I was leaning over, like, ‘How's that look?’” Harrison recalled afterward, chuckling at the absurdity of the situation. “And he's like, ‘not that good — we'll get you another pose,’ and we changed to another pose. We were dialed in.”

Added Schanuel: “I saw a couple of his pictures. He's not a rookie. He's calling the shots — we're just following. He's a pro.”

Yet while Griffey boasts more than a decade of experience in the field, straight-on portraits are not necessarily in his photographic wheelhouse. He’s far more used to taking action shots of people (or animals), whether it be a high school football game, a big-league baseball game or a lion on the plains of Kenya.

“I've never done it, so don't hold me to how it comes out!” he jokingly pleaded.

Ken Griffey Jr. photographs (from left) Ezequiel Duran, Jaison Chourio and Jackson Chourio. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)

No matter how the photos turn out, it’s safe to assume these players won’t soon forget their unexpected photoshoot with The Kid. “Yeah, that is not an everyday thing,” a grinning Loftin noted. Amid the monotonous, rinse-and-repeat days of spring training, the opportunity to interact with a legend of the game in such an informal setting was a welcome jolt of excitement ahead of the upcoming season in which they all hope to establish themselves as big-league mainstays.

And with his own baseball legacy secured, Griffey will continue to search for new avenues to expand his rapidly evolving hobby as a shutterbug. He said he has a particular interest in photographing some of the most famous raceways on Earth. Having already done Daytona and, more recently, the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Griffey is planning to hit Talladega later this year.

His ultimate dream to shoot, though? “Probably a night race, like the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

Jordan Lawlar (far left), Kyle Harrison (second from left) and Jordan Beck (second from right) meet Ken Griffey Jr. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)
Jordan Lawlar (far left), Kyle Harrison (second from left) and Jordan Beck (second from right) meet Ken Griffey Jr. (Photo by Jordan Shusterman/Yahoo Sports)