If you are a Seattle Mariners fan, you are a Ken Griffey Jr. fan. You also, at this early point in the season, are feeling great anxiety about both.
Griffey's skills and magnetism saved the Mariners franchise a decade ago — before his impetuous demand for a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds, a move he later came to regret. If Yankee Stadium became known as "The House That (Babe) Ruth Built," Safeco Field rightly could be called "The Stadium That Junior Built."
Junior Griffey returned to the Mariners last year, after first considering an offer from the Atlanta Braves, nearer his Florida home and family. His return proved felicitous, both for himself and for the team. His presence added to fan enthusiasm and attendance.
He brought joy and spirit to the team's clubhouse and, among other things, brought joy and spirit as well to Ichiro Suzuki, who had been scapegoated and shunned by some former Mariners now long gone from the roster.
Griffey liked 2009 so much that he could hardly be restrained from returning for a 2010 encore. He underwent off-season knee surgery to help restore lost mobility; he lost weight.
But, at 40, his skills now seem to have abandoned him. In spring training, his bat speed appeared to be waning. Now, ending the regular season's first month, he keeps taking his daily turn as designated hitter but is striking out or hitting weak grounders to the right side of the infield. Balls hit into the outfield have no distance.
On those few occasions when he reaches base, he cannot run and often is lifted for a pinch runner. (When he runs for himself, there is moment-to-moment fear that he will again blow out a knee or otherwise seriously injure himself).
The Mariners, even with a productive Griffey, lack hitting. They cannot afford to continue putting him in the daily batting order. For now, manager Don Wakamatsu talks of mechanical changes that might help Griffey. But this is no rookie whose stance or batting approach can be improved by some tinkering.
The Mariners, as a team, have stopped hitting. They are wasting excellent starting pitching, which will improve even further this Friday at Safeco when former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee makes his first start of the year.
Talents sometimes erode suddenly in veteran players. Babe Ruth retired in mid-season when it was clear he could not do it anymore.
Griffey, as Ruth, is a Hall of Fame player whose numbers would be even more imposing had he not been injured during much of his time in Cincinnati. Even with so much time lost to injury, Griffey ranks sixth in home runs on the all-time list with 630, only 30 behind the great Willie Mays. He is tied with Lou Gehrig for seventh in extra-base hits and with Jimmie Foxx for seventh in multi-home run games.
In an age of steroids, moreover, Griffey remained clean. There will be no asterisks in his records.
Despite his batting exploits, Seattleites will most remember Griffey for his spectacular, all-out catches in centerfield and for his base running, which, in the 1995 American League playoffs, brought him home with the winning run in a dramatic comeback victory over the New York Yankees. His beaming face, at the bottom of a Mariners pigpile after he scored that run, spoke of the joy and purpose he brought to his game. It is that Griffey, not the struggling Griffey of 2010, whom we want to remember.
Where now for Junior? Perhaps the coaching staff's tinkering will help him regain something at the plate. But more likely not. Griffey is a proud man whose joyful verve would be crushed by bench-sitting and an occasional pinch-hitting role. If he were not Junior Griffey, and just another aging veteran, the Mariners would cut him now to make room for Lee on the roster Friday night.
Will Junior voluntarily retire and accept a coaching or other position that would keep him in the clubhouse for the remainder of 2010? Or will he keep going to the batter's box, looking bad and hurting the team, until inevitably he again injures himself and is forced to leave the roster?
No matter what happens, Griffey will have the enduring love and gratitude of Northwest baseball fans. But, please Mariners, help him find an exit that will provide him with the dignity and respect he has so greatly earned.
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