Return of the Kid

Griffey's back. Mariners' fans are roaring again. The team wins its home opener against the mighty Angels, in the 10th. All's right in the world.
Griffey's back. Mariners' fans are roaring again. The team wins its home opener against the mighty Angels, in the 10th. All's right in the world.

The pregame opening-day fireworks greeting the Seattle Mariners seemed quiet by comparison to what may have been the greatest sustained local applause associated with baseball since the early summer of 2007. Maybe it was even as loud as it was that autumn night in 'ꀙ95, when Ken Griffey Jr. scored from first at the Kingdome in the fifth game of the playoffs, the night that saved major-league baseball in Seattle.

Tuesday (April 14) the fan response at Safeco Field had less to do with heroics than sentimentality, same as the case in 'ꀙ07, when Griffey returned on a Friday night with the Cincinnati Reds, later hinting he'ꀙd be back someday in an M'ꀙs uniform. Tuesday, of course, was that day. At precisely 3:52 p.m. Griffey came to the plate. Those in the sellout crowd arose as one. They watched the 39-year-old designated hitter work a 3-1 count then swat a solid hit into right field to advance a runner to third. The crowd response was brief but the decibel reading may have outdone the pregame noise level.

Griffey wasn'ꀙt finished. He broke for second when Adrian Beltre tapped back toward the pitcher. Like a working pro instead of some Hall of Fame-bound prima donna, Griffey slid wide at second and kept the fielder from getting off a swift relay to first. Griffey thus prevented a double-play and allowed the runner to score from third. Because of Griffey, the M'ꀙs had a 1-0 lead in a game they'ꀙd win 3-2 in 10 innings.

Griffey'ꀙs contribution was otherwise minimal but he already was the star of the day before any paying customers even got into Safeco. Those of us wandering along First Avenue South three hours before game time were amused to see fans posing with the over-size photo of Junior that adorns a Northwest wall of the building. Some waited six deep to have themselves framed with the image of the region'ꀙs all-time greatest sports hero.

Opening day was the wrong occasion for harking back to Griffey'ꀙs darker days with the franchise. During the middle years of his decade-plus tenure there were stories about his lingering insecurities. Fans were said by the superstar to like Alex Rodriguez better — hard to believe knowing what we now do about A-Rod. But Griffey, a consensus best big-league baseball player of the 1990s, felt under-appreciated and unloved in Seattle.

That changed when he returned in 'ꀙ07. Those of us in attendance that night experienced a public display that must have been as emotionally numbing as the level of affection offered to the ailing Babe Ruth during his final return to Yankee Stadium. Since then, Griffey in his maturity has been a giving teammate and a man at ease with fan adulation. He even agreed Tuesday to be the nominal pre-game catcher, receiving the ceremonial first pitch tossed from the mound by lesser M'ꀙs icon Harold Reynolds.

As for the 6-2 team, which outlasted the talent-laden California Angels to open the nine-game home-stand with a fifth-straight win, it'ꀙs shown during the first eight games that players are committed to winning as often as their skills will allow. Three of the M'ꀙs better offensive plays never got the ball out of the infield. Endy Chavez beat out a bunt single in the third and Franklin Gutierrez advanced a runner on a sacrifice bunt in the seventh. Then Yuniesky Betancourt put down a bunt on the game'ꀙs final play, which resulted in an overthrow at first and an easy score from third by Gutierrez with the winning run.

The club is showing spirit. That's in marked contrast to the sluggishness of last year, when the season seemed to end not long after it began. When Carlos Silva fanned Howie Kendrick to leave the bases loaded in the fifth the Seattle players, even more animated than the fans, reacted as though the M'ꀙs had just clinched a pennant. Yes, Betancourt got caught legging it from first to third on Endy Chavez'ꀙ sharp single during the fifth, probably denying his team another run. But the shortstop showed admirable aggressiveness and may actually have gotten a bad call.

The M'ꀙs seem to benefit from the fact that few had figured them to be in contention this year. Fans no doubt hope they continue to be underestimated for a few more weeks because, the way they'ꀙre playing, they could be leading the division by six or eight games by then, especially since the team'ꀙs best player, Ichiro, starts his first game today.

And, while diminished production may mean he never again gets ovations to match what was heard on opening day, it'ꀙs likely no one would be happier with M'ꀙs success than Ken Griffey Jr.


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