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Stunningly, Perfectly Griffey Calls It Quits

Jun 3, 2010 – 12:45 AM
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John Hickey

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Ken Griffey Jr.

SEATTLE -- Ken Griffey Jr. left Seattle bound for his home in Orlando Wednesday afternoon.

Diminished playing time and lack of productivity brought to an end one of the greatest careers in baseball history.

If the airplane had been headed straight to Cooperstown, it would have been just as appropriate, because the Hall of Fame is bound to be Griffey's next home.

The greatest center fielder of his generation, Griffey is fifth on baseball's all-time home run charts with 630. None of them had come this year as the Seattle icon learned what most icons must -- that mortality is a bitch.

A career .284 hitter and the owner of 1,836 RBI, Griffey's final year was 100 points worse -- .184 with just seven RBI in 98 at-bats. That level of performance -- down from last year's 57 RBI, 19 homers and a .214 average -- was bad enough.

Things only got worse in mid-May when a story emerged, quoting two of his teammates, that he had been sleeping in the clubhouse during a game -- an allegation that made him bristle and got all of his teammates' hackles up.

"You can question my batting average, my home runs or my RBIs,'' he said recently. "You can't question my baseball integrity.'''

That incident didn't force Griffey's hand, though. It was his relegation to afterthought on the Seattle bench that ultimately did him in.

At his peak, which lasted throughout the 1990s, Griffey was as good as or better than anybody in the game. If you needed a wall-climbing catch, a walk-off grand slam or a game-winning sprint from first to home in the playoffs, Griffey was your guy.

He was never able to adjust to being just another player. That's essentially what he was in 2009, but he played most days anyway, and he helped transform a toxic clubhouse into a place players were raving about. And the Mariners won 85 games. He and Ichiro Suzuki were carried around Safeco Field on the shoulders of their teammates on the final day of the season, a testimony to how much things had changed since the 101-loss season in 2008.

In 2010, however, Griffey wasn't even just another player. He was an aging former superstar who commanded loud and raucous ovations at Safeco Field but who couldn't get around on a fastball anymore. Mike Sweeney, who at one stretch had six homers in 10 games, got more and more of the time as the designated hitter, and when it wasn't Sweeney, it was Milton Bradley.

Bradley was crying during one interview after the game. Griffey had been his favorite player growing up, and he didn't want to believe Griffey would retire.

"A little birdie told me something a couple of days ago," Bradley said, "but I didn't want to believe it."

Ichiro, the Mariners' superstar of this century much in the way that Griffey was the club's superstar of the last, said it was important for everyone in the Seattle clubhouse to win this one for the retiring Griffey (they did 2-1 over the Twins in 10 innings).

"He's a superstar, and not just because of his numbers and his stats," Ichiro said, "but because of his personality. He was about caring for each other. It's something we all need to learn from him, and it's what makes him better than a superstar."

Griffey had made just one start since May 18, and while manager Don Wakamatsu was apologetic about that, the manager was putting what he felt was his best lineup forward each time. Griffey simply wasn't part of that.

And that was too much to take.

"While I feel I am still able to make a contribution on the field, and nobody in the Mariners front office has asked me to retire, I told the Mariners when I met with them prior to the 2009 season and was invited back, that I will never allow myself to become a distraction,'' Griffey said in his statement. "I feel that without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my teammates, and their success as team is what the ultimate goal should be.''

Given Griffey's struggles this season, it wasn't surprising that the decision came. What was surprising was the timing. Griffey was on Wakamatsu's original lineup card as a reserve Wednesday. But even while bench coach Ty Van Burkleo was typing up the card, there were a flurry of telephone calls between Griffey and his agent, Brian Goldberg, between Goldberg and club president Chuck Armstrong and between Griffey, Armstrong and club president Howard Lincoln.

"You can question my batting average, my home runs or my RBIs. You can't question my baseball integrity."
-- Ken Griffey Jr.
According to one insider, as the day dragged on, the atmosphere in the front office became increasingly gloomier, because no one wanted this day to come. At the same time, no one wanted to see Griffey continue to hang on as a fraction of what he had been. And no one wanted to tell Griffey it was over.

In the end, he relieved much pressure in the Mariners front office. He told them it was over. It was the only realistic way for the finish to come about. If the Mariners had prodded Griffey to leave, there would have been bad blood between them and the best player ever to wear the Seattle colors.

And Griffey is not just an icon, he is the reason baseball still exists in Seattle. The Seattle Pilots played one year in the American League in 1969, then got 11th-houred to Milwaukee by a local car salesman named Bud Selig. Seattle got a second chance at the big leagues with the introduction of the Mariners in 1977, but for the next decade, the club was a joke. That ended in 1987 when Seattle made Griffey the first pick in the draft.

Two years later he was in Seattle, and, while it took a while, he was the cornerstone around which a solid team was built. Then everything came together with the 1993 hiring of manager Lou Piniella. Under Piniella, Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Tino Martinez and Randy Johnson the Mariners coalesced in 1995, the same year the Mariners' home, the Kingdome, was being considered for replacement.

"Junior was one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to manage,'' Piniella said Wednesday from Pittsburgh, where his Cubs were playing a night game. "When we were in Seattle together, I believe he was the best player in baseball, and it was truly an honor to be his manager.''

Seattle fans loved Griffey, too, but they at first said no thanks to a new stadium. Then the Mariners went out and made up a 13-game deficit to the California Angels in 1995 to force a one-game playoff for the AL West title. Seattle became a baseball town during that September and October, and Safeco Field was cleared to be built.

"The way they say Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium, Junior built Safeco Field,'' Armstrong said. "I appreciate Ken having come back to play here the way he did [in 2009]. He started Safeco. We might not be talking [on the field at Safeco] without Ken.''

Indeed, the Mariners might have been moved -- Tampa was a prime candidate -- without a new ballpark. So Griffey is rightfully credited with keeping baseball in Seattle.

What the Mariners did in 2009 was to bring Griffey back. But there was no way, long-term, to keep Griffey in Seattle -- not to do that and win games, anyway.

In the end, Griffey said in his parting statement that he owed it to his teammates to not be any kind of distraction.

"My hope is that my teammates can focus on baseball and win a championship for themselves and for the great fans of Seattle, who so very much deserve one,'' Griffey's statement read.

The Mariners had a brief ceremony on short notice before the game to celebrate Griffey's career, and then took a break 4 1/2 innings into their game with the Twins to have another. It's likely that a full-blown celebration will be added to the schedule later this summer.
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