Farewell, Ken Griffey Jr.

  • By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
  • Thursday, June 3, 2010 8:40am
  • Sports

SEATTLE — The end didn’t come with a majestic home run or the familiar smile that conveyed his joy for the game.

Instead, Ken Griffey Jr. retired Wednesday in the middle of his 22nd Major League Baseball season with a statement filled with words of thanks.

He thanked the Seattle Mariners, their fans and his teammates for what they meant to him early in his career and since 2009 when he came back to finish it.

“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,” the 40-year-old Griffey said in the four-paragraph statement. “Thanks to all of you for welcoming me back, and thanks again to everyone over the years who has played a part in the success of my career.”

Griffey spoke briefly by phone with Mariners president Chuck Armstrong on Wednesday afternoon to tell of his decision. The team made it official when manager Don Wakamatsu and team executives spoke with reporters on the field. The players were told during a short meeting in the outfield before batting practice.

The Mariners announced the retirement to fans and played a montage of Griffey’s career highlights on the video board before the game. Interestingly, when the video ended most in the crowd of 20,414 stood and applauded, looking toward the Mariners’ dugout as though Griffey might step out for a bow.

He was not at the ballpark.

Griffey’s retirement surprised many with the Mariners but didn’t shock them in what has been a difficult season.

He had come back from a rough 2009 season performance-wise, when he batted .214 but was lauded for helping strengthen the mood of a clubhouse that was filled with dissension the previous season.

This year, Griffey struggled to a .184 batting average with no home runs and rarely drove the ball with anything resembling the pop that was in his bat earlier in his career. While Griffey wasn’t the only Mariner struggling to hit, his lack of production from the DH spot became a focal point of the team’s offensive problems early this season.

It ultimately cost Griffey much of his playing time as Wakamatsu chose to play Mike Sweeney more in the DH role. Early last month, Griffey’s future became the topic of a story in the Tacoma News Tribune, which reported that he could retire in June. Also in that story was a report from two unidentified teammates who said Griffey had been sleeping in the clubhouse during a game. Griffey didn’t deny that.

“I kind of had an inkling,” said head trainer Rick Griffin, whose close relationship with Griffey goes back to the 1980s. “The last couple of days we’ve been talking, but he didn’t come right out and say anything.”

In his retirement statement, Griffey repeated what he had told reporters recently, that he still believed he could contribute on the field. He also said he promised the Mariners in 2009, before he signed with them, that he wanted to be a positive influence on and off the field and not become a distraction.

Griffey said nobody in the front office asked him to retire.

“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 a team is what the ultimate goal should be,” Griffey said in the statement.

Griffey’s retirement begins the five-year waiting period in what many believe will be a first-ballot trip to the Hall of Fame. He ranks fifth all-time with 630 home runs, won the 1997 American League MVP award, 10 Gold Gloves, made 13 All-Star appearances and earned a place on baseball’s All-Century Team.

“He could see things and picture them and be able to go up there and do them,” said Lee Tinsley, the Mariners’ first-base coach who played with Griffey in 1993 and 1997. “He was a real physically gifted athlete, but what made him a good player was him being very talented, but also being a really smart player. He could slow the game down and make it look easy, because he would just do it effortlessly.”

More than that, Griffey is considered the player most responsible for keeping Major League Baseball in Seattle in the mid-1990s when it appeared the team would be sold and moved away. He was the key figure in the Mariners’ late-season surge to win the American League West Division championship in 1995, an accomplishment that helped lead to the construction of Safeco Field.

Armstrong described Griffey as the heart and soul of the franchise.

“Without his contributions, there is little doubt that Safeco Field would not exist, and almost certainly baseball would have left the Northwest,” Armstrong said.

The Mariners selected Griffey with the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, a choice that wasn’t as clear-cut as it might have seemed. While the Mariners’ scouts saw Griffey as by far the best player available, former team owner George Argyros favored college-age pitcher Mike Harkey. Argyros felt burned by the previous year’s top draft pick, high school outfielder Patrick Lennon, who had off-field issues and never developed as expected.

The baseball side of the organization convinced Argyros that Griffey was a player who could change the franchise, and it didn’t take long before that started happening.

He played his first big-league game less than two years later at age 19 and hit 16 home runs that season. Five seasons later, he hit 45 home runs in the first of seven seasons in which he hit 40 or more. Griffey won American League home run titles in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Griffey wasn’t a happy player in 1999, when upcoming free agency after the 2000 season led to constant questions about whether he would remain with the Mariners. He had expressed a desire to be closer to his family in Florida and he wasn’t fond of Safeco Field, where it became apparent early that the ball didn’t carry outdoors like it did in the Kingdome.

The Mariners traded him to the Cincinnati Reds before the 2000 season, and he played there for 10 seasons that were interrupted several times by injuries. From 2004-2005, he averaged less than 70 games a season.

The Mariners re-signed him before the 2009 season amid enthusiasm that Seattle’s biggest sports start was returning, but also concern over how much he could contribute.

On the field, it was minimal. Ultimately, it led Griffey to retirement earlier than anyone with the team had hoped.

“It’s tough to close the book on a ballplayer like Ken Griffey Jr., let alone the man,” Sweeney said. “You can look at his Hall-of-Fame career — 630 home runs, all the records and accomplishments that he’s achieved — but what he’s done on the baseball field doesn’t even compare to the man. So it’s a tough day.”

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog.

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