By Kirby Arnold
SEATTLE – About 10 days after the baseball season, Rick Griffin will go back to Montana, throw a fly into a stream and cast his blessings toward so much that is good about his life.
Clear skies, cool water and Jay Buhner.
Griffin, the Seattle Mariners’ head trainer, and Buhner, the star outfielder, have made this fishing trip together since 1989.
It has served as a cleansing breath for both men, a way to think clearly after seven months of non-stop labor known as major league baseball. They talk about the year they had, the year to come, and how they’re going to catch the next fish. It’s an opportunity to tighten a bond that transcends their game.
“We both enjoy hunting and fishing and the outdoors,” Griffin said. “We’ve gone over there 12 years in a row, and we’ve become very close friends.”
For a dozen years, they’ve shared hopes, dreams and fears as only close friends do. Some time this fall, on the 13th annual trip, Griffin fears what he might hear out of Buhner’s mouth.
“Jay has talked about this being his last year in baseball, but he hasn’t publicly made that decision yet,” Griffin said. “If he doesn’t decide that before the season is over, then during the time when we’re over there, he’ll probably make his decision then.”
Best friends can talk about things like that.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Buhner said. “I can confide in him. I feel comfortable telling him anything. He’s not just a trainer, he’s a best friend.”
That’s why Griffin had a lump in his throat when Buhner jogged toward left field on Monday night, playing his first game in Seattle after a five-month recovery from a foot injury that required surgery in June. He thought this might have been the end.
“I really didn’t think he was going to be able to play this time,” Griffin said. “Especially after the surgery, knowing that there have been other people who’ve had this and missed a whole year. For him to be able to come back and just get on the field and play was cool.”
Almost from the day Buhner became a Mariner, when he came to Seattle in a trade from the Yankees in 1988, he has been Griffin’s patient.
“He got hurt right off the bat, and I guess that was a sign of things to come,” said Griffin, who has been with the team since 1983.
From that moment, Griffin has ushered Buhner through more winters of rehab and summers of patch-me-up therapy than he ever dreamed he would experience with one athlete.
There was the wrist injury in 1989, the ankle problem early in ‘90 and a broken wrist later that season, knee surgery early in ‘98 and “Tommy John” elbow surgery late that year, plus assorted twists, torques, pulls, spurs and surgeries that left Buhner with a standing reservation in the trainer’s room.
“He’s certainly helped me with my medical skills, rehabbing all the different pieces of his body,” Griffin said. “But more than anything, he’s helped me learn the importance of hard work and determination, and to never give up.”
Buhner, too, is amazed at Griffin’s longevity. On Sept. 25 when the Mariners play at Texas, Griffin will mark his 3,000th game with the team. Griffin doesn’t divulge his age, but his first year in baseball was 1977 with the Eugene Emeralds.
“In this game, there are opportunities to always go someplace else,” Buhner said. “He’s been as loyal to this organization as anybody. He’s basically the hero behind the scenes who doesn’t get a lot of the credit. He’s the best, without a doubt.
“When you’re going through a major injury, you need somebody that you can confide in. He knows the ups and downs. He knows when you’re going to hit a wall. You know he’s got the answers. He’ll look you in the eye and sometimes he won’t tell you just what you want to hear, but he’ll say ‘You’ve got a tough road ahead of you.’ He’ll be openly honest.”
Griffin also doesn’t back down to ballplayers’ shenanigans, including anything dished out by Buhner, who has long lived as the Mariners’ king of practical jokes.
“I’m known for a few pretty gross practical jokes, but he’s as good at giving it back as anybody,” Buhner said.
Not long after Buhner came to Seattle in 1988, he was sitting on the training table picking his nose and flicking his dredgings around the room. One of them stuck on Griffin’s cheek.
“I warned him I would do something he didn’t enjoy,” Griffin said.
Griffin did something so highly unenjoyable – and unprintable – to a pair of Buhner’s shoes, the jokes ended on the spot.
“He doesn’t mess with me anymore,” Griffin said.
“We immediately gained each other’s respect,” Buhner said.
Relationships sometimes start strangely in baseball, but few have developed into what Buhner and Griffin have going.
“There are so many things that we both enjoy doing,” Buhner said. “We both love hunting. We both love fishing. We both love Montana. We’ve hit it off over the years.”
They’ll make their annual fishing trip again this fall and talk about the usual – how Buhner’s body feels and where his heart is leading him. Griffin will give his advice, but he knows there is a chance he’ll hear the words that players with lesser hearts would have said years ago.
He realizes Buhner may call it a career.
But he also knows the friendship will never end.