The players’ scrum in right field three hours before the June 2 game wasn’t unusual. It was just another routine round of stretching until manager Don Wakamatsu came up and broke the news.
Ken Griffey Jr. was retiring.
It was not exactly unexpected, given the fact that Griffey was playing little and his stats – including a .184 batting average and no homers – were a far cry even from 2009, which had been his previous statistical low-water mark.
But the suddenness was startling – Wakamatsu had Griffey on his list of reserves for the game in his initial lineup card.
“It was so surprising. I don’t know how to express my feelings,” right fielder Ichiro Suzuki said through an interpreter. “That was hard. And then when you get on the field in the game, I couldn’t forget Junior wasn’t there.”
Second baseman Chone Figgins said no one in a Mariner uniform should forget what it has meant to play with Griffey, fifth on the all-time homer list with 630 and a 10-time Gold Glove winner in center field.
“Today was hard,” Figgins said. “But we all got a chance to play with not just a great player but one of the greatest players ever. And no one in here should ever forget it. Growing up, you just can’t imagine it.
“It’s like winning the lottery of baseball. It’s like Willie Mays came back to play with you.”
As with, and because of, Mays, Griffey wore 24. Before the game, groundskeepers drew in a giant 24 on the infield dirt behind second base. Honors didn’t end there.
In the tenth inning, Ichiro hit a grounder that second baseman Matt Tolbert was able to smother atop the numeral four. His throw to shortstop J.J. Hardy was too late to get runner Josh Wilson coming from first base. That enabled pinch runner Ryan Langerhans, who never stopped running, to score from second to give the Mariners scored a 2-1 win, their first extra-inning win of the season.
In a rare burst of emotion after the run scored, Ichiro hopped up and down and grinned as if he had helped win a playoff game.
“Everybody here wanted to win this one for Junior, to honor him,” left fielder Milton Bradley said. “There were a lot of emotions tied up in this game.”
Griffey spent most of the day on the phone with his agent, Brian Goldberg, club president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln. The front office didn’t believe things would happen as swiftly as they did. Once Griffey made up his mind, that was that.
Wakamatsu didn’t find out Griffey wasn’t going to play until about 20 minutes before the club’s pre-game stretch.
But things had been building toward this moment. A career .284 hitter and the owner of 1,836 RBIs, Griffey’s final year was 100 points worse, and just seven RBIs in 98 at-bats. That performance – down from last year’s 57 RBIs, 19 homers and a .214 average – was bad enough.
Things became worse with a story in mid-May quoting anonymously two teammates about how he had been sleeping in the clubhouse during a game and unavailable to pinch hit. Griffey denied he was unavailable — although he dodged the issue of whether he had been asleep — and took the story as an assault on his commitment to the game.
“You can question my batting average, my home runs or my RBIs,” he said later. “You can’t question my baseball integrity.”
The incident didn’t force Griffey’s hand. It was his relegation to an afterthought on the Seattle bench that did him in.
At his peak, the decade of the 1990s, Griffey was as good as or better than anybody in the game. If you needed a wall-climbing catch, a walkoff grand slam or a game-winning sprint from first to home in the playoffs, Griffey was your guy.
He never adjusted to being just another player, which is what he was upon his much-anticipated return to Seattle 2009. But he played most days anyway, and contributed much to the transformation of a toxic clubhouse into a place players raved about. The Mariners won 85 games. After the final game of the season at Safeco, he and Ichiro were carried around Safeco Field on the shoulders of teammates, testimony to how much had changed since a 101-loss season in 2008.
In 2010, however, Griffey wasn’t even just another player. He was an aging, one-time superstar who commanded loud and raucous ovations at Safeco Field but couldn’t get around on a fastball. Teammate Mike Sweeney, who at one stretch in May had six homers in 10 games, justifiably received more time at designated hitter. When it wasn’t Sweeney, it was Bradley.
During one interview after the game, Bradley was in tears. Growing up, Griffey was his favorite player. Acceptance was hard for him.
“A little birdie told me something a couple of days ago,” Bradley said, “but I didn’t want to believe it.”
Ichiro, the team superstar of this century much in the way Griffey was the superstar of the last, said it was important for everyone in the clubhouse to win this one for the retiring Griffey.
“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 made one start since May 18. While Wakamatsu was apologetic about that, the manager put out what he felt was his best lineup. Griffey simply wasn’t part of that.
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.”
In the end, Griffey’s decision took some pressure off the front office. He told them it was over, which meant they didn’t have to think about whether to tell him it was over. If the Mariners prodded Griffey to leave, there would be hard feelings with the best player ever to wear the Seattle colors.
Griffey was not just an icon, he was the reason baseball remains in Seattle. The Pilots played one year in the American League in 1969, then were purchased and moved to Milwaukee by a local car salesman named Bud Selig. After settling a lawsuit against the AL, Seattle was given a second chance at the big leagues with the expansion Mariners in 1977. For the next decade, the club was a joke. That began to end in 1987 when Seattle made Griffey the first pick in the draft.
Two years later he was in Seattle. It it took a while, he was the cornerstone around which a solid team was built, with things coming together with the 1993 hiring of manager Lou Piniella. Around Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Tino Martinez, Dan Wilson and Randy Johnson, the Mariners coalesced in 1995, the same year as the home field, 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 after word reached him of Griffey’s retirement. “When we were in Seattle together, I believe he was the best player in baseball. It was truly an honor to be his manager.”
Seattle fans loved Griffey, too. But in September, 1995, they voted no, barely, on a new stadium. Then then the Mariners made up a 13-game deficit on the California Angels to force a regular-season tie for the AL West title. Seattle beat the Angels in a one-game playoff, becoming a civic darling that September and October. The fans’ passion turned into political momentum that funded a new stadium, one of the game’s best.
“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.”
Without a new park, the Mariners probably would have moved to Tampa. Griffey gets most of the credit for making the Mariners credible enough to inspire the politicians to save the team with $380 million in public money.
But 15 years later, Griffey was no longer enough to keep the team winning games.
Griffey said in his statement that he owed it to his teammates to avoid 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.
On short notice, there was a brief pre-game ceremony to celebrate his career. Standing ovations greeted his highlight moments on the stadium video screen. But Griffey was not around, having left Seattle already by car to drive across country and contemplate for the first time a life without baseball.
A salute, with Griffey’s blessing, will have to come later, after the sadness of a final year no longer shadows the greatness.
John Hickey is a national baseball writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)