Midseason in 2009, Ken Griffey Jr. was reflecting in the pre-game clubhouse on a couple of his former managers, Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen.
“Same person,” Griffey said, grinning, of the current skippers of the Chicago teams, referring to their volcanic, irascible natures. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy either, but Griffey sounded more comfortable with his current skipper, Mariners’ new guy Don Wakamatsu.
“From day one, he didn’t panic,” Griffey said. “He’s level-headed. He knows how to handle the ups and downs, and he criticizes constructively.”
For Wakamatsu, the endorsement was significant. He’d been in enough major league clubhouses to know that many a managerial career has been scuttled merely by a scowl from the resident icon. From the first day of training camp, Griffey made life easier for a rookie manager by supporting him when skeptics arched eyebrows.
“I’ve been on clubs where the stars didn’t act that way,” he said. “It really helps me a lot.”
Wasn’t all that hard to do, according to Griffey.
“He treats us like men,” he said, holding on tight to a straight face. “He allows us to wear earrings.”
Fast forward to 2010. Things changed. Griffey became furious with Wakamatsu, players confronted him, and nobody had his back, including his bosses. One of them Monday officially put in the knife — the guy who hired him, general manager Jack Zduriencik.
“I had my doubts,” said Zduriencik.
So does Seattle, Jack. But Seattle’s doubts are whether the Mariners will ever figure out this baseball thing.
The firing of Wakamatsu may be the nadir of this franchise’s ignoble existence. And that’s saying something for a team that once had two players tagged out at home plate on the same play by a catcher with a broken leg.
Nothing in Wakamatsu’s approach this season changed from Griffey’s description a year earlier. He remained level-headed, unflappable and a constructive critic.
What changed was the team he was given. It wasn’t good.
He was given a lopsided roster — all defense, no offense.
He was given two singles hitters to take up the top two spots in the batting order and almost $30 million of the $90 million payroll.
He was given a left fielder who was the most notoriously unstable personality in the game, and underscored the assessment by leaving the team for two weeks to deal with emotional problems.
He was given two youthful catchers who could neither catch nor hit to major league minimums.
He was given two aged designated hitters who were all personality and little effective skill.
He was given one high-profile free agent, who handled a difficult switch of teams, cities, positions, lineup spots and big money with all the grace of a blind man in a cornfield maze. Yet the player had the audacity to challenge the manager in the dugout, making the team a nationally televised laughingstock.
He was given a world-class starting pitcher who was too good to keep on a failing team, and was traded for players of no help to this season.
He was thrown a bone by being given a hitter at midseason that cost two promising prospects, when the hitter could have been had for no personnel cost in the offseason.
Beyond all of that magnum dubiousness, he was given no management support when he made the obvious, overdue decision to bench an unproductive Griffey, who believes to this day that Wakamatsu planted the story about Griffey sleeping in the clubhouse when he was needed to pinch-hit.
Team president Chuck Armstrong, not Zduriencik, needed to make a public statement that Wakamatsu had his strong support to do what it took to win games, including benching Griffey. Instead . . . nothing.
Armstrong’s personal attachment to Griffey overrode quality baseball judgment. The beloved Griffey’s abrupt departure and behind-the-scenes resentment toward Wakamatsu undercut the manager — the same guy Griffey so enjoyed a year earlier that he Photoshopped a smiling image of himself into a Wakamatsu family photo and presented it as a gag gift.
Asked specifically whether the firing was influenced by Griffey poisoning the clubhouse well, Zduriencik ducked and dodged.
“No one thing caused this,” he said.
Well, of course not. Players failed throughout the roster. Wakamatsu made his share of mistakes handling the bullpen and lineups, and either avoiding, or being forbidden from, coming down hard on player misbehavior.
We could go on. But two points are incontrovertible and need to be indelible for Mariners fans:
- The Griffey saga was one of the most disgraceful and embarrassing management episodes in club history — a lose-lose for everyone in a franchise that knows how to lose-lose.
- The roster is the most misbegotten hash in the Safeco Field era of franchise wealth.
Neither fact is the fault of Wakamatsu and four coaches (hitting coach Alan Cockrell got it in the neck earlier) who paid the price with their jobs.
The moment screams that this franchise be lopped at the head.
Except that somehow, a bobblehead night would be made out of it, and 40,000 of the oblivious would show up at the stadium for the freebie.