Even at 40, Griffey still young at heart
A big-leaguer at the age of 19, Ken Griffey Jr. was so good it seemed like it irritated some, like former big-league manager Buck Showalter, a journeyman minor-league player, who had a snit because he felt Griffey was disrespecting the game by wearing his ball cap backwards during batting practice.
Now look at Griffey.
At the age of 40, about to embark on his 22nd big-league season, he is headed into the second year of his second tour in Seattle, and he has become the sage of the Seattle clubhouse.
Oh, he is still having fun.
``Don (Wakamatsu, the Mariners' manager) has a rule about suit and ties on planes,’’ said general manager Jack Zduriencik. ``So Kenny has these ties made up with Wak’s picture on them, and after the staff is seated on the plane, the bus with the players pulls up, and the players board the plane, walking by Wak, and each of them is wearing a tie with Wak’s picture.’’
Griffey is not, however, hanging around for giggles and grins.
He is here to win.
While he may not have as much an impact on the field as he once did, he still commands respect with a bat in his hands, and with the Mariners he has become such a critical clubhouse factor that his presence helped the Mariners make the decision to acquire Milton Bradley, despite Bradley’s troublesome reputation.
``I don’t want to make any player responsible for another player,’’ said Zduriencik. ``Now, the fact that we have Ken is a positive. One of the things Milton said after we acquired him was there were only two players in his career he asked for an autograph, Barry Bonds and Kenny Griffey. It tells you the stature Ken has.’’
Griffey is almost sheepish when his clubhouse impact is mentioned.
``I have respect for Milton,’’ said Griffey. ``This isn’t something I have to work at. He’s a competitor. He wants to play and he wants to win. I want him to go out and have fun and play baseball. He brings a lot to our team.’’
A year ago, Griffey opened doors for Ichiro Suzuki to be a part of the clubhouse mainstream. Ichiro had become isolated from his Mariners teammates, an atmosphere those close to the club felt was fostered by the attitudes of former Mariners Richie Sexson and Bret Boone.
Griffey and Ichiro had a relationship that dated back to the winter after the 1995 season.
``There were some things he wanted to do,’’ Griffey said. ``He went to Chicago and saw Michael Jordan play, and he flew to Cincinnati and we hung out.’’
That relationship was rekindled last spring.
No big deal, said Griffey, who grew up in big-league clubhouses, going to work with his dad, former big-league outfielder Ken Griffey Sr.
``It’s part of me,’’ said Griffey. ``I’m passing things down, like my dad did with me. We all have a goal, to win a World Series, and whatever I can do to help accomplish that I’m going to do.
``I learned things when I was 12, 13 years old that most people don’t learn until they are 21. Now, I’m the Big 4-Oh, and sharing those things.’’
It is where Griffey can have his biggest impact, and he knows it.
He was once a wunderkind, having such a dominant spring training back in 1989 that he forced the Mariners to keep him in the big leagues, at the age of 19, despite having played only 129 professional games after signing with Seattle as the first player taken in the 1987 draft.
``Each week that spring we’d meet and the coaches would rave about Junior, and we’d say, `but he’s going to be sent to the minor leagues,’’’ remembered former long-time Mariners scout Bob Harrison. ``We’re in the last week of the spring and the subject comes up and it’s mentioned that he’s going to be sent back. Finally, I asked, `So who’s going to tell him?’’’
Nobody, as it turned out.
There was never a second thought about that decision. The Griffey resume shows 13 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Glove awards, seven Silver Slugger awards, and the 1997 American League MVP. He ranks fifth on the all-time home run list with 630, 16th in RBI with 1,829.
There, however, is another number that haunts Griffey – 2,638.
That’s how many big-league games he has played without ever being in a World Series. It’s second on the all-time list, trailing only Rafael Palmeiro, who retired after 2,831 regular-season games and zero World Series appearances. The closest active player to Griffey on the list is Kansas City catcher Jason Kendall with 1,967 games.
``A world championship is why you play this game,’’ said Griffey. ``You didn’t hear people talk about winning an All-Star Game, or a first-inning home run. They talk about Joe Carter’s walk-off home run (off Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams to give Toronto the 1993 world championship).’’
And for Griffey, whose stay in Seattle had a nine-year lapse while he played in Cincinnati, where he lived as a youth, with a two-month stop in Chicago with the White Sox at the end of the 2008 season, nothing would be nicer than to win that world championship in his Mariners encore.
``When (he was in Cincinnati) I kept track,’’ Griffey said. ``We were in the Eastern time zone so our games would be over and I could get home and catch the last four or five innings of the Mariners’ game.’’
He glanced up, flashing that contagious Griffey smile.
``Remember,’’ he said, ``I was raised in Cincinnati, but I grew up with the Mariners.’’