Ken Griffey Jr., the best player in Mariners history, is struggling, and the team might be forced into a decision soon.
It turns out the end game is the only one Ken Griffey Jr. hasn’t mastered.
Not that he’s alone. Every athlete says they’ll know when it’s time to walk away, but few ever do. Which is why we have the painful images of Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield during the World Series, and Steve Carlton getting shelled on five different teams in his last season-plus, and a shadow of Shaun Alexander in a Washington Redskins uniform.
Now add the mournful vision of Griffey sound asleep in the Safeco clubhouse late in a recent game, when the Mariners could have called upon him as a pinch-hitter.
As anyone who monitored Twitter knows, Griffey instantly became a punch line. You snooze, you lose your credibility. And that’s just downright sad for a player who will go down, rightfully, as one of the all-time greats, the only recent member of the 600-homer club to do it with his integrity intact.
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The siesta scenario, first revealed Monday by Larry LaRue of the News Tribune, is such a powerful (and poignant) metaphor for the decline and fall of the 40-year-old lapsed superstar that it’s no wonder it is getting national attention.
Griffey has had a tendency to catch clubhouse catnaps throughout his career, and it has always been viewed as one of his lovable idiosyncrasies. But when he’s struggling, with two extra-base-hits all season, the team is struggling desperately to score runs, and it’s late in a tense game, he really needs to be alert and on call.
The bigger issue, however, is what happens to Griffey now. LaRue suggests that Griffey’s departure, either by retirement or release, could happen this month. It has become increasingly apparent that if Griffey doesn’t pick up his offense — the Rangers’ Julio Borbon and Angels’ Brandon Wood are the only American League players with at least 75 at-bats with a lower OPS (on-base plus slugging) than Griffey’s .499 — the Mariners will have to make a tough call on Griffey.
It’s the decision they’ve dreaded from the moment Griffey expressed his desire to return to Seattle before the 2009 season.
The Mariners have always hoped the Griffey story would not have a messy ending. They didn’t want to be put in the position of having to cut loose their franchise icon, a person that team president Chuck Armstrong has an especially close relationship with.
Last year, they never had to face that problem. Though Griffey didn’t exactly remind anyone of Prince Fielder — or vintage Ken Griffey Jr. — he hit just enough to make a contribution, and was universally regarded as a positive influence in improving what had been a toxic clubhouse. His comeback season was regarded as a huge success.
But this year, the need to make the hard call is approaching rapidly. Mariners executives declined to comment Monday on the story that Griffey was dozing during a game. Asked if Griffey’s days with the team were numbered, general manager Jack Zduriencik replied, “Any issues involving the team and the roster are issues we talk about internally and evaluate internally. I wouldn’t read into or speculate on anything. What we’re concerned about is we’re going on a road trip, and our concern is we want to win baseball games.”
Asked about Griffey’s ongoing struggles, he said: “We have several players on this club struggling right now offensively. We’re trying to do some things to help all of them. I would never single out any individual player. The players are well aware of what we’ve done, and what we can do. We’re trying to get better and help the club get better. Yesterday (Sunday) was a nice day. We have a new hitting coach, and we’ll see where it all ends up, and where it takes us.”
Brian Goldberg, Griffey’s agent, declined to comment because he hadn’t had a chance to talk with Griffey, who was traveling with the team to Baltimore for a three-game series.
When Griffey is on the Hall of Fame podium in Cooperstown, all this will be forgotten, just as few remember Jerry Rice or Franco Harris in their waning days as Seahawks. Mays’ stature was hardly diminished by the way his career ended. Still, it’s painful to watch any great athlete’s skills erode.
Would Griffey voluntarily walk away, as Mike Schmidt did in May of 1989 when his average dropped to .203? I believe he would, if he believed his tank was truly empty, and if that’s what the Mariners wanted him to do.
I’ve been a strong Griffey supporter. But I’m not blind. Anyone watching the Mariners has to eventually come to the painful realization that Griffey is a faded version of his old self. He’s far from the only player struggling on this team, but he’s the only one who’s 40 years old and coming off back-to-back knee surgeries.
Perhaps Griffey will start raking the ball this week, but he hasn’t shown any signs of it. It appears more likely that the ending the Mariners dreaded might be coming to a reality.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org