SEATTLE – In his prime, Ken Griffey Jr. was considered the best player in baseball, on pace to rewrite the record books.
Injuries derailed his chance to become the home run king. His spot as one of the game’s all-time greats is without question.
Now relegated to part-time duty and with little pop left in that perfect swing, Griffey unexpectedly decided Wednesday night to retire after 22 mostly brilliant seasons.
The Kid that once saved baseball in the Pacific Northwest with his backward hat, giddy teenage smile and unrivalled talent, had become a shell of the player who dominated the 1990s.
The 40-year-old Griffey wasn’t at Safeco Field on Wednesday. He simply released a statement through the Seattle Mariners — the franchise he helped saved in the 1990s and returned to for the conclusion of his career — that he was done playing.
Griffey said goodbye before Seattle played the Minnesota Twins after 13 All-Star appearances, 630 homers — fifth on the career list — and 1,836 RBIs. He’s an almost certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“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.
“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 a team is what the ultimate goal should be,” he said.
There will be no farewell tour, just as Griffey wanted. He called Mariners’ team president Chuck Armstrong and said he was done playing. Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu called his players together before the start of batting practice to inform them of Griffey’s decision.
“To play with him is a treasure I will keep deep in my heart,” Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki said through an interpreter. “I have played 19 years in professional baseball and I can say he was one of my best teammates and my best friend.”
Milton Bradley, Griffey’s teammate for only a few months, turned to Mike Sweeney during batting practice and said, “on a day like this, it should rain in Seattle.” After Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Minnesota, Bradley was emotional speaking about his former teammate.
“I hit left-handed because of Griffey. I wanted to play baseball, be an outfielder, make diving catches, style on a home run because of Griffey,” Bradley said. “Guys like him don’t come around every day. He’s just as magical off the field as on it.”
The team put his number 24 in the dirt behind second base and showed a 5-minute video tribute to a standing ovation before the game.
“It’s a sad day for the Mariners, our fans, for all the people in the community that have loved Ken, admired him as a tremendous baseball player and a great human being,” Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. “It’s always tough for great superstars like Ken or anyone else to make a decision to retire. This has been his life for so many years, but he has made his decision and will support it. We will honour him in every way possible.”
A star from the time he was the overall No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft, Griffey also played with his hometown Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox. He hit .284 with 1,836 RBIs.
But his greatest seasons, by far, came in Seattle.
Griffey played in 1,685 games with the Mariners and hit .292 with 417 homers, most coming in the homer-friendly Kingdome, and 1,216 RBIs. He won the AL MVP in 1997 and practically saved a franchise that was in danger of relocating when he first came up.
Griffey returned to the Mariners in 2009 and almost single-handedly transformed what had been a fractured, bickering clubhouse with his leadership, energy and constant pranks.
Griffey signed a one-year deal last November for one more season in Seattle after he was carried off the field by his teammates after the final game of 2009. He hit .214 last season with 19 homers as a part-time DH. He was limited by a swollen left knee that required an operation in the off-season.
But the bat never came alive in 2010. Griffey was hitting only .184 with no homers and seven RBIs and recently went a week without playing. There was a report earlier this season — which Griffey denied — that he’d fallen asleep in the clubhouse during a game.
The swing that hit as many as 56 homers in a season had lost its punch and Griffey seemed to understand his time was coming to a close.
“Of course it surprised us. You never know what is in a players mind. They debate things here and there and in this particular case Ken made his decision and there wasn’t anything anybody could say,” Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “You support him, you’re behind him and again, he’s a legacy in this community and certainly in the game of baseball.”
His career is littered with highlights, from homering in eight straight games to tie a major league record in 1993, to furiously rounding third and sliding home safe on Edgar Martinez’s double to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series in 1995. His first major league at-bat was a double and Griffey homered the first time he stepped to the plate at home.
A year after making his big league debut, Griffey enjoyed one of his greatest highlights. Playing with his All-Star dad, Ken Griffey, they hit back-to-back home runs in a game for the Mariners.
And during the Steroids Era, his name was never linked to performance-enhancing drugs, a rarity among his contemporaries such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
“Junior was one of the finest young men I’ve ever had the opportunity to manage,” said Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella. “When we were in Seattle together, I believe he was the best player in baseball and it was truly an honour to be his manager.”
Seattle catcher Rob Johnson watched Griffey in his prime while growing up in Montana. He then got a chance to claim a locker just a few feet away from Griffey’s.
“I think it’s pretty easy for me to personally say he’s the greatest player to ever play this game,” Johnson said. “He did everything. He wasn’t just a home run hitter. The guy played outfield as good or better than anyone ever played. … To me he is the greatest player to ever live and to get a chance to play with him and to get to sit next to his locker is pretty special.”
Griffey also is regarded as the player who helped keep the Mariners in Seattle, a point Armstrong noted during an impromptu gathering just a few steps from the batter’s box at Safeco Field. It was Seattle’s unlikely late season playoff run in 1995, spurred by the return of Griffey from injury, that led to the construction of Safeco Field and the future security of a franchise rumoured for years to be on the move.
Once he left Seattle for the Reds, injuries began to take their toll and his production started to decline. Griffey’s final hit, during his lacklustre final season, was fittingly a game-winning pinch-hit single against Toronto on May 20.
“He kept the team here. He drew people here because people wanted to see what he could do day to day,” Seattle first base coach Lee Tinsley said, a former playing teammate with Griffey. “He was such a special player.”