Ken Griffey Jr. unable to recapture magic of 2009 season
Ken Griffey Jr., hoping to repeat the success and camaraderie of the Mariners' 2009 season, returned for what he hoped would be a triumphant farewell season in 2010.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Back in spring training, when hope was still brimming for these Mariners, Ken Griffey Jr. gave fans reason to believe one more time.
Griffey was still trying to round into game shape, tinkering with his swing to find that magical timing. And with a week to go until the regular season, he found it once again in the ninth inning, connecting for a grand slam off Kip Wells of his former Cincinnati Reds club to lift the Mariners to a walkoff victory.
"I saw all my guys at home plate," Griffey said later. "That's one of the best feelings in baseball, to see all your guys waiting for you. It doesn't matter who it is ... when the guys come in, that's the part of being a team everybody wants to see."
And in many ways, that camaraderie is what brought Griffey back one final time in 2010.
Griffey wasn't just a clubhouse policeman last season when he, Mike Sweeney and others helped transform the toxicity that had engulfed the Mariners. That's because Griffey lived and breathed the clubhouse and derived joy from the people within it.
Whether it was tickle sessions with Ichiro, or his consoling of Rob Johnson after Johnson's mother-in-law died in a car accident, Griffey had his finger on the team's pulse.
There were other signature moments during Griffey's second go-round with the Mariners, which began on Feb. 18, 2009 with an early evening announcement of his return following speculation he might sign with Atlanta. His first regular-season home run came on Opening Night in Minneapolis, in the fifth inning of a 1-0 game, to help the Mariners to an important fast start in what became an 85-win turnaround season.
Several weeks later, on June 19 against Arizona, the Mariners down 3-1 in the eighth, Griffey's two-run blast tied it and Seattle eventually prevailed. The Mariners would win three in a row, five of six and eight of the next 10 to get right back in the division race.
The Mariners would finally fade from contention in late July, but fought hard to avoid a late collapse similar to their 101-loss season in 2008. On the night of Aug. 12, the Mariners were in a scoreless, 14-inning duel with the Chicago White Sox.
With two on and two out, Griffey lined a game-winning, pinch-hit single off the right-field wall. The Mariners celebrated by chasing Griffey around the infield and pounding on him hard with back and head slaps.
"Junior's like a big brother around here. He jumps on Ichiro. He goes in Rob Johnson's locker and beats on him," fellow clubhouse leader Sweeney said. "Yeah, the guys were excited to put a beat down on Junior. It was well-deserved."
Griffey found himself in another scoreless game the second-to-last day of the season when, leading off the fourth, he took Texas Rangers starter Tommy Hunter over the right-field wall. A long ovation followed No. 630, with many correctly sensing that it was Griffey's final home run.
And when the Mariners recorded their 85th win the following afternoon, and Griffey was carried off the field in celebration, it seemed the last chapter had indeed been written.
Instead, Griffey tried to turn the clock back once more, announcing in October, after knee surgery, that he was returning. Left unsaid was the obvious pull of a possible run at an elusive World Series appearance.
But it was not to be.
The special moments from 2009 have yet to transfer over. Griffey would have one more walkoff moment, his ninth-inning single on May 20 helping to beat Toronto. But by then, the fun was fading, with Griffey reduced to a pinch-hitting role.
The week before, a story that he'd been napping in the clubhouse late in a game had wounded him deeply. Perhaps there was something telling to manager Don Wakamatsu's words in Florida, just days after the nap controversy, that it was "important" for Griffey to start a game at Tropicana Field against the Rays — in his home state with family and friends in the stands.
By then, most could sense what was coming.
Team insiders say Griffey's sport-utility vehicle was loaded on a flatbed and trucked away two days before his retirement was announced. That same night, in his final plate appearance, he nearly grounded into a game-ending double play.
In time, these final weeks will fade from memory, overwhelmed by a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. And instead of naps and strikeouts, those looking for a Griffey signature from 2010 might focus on the spring-training homer off Wells, one last moment of unbridled joy, unencumbered by present-day reality.
Reds manager Dusty Baker admitted to feeling nervous as Griffey stepped to the plate that spring afternoon.
"With that wind blowing out you say, 'Oh, Lord! Don't let it get up in the air,' " Baker said. "He's not Ken Griffey Jr. for nothing."
He still was that day. And to legions of fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, he always will be.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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