Wakamatsu lost his clubhouse over Griffey and never got it back
The "belief system" that worked so well for Don Wakamatsu in his 85-win rookie season wound up ending his tenure just two-thirds through...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The "belief system" that worked so well for Don Wakamatsu in his 85-win rookie season wound up ending his tenure just two-thirds through his sophomore campaign.
Wakamatsu believed that if he trusted in the individual track records of his Mariners, by allowing them to play through mistakes and slumps, players would return the favor by living up to their individual potential. But that two-way street never materialized in 2010, as players young and old rarely performed to expectations, then tended to grouse about it the few times Wakamatsu finally did limit their playing time.
Players who witnessed the team's first-half decline say Wakamatsu did little to help himself by failing to bench players for nonperformance or fight back when they challenged his authority.
But Wakamatsu's firing on Monday, along with pitching coach Rick Adair, bench coach Ty Van Burkleo and performance coach Steve Hecht, had also been anticipated for weeks by a coaching staff that felt they had received little support from a front office that saddled them with problematic and poorly performing players.
In the weeks leading up to his firing, Wakamatsu had declined to comment on the turmoil that surrounded him. Wakamatsu issued a brief statement Monday, thanking fans and adding "My single biggest disappointment is that we were not able to finish what we wanted to finish here, bringing a championship club to the fans."
Among a multitude of issues Wakamatsu had to deal with, none had a more lasting impact than the sudden retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. From the moment Griffey left the team June 2, Wakamatsu and his staff lost part of the clubhouse and never really got it back.
Griffey's relationship with Wakamatsu soured soon after a May 10 newspaper story broke that the slugger had been sleeping in the clubhouse before an eighth-inning situation in which he could have been used as a pinch-hitter. The story cited two young players as sources, though Griffey is said to have initially believed Wakamatsu was the leak.
"Griffey thought it was Wak that ratted him out and he voiced it to Figgy (Chone Figgins), (Casey) Kotchman, (Jose) Lopez and Milton (Bradley)," a player who witnessed what took place in the clubhouse told The Seattle Times.
Griffey has declined to comment since retiring. Wakamatsu has vehemently denied being the source of the story, but that did him little good in a clubhouse where some players believed otherwise.
Sources have since said that Griffey no longer believes it was Wakamatsu who was the leak. But the damage was done.
Soon after the sleeping story, Wakamatsu met with Griffey to discuss his future playing time. Wakamatsu denies he ever pressed Griffey to retire, though a FOX Sports story — quoting anonymous sources — suggested he angered the slugger by doing exactly that.
The relationship between the two men deteriorated from there.
On the day Griffey retired — June 2, three weeks after the sleeping story — sources told The Times the reason he left was that he and Wakamatsu hadn't spoken for two weeks. The sources, who had spoken with Griffey by phone, say he was furious that Wakamatsu had not treated him with the respect due a veteran of his stature nor properly communicated the extent to which he'd be benched.
Some of those sources also said Griffey had vowed not to return to Safeco Field — either in an employment capacity or for a retirement ceremony — as long as Wakamatsu remained manager.
Wakamatsu confirmed, when asked, that he and Griffey had stopped speaking at least 10 days prior to his retirement. But Wakamatsu insisted he had chatted with Griffey about reducing his playing time.
Griffey has not spoken to Wakamatsu since leaving. He has spoken several times to team president Chuck Armstrong by phone.
In an interview Monday, Armstrong declined to comment on whether Griffey had ever expressed to him that he would not return as long as Wakamatsu was managing.
"I'm not going to respond to that," Armstrong said.
Armstrong added: "You're connecting the wrong dots here. Ken Griffey Jr. had nothing to do with what happened today. This was solely Jack Zduriencik's decision. ... Ken Griffey Jr. wasn't responsible for the bad baserunning or the poor overall play of the team."
Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, said Monday that he has never heard the slugger tell Armstrong that he'd stay away until Wakamatsu was gone. But Goldberg said he hasn't been in on all the phone conversations between Armstrong and Griffey.
Goldberg did say that there were communication issues that arose between Griffey and Wakamatsu. He added that Griffey decided not to return to Safeco Field for any ceremony honoring him this year but it was because he felt it would be "disrespectful" in light of how poorly things have gone this year.
Wakamatsu faced a number of issues in the weeks following the controversial sleep story.
Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez erupted at Wakamatsu during a first-inning mound visit in Oakland on May 18. Television cameras caught the angry exchange and Hernandez was unavailable for comment afterward — though he later downplayed the episode.
Some players were surprised Wakamatsu allowed Hernandez to get away with talking to him like that.
Then, just two days after Griffey retired, struggling pitcher Ian Snell seemed to dismissively shrug off some of Wakamatsu's postgame comments about his work during a loss to the Angels. Snell had been one of the early benefactors of Wakamatsu's belief system, left in the rotation despite failing to win a game.
Less than a week later, Wakamatsu earned the wrath of Figgins for dropping him from No. 2 to No. 9 in the order. Wakamatsu had been under increased media fire for leaving Figgins at the top of the order without rest despite a batting average hovering around .230.
Four days later, pitcher Cliff Lee called a players-only meeting in San Diego. One of the items discussed was the need for players to let go of any lingering resentment over Griffey's departure.
But the Mariners won just three series — all of them in June — from the time of the meeting until taking two of three from the Royals over the weekend.
Players continued to make a series of embarrassing on-field gaffes. Wakamatsu insisted before the All-Star break that he would hold players accountable, then did nothing as blunders were committed nightly.
The most serious came when Jose Lopez was doubled off first base to end a scoring threat in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game July 21. But Lopez was back in the lineup the following night.
Wakamatsu finally decided two days later to make an example of Figgins by pulling him from a game for failing to back up an outfield throw. Figgins erupted at Wakamatsu in the dugout, and players and coaches had to separate the two.
Zduriencik met privately with the two men the next day, and Figgins remained in the lineup. To this day, Figgins has not spoken about the episode, nor apologized publicly.
Members of the coaching staff felt Zduriencik could have done more to support Wakamatsu after the altercation. They also feel Wakamatsu is shouldering the blame for the non-performance of players Zduriencik thrust upon him.
"Everybody is accountable," Zduriencik said at a news conference Monday explaining the firing. "I think we sit here today, when I look in the mirror I see accountability ... upon myself. There's accountability to the players here. There is accountability to the manager, accountability to everyone attached to this big-league ballclub."
But in the end, the "belief system" as it pertained to Wakamatsu lasted fewer than two seasons.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.