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Originally published Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Jay Buhner: "He IS the Seattle Mariners"

John McLaren, who was around Ken Griffey Jr. as a bench coach in the 1990s, puts Junior's return to Seattle in a context more glowing than...

Seattle Times staff reporter

John McLaren, who was around Ken Griffey Jr. as a bench coach in the 1990s, puts Junior's return to Seattle in a context more glowing than even some of the most jubilant Mariners fans.

"I've been thinking about this a lot," said McLaren, M's manager for parts of the 2007 and 2008 seasons. "All the top players that have been to the top of the mountain the last 15 years — Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod — have fallen down.

"Except for Junior. That just reassures you how great he's been."

If there's a downside to the return of Griffey, those who were around him during his Seattle days don't think it's a considerable one.

"We all need to understand this is not the Junior of '95, '97, all those great years," said McLaren. "But he still knows how to play the game. He's still got a presence in the clubhouse, which they need."

Former outfielder Jay Buhner, one of Griffey's closest friends with the M's, said he knew it was a "tug-and-pull" decision for Griffey.

"It was a family decision, and you know what, it's the ultimate feather in Seattle fans' hats," Buhner said. "He felt Seattle was family. Nowadays, with all the money and coming and going, it's great to see a hometown hero going to end where he started."

Buhner, though, thinks this could end up being about much more than sentimentality.

"You bring a guy back to a comfortable environment with people you know and love, have him let his guard down a little bit, let fans embrace him ... " Buhner said, referring to the possibility of a solid year for Griffey. "If anybody can elevate his game to another level [it's him]. I think a lot of déjà vu will come into play. If his knees hold up, this stadium is built for his swing."

As much as what Griffey might contribute on the field, his presence in the clubhouse will be watched almost as closely.

"The young people in Seattle love Ichiro, and the older people understand what Junior did for the franchise," said ex-teammate Norm Charlton.

"Nothing but positive," said McLaren. "I know Ichiro thinks a lot of Kenny, and Kenny thinks a lot of Ichiro."

Said Buhner of Griffey, "He openly accepts that role and I think he's going to be huge in the clubhouse. You know as well as I do, it's been dead in there the last seven or eight years.

"He IS the Seattle Mariners. How can a guy like that not have a huge presence?"

With the Mariners, Griffey sometimes reached out to the lesser figures on the roster, drawing them into his web of tomfoolery. Ex-catcher Tom Lampkin remembers Griffey chartering a small plane once for an off-day and taking Buhner, Lampkin and pitcher Frank Rodriguez to his home in Orlando.

"Frank was pretty damn close to the 25th guy (on the roster), and I wasn't too far from it," Lampkin said.

Lee Elia, the former coach under Lou Piniella, said, "I couldn't be happier. I truly believe in his heart, he wanted to come home to Seattle and finish it out."

"Kind of a feel-good, isn't it?" McLaren said.

Added Buhner, "It's a match made in heaven."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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