The homecoming celebration hasn't stopped for Ken Griffey Jr.
The Mariners designated hitter has been a much-needed leader in the clubhouse
Seattle Times staff columnist
Minnesota @ Mariners, 1:10 p.m., FSN
Inside: Washburn gets no-decision
His eighth-inning, line-drive double scorched into the left-center-field gap scored Ichiro with the go-ahead run. And as Ken Griffey Jr. jogged back to the dugout, replaced by pinch-runner Wladimir Balentien, the Safeco Field crowd rose once again to voice its appreciation, for today and every other day Griffey has worn a Mariners uniform.
A third of the way through his return season, Griffey still is getting standing ovations when he comes to the plate. Light bulbs still pop like fireflies during every at-bat in night games.
After 56 games, the reception is as warm and as grateful as it was at the home opener two months ago. The homecoming celebration continues as each new home crowd relished the opportunity to thank Griffey for what he did for baseball in this city and thank him for returning to lift this lumbering sports town.
"It's been overwhelming, really," Griffey said, relaxing in front of his locker before Saturday's 2-1 win over Minnesota. "And I'm not taking any of it for granted. When I come up and I get those standing O's and stuff like that, I'm really trying to give them something to clap for after that.
"It's been really nice. I couldn't have written a better story for this [homecoming]," he said. "Other than the numbers, and the numbers can change, they can go up. It's been overwhelming."
The early season numbers have been disappointing, the only imperfections in this otherwise perfectly scripted return. Playing almost exclusively at designated hitter, he is hitting .224 with six home runs and 15 RBI. In the last week of May, he endured an 0-for-22 slump.
But there are flashback moments like Saturday's gapper against the Twins that remind you there still is life in Griffey's bat and still hope for this season.
"If you take out the 0 for 22," Griffey said, then laughed, knowing how silly that sounded.
But seriously, the season is young and Griffey traditionally is a slow starter, and his importance to this first season of the new Mariners regime can't be measured purely in numbers.
He brings an intrinsic understanding of the game that he has been passing on to teammates, some of whom are 15 years his junior. And he brings a contagious joy to the ballpark that has been missing on this team since the middle of this decade.
In the process of rebuilding, a team can't simply turn the game over to the kids. It needs been-there-done-that-future-Hall of Fame players like Griffey to show the kids how to be professionals.
Besides, Griffey still believes he will have a productive season.
"It's a matter of just getting at-bats and keep working," he said. "Something will click and you'll start hitting. It's a matter of getting some pitches, and sometimes it's a little mechanical thing, where you're not seeing the ball. Not picking it up right away. It's just a matter of time. Eventually it will get better."
Griffey undeniably is having a ball, playing ball again in Seattle. At 39 he has taken naturally to the role of elder statesman, and he genuinely is happy he turned down the Atlanta Braves to come home.
"I remember being that young guy, running around here, asking Alvin [Davis], Harold [Reynolds], Dave Valle, Jeffrey Leonard, Mickey Brantley questions," Griffey said. "Now it's just a little role reversal."
After games, when he isn't the focus of a win, Griffey stays by his locker, ready to deflect attention from a loss. But on a day like this, when his hit beat the Twins, Griffey is out of the clubhouse before the writers come in, giving the spotlight to teammates.
He has made the late-winter argument that he could be a disruption in the clubhouse sound ridiculous.
He has been an approachable go-to guy for the young players, who in spring training didn't know whether to talk with him, or ask for his autograph. He has made the game fun again for Ichiro.
"I think last year's situation in this clubhouse, it wasn't much fun for anyone," he said. "We're trying to change that, and a lot of that is just about changing the attitude about being here. Giving guys hugs when they need it. Giving them support. Giving them a hard time sometimes."
In his early years, Griffey's locker-room neighbor was crusty veteran Leonard, who told him, "There are going to be a lot of people who kiss your ass, and I'm not going to be one of them. I'm going to teach you how to play baseball and I'm going to tell you when you do things right and I'm going to tell you when you do things wrong."
Griffey has become this club's Jeffrey Leonard, but with much more grace and a Larry the Cable Guy kind of humor.
He has become the clubhouse cutup, the judge of the team's kangaroo court. He is the constant chatter in the room before games. His is the first locker to the right inside the clubhouse, and his is the first smile you see in the room.
"I still enjoy getting to the ballpark. Getting on people and harassing them," Griffey said. "And, like I've always told people, when it's not fun, then I'll go home."
And when he leaves the game, whether it's this October or beyond, he will have the cheers and the love from this season, from the place where it all began, to help him ease into retirement.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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