McGrath: Time for Kid to be an adult

September 27, 2009 

The season’s final homestand at Safeco Field figured to be a bye week for Mariners fans. They would gather inside the secular cathedral south of downtown Seattle for six goodbye tributes to Ken Griffey Jr., culminating next Sunday with a postgame parade around the warning track, followed by a final doff of the cap in the autumn shade.

Flashbulbs would flicker. Throats would tighten into lumps. The eyes of every witness would well with tears.

And then the gravity of the event would give way to relief – the knowledge that a potentially awkward retirement had been arranged amid a climate of mutual admiration and respect between Mariners fans and the man responsible for some of their most cherished memories.

It won’t happen this week, and maybe it won’t happen at all. Because Griffey has announced no plans regarding his future, there’s a chance he and the Mariners could part ways during the winter. Or he could return for another six-month trek down memory lane, as if this season’s last waltz were merely a warm-up.

Griffey’s reluctance to address his future has put the Mariners’ front office in a public-relations jam: The organization will look like it’s run by cads if he’s not extended a contract to return in 2010, and the organization will like it’s run by clods if it turns over the cleanup spot of an overmatched batting order to a 40-year old who can’t hit his weight.

Give Griffey this much: He never went Brett Favre on anybody. He never said a word about stepping aside after this season. That was our timetable, our version of a simple, happy ending – or at least simpler, and happier, than the ending we thought we saw 10 years ago, when he asked to be traded and was granted his wish.

Upon returning to Seattle, Griffey’s timetable was to play it by ear, to weigh the travails of a season-long separation from his family against the joys of occupying the status of a franchise icon. In ways impossible to quantify on a stat sheet, Griffey has exceeded the expectations of even his most loyal admirers.

His zeal has been contagious. His ability to extract the fun-loving side out of Ichiro Suzuki’s guarded personality is well-documented, but no less important has been his big-brother embracement of all the newcomers in the clubhouse. Griffey earned his first-ballot ticket to the Hall of Fame years ago. This season, he’s shown how an all-time great can also be an everyday teammate.

Griffey has done as much as any major-league player can to mask a .211 batting average. But at some point – and now that we’re approaching the 25th week of a 25-week season, this seems like an appropriate point – it’s fair to wonder how a .211 hitter fits in as DH with dibs on the cleanup spot.

Mario Mendoza, the sure-handed shortstop who became the namesake of the “Mendoza Line” – a never-quite-defined standard for offensive futility – retired with a career batting average of .215. Griffey, at .211, is hitting four percentage points below the Father of the Mendoza Line.

Batting average, to be sure, is not baseball’s most comprehensive offensive statistic. That would be OPS, a combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Griffey’s OPS this season is .714, an eye-opening regression from his career OPS of .911. On the other hand, Griffey’s .714 OPS is a slight improvement upon Richie Sexson’s .696 OPS with the 2008 Mariners.

Remember Sexson? Remember the boos and jeers he heard last season whenever he returned to the dugout without producing? The Mariners finally took mercy on The Big Sleep 14 months ago, when they released him.

I don’t mean to be cruel about this, but Ken Griffey Jr., whose every trip to the batter’s box is preceded by a standing ovation at Safeco Field, has essentially become the left-handed equivalent of the 2008 Richie Sexson.

So what’s next? How does general manager Jack Zduriencik stay balanced on the trapeze? How does he honor an all-time great without compromising the very urgent task of acquiring some bats for 2010?

Here’s my suggestion: Offer Griffey a contract, only without the assurance of a permanent role. He’s hit 16 homers this season, and he’s amenable to sitting on the bench. So create a job for him as a pinch hitter and occasional DH slotted, say, in the No. 7 spot in the batting order.

If that sounds OK to Griffey, swell. If that doesn’t sound OK, move on and wish him a good life. And his life will be good: He turns 40 in November. He’ll never worry about paying the mortgage, or putting his kids through college, or balancing the family budget whenever the car requires repairs. He can travel anywhere in the world, tonight, and invite all his friends to join him on a private jet.

Griffey has earned all that.

But he hasn’t earned the DH role on the 2010 Mariners. He hasn’t earned the right to bat cleanup.

Griffey deserves a chance to retire on his own terms. Sunday at Safeco Field would have been a splendid opportunity to bow out gracefully, but again, that was our call, our timetable.

I can only hope the last appearance of Ken Griffey Jr. in a Mariners uniform turns out as perfect as the one we envisioned.

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