PEORIA, Ariz. – Ken Griffey Jr., an iconic figure in Northwest sports history, is coming home.
Drafted by the Seattle Mariners as a 17-year-old out of high school, Griffey signed a one-year contract Wednesday that brings him back as a 39-year-old destined for the Hall of Fame.
“I can’t begin to tell you how ecstatic we are, and Ken is, too,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “I think this is special for our team and our fans, and for Ken and his family. We brought him back for the
best of reasons – this was the right thing to do.”
The kid who made the Kingdome seem palatable was the first true star the Mariners developed, and Griffey spent his first 11 major league seasons in Seattle. Before asking to be traded after the 1999 season, he’d shattered most of the team’s offensive records and helped the Mariners reach the playoffs twice.
That, however, was 10 years and quite a few injuries ago – and the Griffey who’s coming back to Seattle batted just .249 with 18 home runs and 71 RBI last season.
“We did our work, and as a lot of people have learned in the past few months, Ken played through a knee injury last season and has had surgery to correct the problem,” Zduriencik said. “He passed our team physical with flying colors. He’s healthy, and it’s a rejuvenated Ken Griffey who’s coming back to Seattle.
“This was a player we wanted to bring home.”
Griffey will return with quite a résumé. His 611 career home runs rank fifth-best in baseball history, and he has 2,680 major league hits and 1,772 runs batted in – 18th on the all-time list.
When he left for Cincinnati before the 2000 season, Griffey said he wanted to return to his roots and be closer to where he and wife Melissa had settled, in Orlando, Fla. The Reds trained in Florida, and Junior’s father, Ken Griffey Sr., had played much of his career in Cincinnati.
What followed was almost Shakespearian.
BIG WELCOME BACK IN 2007
Griffey’s parents were divorced, injuries dominated his years in Cincinnati, and when he returned to Safeco Field for the first time in 2007, he walked into a regionwide lovefest.
Before leaving, he said he’d like to retire as a Seattle Mariner.
That kind of talk might be premature – Griffey has said he wants to play baseball until it’s no longer fun, and there’s no sign that he’s lost his love for the game.
Certainly, money is no longer an issue. After he made more than $100 million in Cincinnati – much of it deferred through 2025 – Junior’s new contract with the Mariners is for a $2 million base, with the opportunity to make another $4 million in incentives.
It took a new Mariners general manager to bring him back.
Zduriencik, hired in October, had no history with Griffey until he and agent Brian Goldberg began exchanging telephone calls in November. Zduriencik spent most of his first few months in the job making the Mariners a younger team, turning over the roster.
But once Zduriencik and his front office team made the decision to pursue Junior – with the blessing of CEO Howard Lincoln and President Chuck Armstrong – that pursuit took on the secrecy of a government operation.
Griffey was brought into the team complex in Peoria on Sunday for a physical, then slipped back to the airport that night for a flight to Florida.
And about the time the Mariners felt confident that they’d convinced Griffey to return, the Atlanta Braves jumped into the picture, making a serious late run at him. What they had to offer was a spring training camp in Florida and a home ballpark a one-hour flight from Orlando.
By Tuesday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution was reporting that the Braves were close to signing him, and one Seattle newspaper reported it was a “done deal” on its Web site.
What made Griffey’s decision, in the end?
“I think this is really where he wanted to play,” Zduriencik said. “From our standpoint, it was a baseball decision. He’s a power left-handed bat, and he’s going to be a force for this club on and off the field.
“Ken is one of those players who’s been there and done that. He wants to play, to contribute, and if I had the chance to be his teammate, I’d think this was pretty special. He’s returning to his roots, and we’re going to be a better team because of it.”
NO PUBLICITY STUNT
Obviously, Griffey is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and he might never again be the American League Most Valuable Player, as he was in 1997.
He probably won’t hit home runs in eight consecutive games – matching the major league record – the way he did in 1993.
Almost certainly, he won’t hit 56 home runs in a season, as he did in both 1997 and 1998.
Still, the Mariners don’t view this as a publicity stunt. Raul Ibañez (23) was the only Mariners outfielder – and Adrian Beltre (25) the only other Mariners player – to hit more than 20 homers last season. A healthy Griffey will boost the team’s power – just two seasons ago, he hit 30 home runs and had 93 RBI in 144 games.
Where Griffey will play, in the outfield or as a designated hitter, will depend upon Junior’s health, Zduriencik said.
Either way, though, he’ll be playing in Seattle.