It has almost become a cliché in sports that when a player stays too long at the party—or in uniform—someone will inevitably say, “God Forbid he becomes Willie Mays with the Mets.”
Mays trying to play centerfield for the Mets in Oakland during the 1973 World Series is one of those indelible memories all baseball fans of a certain age can’t escape. There was a ball lost in the sun and the sight of arguably the greatest centerfielder ever to play the game stumbling around trying to get to fly balls he once would have caught while running backwards on one leg.
There are other examples throughout sports history: Johnny Unitas with the Chargers; Michael Jordan with the Wizards; Wayne Gretzky with the Rangers—players who had been the absolute best still playing when their skills had clearly faded. They might not have been as bad as Mays with the Mets but they weren’t close to what they once had been.
All of which brings us to Ken Griffey Jr.
For a long time one didn’t have to use his full name: he was just, “Junior,” to everyone in baseball—the son of Ken Griffey, a very good ballplayer in his own right who raised Junior to be a superstar. Junior is an absolute, no-brainer first ballot Hall-of-Famer. He has hit 630 home runs in spite of the fact that he has missed large chunks of season due to injury and there has never—EVER—been a hint of steroid use throughout his career. Watching him play centerfield as a young player in Seattle brought back memories of Mays—the Mays who played for the Giants in New York and San Francisco.
Last season, the prodigal son came home to Seattle after nine years of wandering in places like Cincinnati and Chicago, places he never really belonged. At 39, he signed a one-year contract presumably so he could finish his career as a Mariner, playing at Safeco Field, which most people in Seattle know as The House that Griffey Built. Once, when the Mariners played in the old Kingdome, there was talk that the franchise would be moved. That talk quieted not long after Griffey took up residence in centerfield. With players like Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson, it became one of the best in baseball for a number of years even though it has never reached The World Series and Safeco was built.
Since Junior’s controversial departure after the 1999 season both he and the franchise have had ups and downs. But 2009 seemed like a perfect way to bring closure to all that had gone on: Even though he only hit .214 he managed 19 home runs and 57 RBI for a team that improved from the depths of a 100 loss season to win 85 games and contend for most of the season in the wild card race. Griffey’s teammates carried him off on their shoulders after the final game of the season and it was a year filled with standing ovations.
A near-perfect ending.
Only Griffey didn’t want it to end. He signed with the Mariners for 2010—a $2 million deal with another $3 million in potential incentives. He hasn’t been a shadow of the hitter he once was for years now and there were no milestones that were so close that one more season would get him there. He wasn’t going to get to 700 home runs and he was more than 200 hits from 3,000. What’s more, his place in history is cemented even without reaching those round numbers.
And now it’s really turned bad—almost Willie Mays with the Mets bad. Griffey has struggled with injuries since spring training. His batting average—when he plays—is barely over .200 and he has zero home runs, two doubles and five RBI. He’s part of a Seattle team that’s off to a terrible start—particularly on offense.
Now it has gotten even worse than that. Last weekend, The Tacoma News-Tribune broke a story in which two of Griffey’s young teammates said that Griffey had fallen asleep in a chair in the Mariners clubhouse and, as a result, wasn’t available to pinch hit late in a game. If you read the quotes from the two players—both described as “young,”—it is apparent they aren’t trying to nail Griffey in any way. One even made the point that Griffey had been having trouble sleeping at home and that might have been a reason why he had fallen asleep.
Baseball players going into the clubhouse and doing things they aren’t supposed to is nothing new. Two incidents involving the New York Mets come to mind right away: Kevin Mitchell making a plane reservation during the 10th inning of game six of the 1986 World Series and having to pull his uniform pants on as he rushed to the dugout when called on to pinch-hit. In fact, Keith Hernandez admitted after that game that after he had made the second out, thinking the season was over, he went into the clubhouse and opened a couple of beers. When the Mets tied the game it suddenly occurred to him he might have to go play first base in the 11th inning. That was when Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner bailed him out. There was also the infamous Rickey Henderson card game incident during the 1999 playoffs against the Braves.
Griffey falling asleep isn’t a huge crime. He undoubtedly could have been roused, doused some water on his face and gone into the game if manager Don Wakamatsu had wanted him to hit. Obviously he didn’t do it with any malice or even thoughtlessness in mind. The problem is in the symbolism: 40-year-old, over-the-hill icon who can’t stay awake.
Which may explain the cover-up. The Mariners are trying to act as if this didn’t happen. Or, if it did, that the culprits are the two youngsters who talked to the reporter and the Larry LaRue, the reporter. Supposedly Mike Sweeney called a team meeting on Tuesday in Baltimore and demanded that the two ‘snitches,’ reveal themselves so he could fight them. It’s fine to stand up for a teammate—especially Griffey—but, again, it is apparent that the kids weren’t trying to rat Griffey out, they were just stunned by what they saw.
Then, after the meeting and after the game on Tuesday, the Mariners decided to freeze LaRue out---which is completely ridiculous. Do any of them think he made the story up? He has covered Major League Baseball for 30 years, the Mariners since 1988. You don’t stay on a beat that long without being professional, without creating trust with your sources and without knowing what you’re doing. You certainly don’t do it by making up a story about the most iconic figure in the history of a franchise.
LaRue did his job: two players told him Griffey was asleep—he reported it. You can’t say it wasn’t a story because clearly it was a story. Griffey has issued a non-denial, denial. When asked directly if he’d fallen asleep he answered: “Look, I can’t win this, I don’t have a blog.” (LaRue broke the story on his blog). Manager Don Wakamatsu has insisted hat Griffey was, “available.” At another point he said Griffey was sitting with him in the dugout when the alleged incident occurred. If that were the case why would the two players have told LaRue what they told him?
In all, the whole thing is sad. Griffey has had an extraordinary career and has always been a good guy on top of being a sensational player. Ironically, there had been talk he might retire very soon before all this happened. Now, he and the Mariners may feel that he has to stay around if only so people won’t think his departure was brought on by this incident.
What a shame—for all of us—but especially for Griffey and the Mariners.
One quick note from yesterday: It is impossible not to notice how mention of the Duke lacrosse incident of 2006 still stirs emotions. One poster went on about all the OTHER crimes committed by the Duke players and was outraged the Duke players were, “made into heroes,” after winning the national championship. I agree some people made the charged players into martyrs and I also agree—as I wrote—that they behaved very badly that night. But for the record, they were never cheered for winning the national championship in large part because they never won one.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and will be in bookstores nationwide May 13th. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases