Saturday, February 21, 2009
Griffey follows through on vow to return
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ken Griffey Jr.'s familiar blue cap was in its familiar, fun place -- backward. The jokes, the huge gum bubbles and the boyish grin were back, too.
On his back, that blue No. 24, outlined in teal. It's the number with which he became a superstar in Seattle but hadn't worn in nine years.
"I thought about wearing 45, like Mike," Griffey jokingly said of his pal Michael Jordan, who once resumed his NBA career while briefly wearing that unfamiliar number. "But that didn't work."
Everything else did on a Saturday that rejuvenated the Mariners and all of Seattle.
The 39-year-old slugger thought to be fading to retirement last year looked revitalized, like it was 1989. Junior was "home" again. Back at his old corner locker for spring training. Back where his career began as a 19-year-old with a grin and a backward cap 20 years ago.
"I knew exactly where I was going. I think I know this clubhouse better than most people here," baseball's active leader with 611 home runs said with a laugh.
In that clubhouse, he cracked up awed Mariners teammates -- some nearly half his age. Then came a formal, superhero's welcome of a news conference.
Ken Griffey Jr. joked in his introductory press conference about taking over the leadoff spot from Ichiro Suzuki, but said he just wants to do the little things to win the World Series.
It began with Griffey looking uncomfortable, laughing nervously behind his hand with his head bowed. It ended with him zinging jokes around the room.
"You always want to start and end your career with the same team," he said. "Not saying that this is the end of my career, but it's an opportunity to do what I said I was going to do. And that's come back here."
The son of former Cincinnati hitter Ken Griffey Sr. said of Seattle: "I was pretty much raised in Cincinnati. But I grew up here."
He later hit in an indoor cage for 12 minutes, with rookie manager Don Wakamatsu pitching. His first workout with the Mariners comes Sunday morning.
He called the nine years since he's left "a little rough sometimes" because of injuries that have derailed a still-outstanding career.
He missed time in Cincinnati with injuries to his shoulder, hamstring, quadriceps, ankle and foot. Then after he was traded to the Chicago White Sox last July, Griffey had arthroscopic knee surgery. Many thought his career was finished.
The Mariners are banking on him being as healthy as he was in 2007, when he hit 30 home runs and had 93 RBIs with the Reds.
Asked what he expected from himself at age 39, Griffey looked to his right at Wakamatsu and joked: "I figure that I should start off in the leadoff spot, just move Ichiro down ...
"No, I may not hit 50 [home runs], I may not hit 40. I may not hit 30," he said. "But I can move runners over, do the little things it takes to win.
"My dad had three rings. I want one."
Griffey took the advice of legends Willie Mays and Hank Aaron while he weighed similar offers from Atlanta and Seattle this week. He said you can't think of baseball in San Francisco without thinking of Mays, you can't think of Atlanta without Aaron.
When asked if he wants people to think "Griffey" when they think of Seattle, he said: "This is a step in the right direction."
He is the Mariners' career leader in home runs (398), single-season home runs (56, twice) and slugging percentage (.569). He trails only Edgar Martinez in team history in games played with 1,535.
After resolving final contract details, he signed a $2 million, one-year deal Saturday morning. The contract includes plate-appearances and attendance-based bonuses that could push his pay toward $4 million, a nod to the buzz from Arizona to Seattle in the three days since he agreed to return.
The Braves thought Griffey was coming there this week because he wanted to stay close to his family. They did not offer the attendance bonuses. The Mariners threw those in last week, realizing how much adding Griffey would galvanize a fan base numbed last year by 101 losses.
Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, the key man who brought Griffey back, said the team lost money for the first time since it moved into palatial Safeco Field in 1999. That didn't hurt in wanting Griffey, either -- though the Mariners' baseball people insist they wanted him because he can still hit and will lead a clubhouse that was a fractured mess last season.
They have already decided Griffey will be in left field when his legs feel fine. When baseball's active leader with 611 home runs says he needs a break, he'll be the DH.
"If he plays, we draw and we win, he ought to get more money," said Armstrong, who befriended Griffey almost from the day Seattle drafted him first overall in 1987. "I hope I write those checks."
Armstrong had been wanting Griffey back since 2000, when he called the slugger two weeks after Seattle traded him to Cincinnati and told him he wanted Griffey retiring as a Mariner. About 10 days ago, Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik decided Griffey was the left-handed bat he needed. Armstrong then flew to Pebble Beach, Calif., where Griffey was playing in a golf tournament, for a six-hour push to get Griffey to return.
Last Sunday night, Griffey was at Mariners' camp for a physical and a two-hour meeting with Wakamatsu and Zduriencik. Monday, he met with Braves officials in Orlando.
Tuesday and Wednesday, he studied the schedules of the Mariners and Braves. Then he brought out the summer basketball schedule for his 13-year-old daughter Taryn, the youth-league slate of 6-year-old son Tevin and the high school football schedule for 15-year-old son Trey. He spread all those across the kitchen of his home.
"A couple of my friends thought I was drafting someone, for a first-round pick. It was like a war room. I had stuff everywhere," he said. "It was tough, but I think I made the right decision.
"I said I was going to go back [to Seattle]. And I did."