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Monday, March 1, 2010
Clear skies cover Seattle

By Jerry Crasnick

Ichiro is more relaxed now than earlier in his career, and he can thank Ken Griffey Jr. for that.
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The road to the American League West title still goes through Anaheim, where the Angels have won five of the past six division championships.

In Seattle, the road to harmony and goodwill goes through Ken Griffey Jr., who has mastered the art of stand-up comedy while sitting on a large steamer trunk near the front of the Mariners' clubhouse.

That's where you'll find Griffey each morning, dropping pop-culture references, dispensing good-natured insults and adding to the general spring training ambience.

On this particular morning, Griffey is giving the business to new teammate Chone Figgins for his diminutive stature (Figgins is listed at 5-foot-8) and lack of pop. Figgins went deep five times in 615 at-bats last year with the Angels, and Griffey has challenged him to hit at least five homers this season.

"I don't give a damn if four of them are inside-the-park home runs," Griffey tells Figgins. "You will get five -- and three of them better be against your old team. I want the bat flip. I want you to pose down and lick your lips like [LL Cool J]."

Griffey is also waxing effusive about "Black Dynamite," a 2009 action-comedy spoof starring Michael Jai White. In his de facto role as club social director, Griffey has assigned several teammates to watch the movie and commit one funny line to memory.

That means you, Ichiro Suzuki.

"You'll be fined $200 in kangaroo court if you don't do it," Griffey tells Ichiro. "That's [20,000] yen."

Of course, it's easy to be upbeat before the first Cactus League game, and a positive clubhouse atmosphere will only go so far if the 2010 Mariners can't actually play. Seattle's win total increased from 61 to 85 last year, primarily because the defense improved by leaps and bounds and the team ERA dropped from 4.73 to 3.87. If the Mariners are going to take the next step, they'll have to wring more from a lineup that scored a meager 640 runs.

But as Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson observes, "Take every team that's ever won a World Series, and you look at the team chemistry, and it's basically your fourth aspect of the game after pitching, defense and offense. It's that fourth aspect that carries you through the tough games."

If a positive environment makes for more productive workers at the office, the corner coffee shop or the loading dock, why wouldn't the same rules apply in the baseball clubhouse? Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik, who worked for the Pirates during the team's "We Are Family" championship season in 1979, has always been a believer in a strong clubhouse dynamic.

"You have players who are going to be together for six or seven months, every day, so why not get along?" Zduriencik said. "When you put anyone in an environment where it's fun, they have a chance to be more productive."

Does team harmony lead to winning, or vice versa? That's an age-old question. But the sense of togetherness in Seattle resonates with the handful of players who were around in 2008, when the Mariners were playing out the string on a 101-loss season and the atmosphere was downright toxic.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is willing to try new things to help his club. This spring, that included bringing in a yoga instructor.

Pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, an Australia native, spent the entire season with that club, which drastically underperformed and finished 39 games out of first place.

The Mariners replaced manager John McLaren with Jim Riggleman in June, and by September the mood was beyond salvageable. Veterans had little time for rookies, the pitchers who weren't blaming the hitters had made it clear they didn't enjoy throwing to catcher Kenji Johjima, and any semblance of camaraderie was gone.

"Things just went down the drain from day one," Rowland-Smith said. "By the end of the year, guys were blaming each other and pointing fingers. It really wasn't a good dynamic whatsoever.

"If you had an issue or a problem with somebody, it felt like you couldn't approach them because it wasn't appropriate. What's that saying -- 'mailed it in'? Everyone just mailed it in. There was so much negativity going on, it was a hard situation to be in for a young player."

The Zduriencik regime has shown a flair for progressive thinking beyond sabermetrics. The Mariners brought in a yoga instructor this spring, and they just announced the hiring of Dr. Marcus Elliott, a Harvard-trained physician, as the team's director of sports science and performance.

But when it comes to fostering clubhouse chemistry, the Mariners have a little old-school in them. When Zduriencik signed Griffey and Mike Sweeney last year, the two veterans had a mandate to break down walls and erase the negativity in Seattle.

Despite his reputation as the ebullient "Kid," Griffey wasn't always such an upbeat presence. He could be moody and overly sensitive, and he seemed burdened at times by the attention and outsized expectations. That was especially true during his days in Cincinnati, where he spent so much time on the disabled list.

But as Griffey eases into the sunset at age 40, he's embraced his role as the pulse of the clubhouse. That was readily apparent after the final game of 2009, when his Seattle teammates carried him off the field in tribute. His contribution extended well beyond his 19 homers and 57 RBIs.

"I remember sitting with Jeff Clement last spring training and we found out Griffey had signed, and I was like, 'Sweet, I can tell my friends because they actually know him back home,' " Rowland-Smith said. "I was just hoping, 'Please be a cool guy. Please have a good personality.' And he did. Everybody feeds off his energy."

Griffey is a big proponent of a clique-free clubhouse, where common interests forge bonds. Last year he went out for sushi with Ichiro and Kenji Johjima and didn't tell them he was allergic to fish until they arrived at the restaurant. Griffey recently struck up a conversation with outfielder Ryan Langerhans, an avid bow hunter. Langerhans bought him a bow, and shortly thereafter Griffey was at Bass Pro Shops having his "draw length" measured.

Before Griffey's arrival, Ichiro was isolated in the clubhouse and considered selfish and aloof by some teammates. Not anymore. Griffey changed those perceptions by sneaking up from behind during Ichiro's elaborate stretching regimen, locking his teammate in a death grip and tickling him until he cried out for mercy.

Ichiro, in turn, is the only teammate who has ever had the latitude to call Griffey by his given first name of "George."

Milton Bradley
Milton Bradley presents the ultimate test to the Mariners' feel-good clubhouse. The club is heading into the experience with an open mind.

Griffey ran the Mariners' kangaroo court last year with help from Jarrod Washburn and Adrian Beltre. Now that they're gone, he's thinking about naming Ichiro as one of his lieutenants. Beyond the standard $10 fine for foul language, there's no telling who might be singled out for a laugh in Judge Griffey's courtroom.

"If you give him an inch, he's gonna take 10 feet," Wilson said. "But he does it in a way where he never makes a guy feel bad. With Junior, it's always funny, and you never take it personal."

Griffey's capacity for inclusion will be tested with the arrival of Milton Bradley, whose credentials as a loner are well-documented. If the media refer to Bradley as Griffey's personal project, so be it. The only certainty is that the parties will start from scratch.

"What happened in the past, that's in the past," Griffey said. "I have to make my own opinion about somebody, and that means not worrying about what other people say. This relationship is between me and him. It's not me, him and what other people have said about him. Because I [couldn't] care less."

If the Mariners win enough games to contend, they're a team America could learn to like. They have two future Hall of Famers in Griffey and Ichiro, a Cy Young (Cliff Lee) and a Cy Younger (Felix Hernandez). Figgins is the resident scrappy overachiever, Erik Bedard has a chance to be a nice comeback story, and Rowland-Smith, an ardent surfer, is a veritable quote machine.

And we haven't even mentioned Eric Byrnes, the "Human Crash Test Dummy," or coach John Wetteland's free-spirited bullpen corps.

There's an element of trust to the equation. Manager Don Wakamatsu grants his players freedom of expression, and they know when to stow the hijinks and get down to business so he doesn't have to feel like Principal Skinner.

"It's not easy to say, 'Poof, let's have fun,' or, 'Let's have chemistry,"' Wakamatsu said. "You have to set some parameters, or otherwise it's 'Romper Room' -- and we don't want that.

"What I hope we've done is create an environment where we can work our tails off and then relax a little bit. We've said from day one that we want guys to have the freedom to be themselves, and want to come to work every day."

There's no doubt the Mariners enjoy coming to the park. Will all that camaraderie help translate into wins in Seattle? Check back in September for the answer.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.