Ken Griffey Jr. exhibited an extraordinary grace in everything he did.
Except his exits. Those needed work.
With a generation having passed, Griffey fielded a question this spring about his first breakup with the Mariners, after the 1999 season when he demanded a trade out of Seattle.
After a preface that minimized all the subplots and drama, and the disenchantment he felt at the time, Griffey concluded that “it was just one of those things that happened.”
It seemed a verbal shrug, as if it had been one of life’s existential absurdities, an uncontrollable act. Maybe a millennial glitch. It was February Y2K, after all, when he took his leave.
But it wasn’t happenstance, of course. There was the dead air of Safeco Field. The emerging Alex Rodriguez sharing the marquee. His kids growing up at a distant home.
He forced management’s hand into a bad trade and beat feet after 11 seasons. Assessing his going and coming was a matter of perspective at the time.
In Seattle, the jilted cried: We lost Griffey! Can you believe it?
In Cincinnati the joyous cried: We’re getting Griffey! Can you believe it?
“There was no hard feelings,” Griffey said of his departure, denying the obvious — or at least recognizing the futility of revisiting the moment.
This was in April, when he was in town to throw out the first pitch at the Mariners’ home opener. A new generation of fans cheered wildly at the mention of his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Clearly eroded over time were the sense of abandonment from the fans and whatever alienation Griffey felt for the franchise.
“Things (after the ’99 season) were out of people’s control and sometimes either you have to look back and go, “OK, it was a decision that was based on … what was best for my family, not what everybody thought the decision should be.’ It was one of those things that happened.”
The Mariners brass and the legion of fans were among those who thought it was the wrong decision.
Griffey reportedly gave M’s general manager Pat Gillick a list of four teams he saw as prime trade candidates. Gillick noted: “It was not an ideal situation in which to negotiate.” Without leverage, the Mariners got little in return for the game’s best player.
Looking back at the moment, now, Reds general manager Jim Bowden had a view from the other side: “My favorite moment was the day we traded for Ken Griffey Jr. and I was blessed to have the opportunity to walk to the podium to declare ‘baseball is back in Cincinnati .’ To be able to bring a future Hall of Famer, MVP, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger superstar to the children of the greater Cincinnati area was an epic moment for me.”
Griffey accepted a contract from the Reds of some $30 million less than the Mariners had offered in an attempt to extend his stay. In essence, Griffey was willing to “pay” the Mariners a fortune to let him go.
He told the Cincinnati fans: “It doesn’t matter how much money you make, it’s where you feel happy.”
The inference was easy: He wasn’t happy in Seattle, and it was worth it to him to sacrifice money to get out.
It worked in Cincinnati for a while, and then only sporadically thereafter because of injuries. He hit 40 home runs the first season and made another All-Star appearance, but in the following six seasons his injuries limited him to no more than 128 games in a season.
Griffey’s connection to his old teammates remained strong, he said, as he still called his Mariners friends, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez especially.
He made two more All-Star appearances after the first year, and rallied with an impressive 35 home runs in 2005 at age 35 to win the National League’s comeback player of the year award.
And he left a mark with the Reds organization even when he wasn’t producing on the field.
“It was an honor to play alongside one of the greatest players in the history of the game,” shortstop Barry Larkin said. “He played the game the right way offensively, he impacted the game defensively. … Junior had great range, tremendous athleticism and a cannon of an arm. And he played with a smile on his face.”
Ah, the Griffey smile. It was revived in Cincinnati , and teammates there developed the same powerful attachment to Griffey his Mariners teammates had.
It was an honor to play alongside one of the greatest players in the history of the game.”
Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin
“His talent made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” infielder Aaron Boone said. “But what I appreciate most about Ken is how much he wanted to just be one of the guys. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
Griffey already had been a 10-time All-Star with 398 home runs when he left Seattle. He had Hall of Fame credentials already. But Reds teammates said that his persona had nothing to do with star power.
“Junior was one of my favorite teammates,” said pitcher Danny Graves. “He had a great clubhouse presence, and made the game look so easy … and, of course, he had the sweetest swing ever.”
First baseman Sean Casey, now with the MLB Network, also marveled at how the superstar could be just one of the guys in the clubhouse.
“There are only certain times in your career where you can say you had the privilege of playing with a Hall of Famer,” Casey said. “As I played next to Junior for six seasons, I knew we all were watching one of the greatest ever to play the game. I’m proud to say that while he was a great player, he is an even better friend.”
Teammates in Cincinnati saw some qualities in an aging Griffey that the Mariners never had to witness, particularly the way he dealt with the injuries that diminished his game.
The things that seemed so easy and natural in Seattle started to involve more grit and determination.
“He was tough,” pitcher David Weathers said. “I saw him take bloody bandages off his leg from where he had torn a muscle three years earlier, and all of his teammates were amazed he played and never said a word.”
But Weathers remembers with equal amazement the way Griffey would get down on the floor of the clubhouse and wrestle with his son.
The Mariners thrived in the short term after his departure, advancing to the ALCS in 2000 and winning an American League-record 116 games in 2001.
When the Reds came to Seattle in 2007 for an interleague series, Griffey was stunned by the response of the fans in Safeco. So many had been so critical of his departure in 1999, a time when Griffey said he’d received death threats.
No more. Through the filter of time, fans realized the ways in which Griffey had helped save baseball in Seattle, and get the new stadium built.
“Never did I imagine that it would be like this coming back,” Griffey said then. “I didn’t realize how much I missed being in Seattle.”
He came back briefly in 2009-10, and hit a very respectable 19 home runs at age 39 in ’09.
“Getting back for the second stint was to give back,” he said. “(At) 38-39, you know you’re not going to play every day.”
Then amid more controversy, stemming from published reports he had fallen asleep in the clubhouse during a game, Griffey made another abrupt exit. Poof.
But his welcome at his first-pitch ceremony this spring proved how well the relationship between Griffey and the Mariners had healed.
After he was voted into the Hall of Fame by a record percentage, Griffey announced that he would wear a Mariners hat for his Hall induction.
He made it sound as if it had been a foregone conclusion.
“I think with the situation that has gone on now, it was a very easy decision for me to put on a Mariners hat for me to go into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That wasn’t even a question.”
He’s wrong about that. It was a big deal, not just something else that happened.
It was hugely symbolic, and a gracious thank you to the fans in Seattle and the franchise that gave him his start.
Staff writer Bob Dutton contributed to this report.
Safeco Field may be the house that Griffey built, but he spent much of his prime away from it. He orchestrated his own trade with Cincinnati before the 2000 season. He spent nine years with the Reds — and a brief stint with the Chicago White Sox in 2008 — before returning to Seattle.
Chicago White Sox