UPDATE 4:22 P.M. THURSDAY: Cliff Lee was just on a conference call and was asked about the Griffey incident. He called it “water under the bridge,” and added, “I hope he doesn’t hold a grudge. If he does, we’ll have to work it out.”
Newest Mariner Cliff Lee has a bit of a history with the pre-eminent Mariner, Ken Griffey Jr.
At the time — June of 2004 — it wasn’t pleasant, but enough distance has passed that I’m sure the two will share a laugh or two about it in spring training while reminiscing. It’s part of baseball, and Junior’s not the type to hold a grudge.
During an interleague game on June 13, 2004, at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, Lee gave up Griffey’s 499th homer leading off the third inning. Griffey stepped up again in the fourth, runners on second and third, two outs, looking for the milestone blast. Indians pitching coach Carl Willis (recently hired by the Mariners as minor-league pitching coordinator, wouldn’t you know) trotted to the mound. Next pitch: a fastball behind the head of Griffey, all the way to the screen.
Lee was ejected immediately by home-plate umpire Matt Hollowell, and eventually suspended six games and fined a reported $1,000 by Bob Watson, MLB’s VIP of on-field operatons. Lee originally appealed, but dropped the appeal at the behest of then-manager Eric Wedge and served the suspension.
Lee told the media at the time he thought the suspension was “extreme.” According to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Lee feels he might be the victim of a double standard because the incident involved Griffey and his quest for 500 home runs….Lee said if it had been a player other than Griffey or if he was a pitcher with more time in the big leagues, his punishment might have been lighter.”
“It has happened before,” Lee told the paper. “Pitchers have hit guys, knocked guys down, hit them in the helmet and nothing has happened. This came in a bad situation. It looked bad because he hit a home run the time before.”
It also looked bad that Willis had just visited the mound, but Lee said after the game, “He said not to give him anything to hit….I was just trying to go in high, just under his hands or whatever, and it just got away from me. The pitch before that went out of the park and the next one’s behind him. It obviously looked like I was throwing at him, but my control was bad all day.”
Indeed, Lee gave up seven runs on six hits in 3 2/3 innings in that game, walking five.
This story has an interesting post-script. As luck would have it, Lee’s turn in the rotation came up two weeks later, on July 2, when the Reds and Indians had a re-match, this time in Cincinnati. There was concern on Cleveland’s part of retribution, seeing as how Lee had to come to the plate.
“If they want to hit me, I’ll wear it and go to first base,” Lee told the Plain-Dealer. “I would never try to hit a guy in the head.”
Turns out Lee didn’t get hit. In fact, Wedge re-worked the rotation so Lee didn’t pitch against the Reds after all. But Indians teammate Ron Belliard had a pitch thrown behind him by the Reds’ Phil Norton in the sixth inning of a game in the series. Belliard had homered and doubled in the game. It was a message pitch, unquestionably, as Griffey himself told the Dayton Daily News after the game.
“We got together after that in Cleveland and we all agreed something had to be done,” Griffey said. “As soon as Norton threw the pitch, Belliard looked directly at me in the dugout. I waved my cap at him. It’s over and done.”
Dayton’s long-time Reds beat reporter, Hal McCoy, wrote that night: “Griffey said nothing at a mass interview about Lee’s pitch, but later, in private, he said, “He is lucky I’m not a pitcher. I’d drill his butt.”
As I said, it’s a distant memory that has no bearing on their current relationship as teammates. But it’s an interesting piece of historical trivia, in light of this week’s events.