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April 16, 2009 at 8:38 AM

It really is about the team

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: 1:58 p.m.: By the way, my sources tell me Jamie Burke will be coming up as the replacement catcher for the injured Kenji Johjima and that Sean White will be added as a reliever. The team has yet to announce anything, but I’d expect to see them here tonight.
One of the things I kept hearing when we were bouncing the whole idea of a Ken Griffey Jr. acquisition around back in February was how you had to have lived here in the 1990s in order to truly understand the depth of the warmth that exists for him in this city. That to weigh the merits of acquiring Griffey simply as a baseball move was to not understand the Griffey legacy. That Griffey could easily earn any contract worth through ticket sales alone. That fans would flock to Safeco Field in droves just to watch him wear the uniform one more time. That unless you were here to feel the Griffey magic of the prior decade, you may not grasp the intricacies of the close relationship and special attachment he’d forged with the fans of the Pacific Northwest.
Well, I didn’t quite agree back then and I still don’t think I do. For sure, I believe fans here loved and appreciated what he did for the franchise and for them. But not that it will automatically translate into big bucks at the gate. Not even now, with these very interesting Mariners off to their best start in years.
I’ve always believed there was a justification for bringing Griffey back as long as he proved his worth at the plate. That this M’s team needed a lefty-hitting DH and that Griffey was effective enough against right handed pitchers to make this a deal worth exploring. It wasn’t just me thinking this. Plenty of wise baseball people making decisions on these types of things — including GM Jack Zduriencik — realized it, too. That nostalgia only goes so far. That to bank on Griffey packing the stands for an anticipated last-place team was a gamble.That Griffey’s true worth would come if he could fill a need on the field.
Griffey filled that need last night. He hit a key home run that put the Mariners on top to stay against the Los Angeles Angels. The Mariners now have the best record in the American League, believe it or not.
What they haven’t had is any recognizable attendance boost strictly from bringing Griffey back. Sure, the M’s sold out their home opener. Just like they and many other teams have always sold out openers. You don’t need a Griffey for that. It’s the second day of home games where you really get to see where you’re at.
And last night, the first-place Mariners, playing their top division rival and riding a five-game winning streak, with Griffey in only his second game back in the Emerald City, drew a mere 18,000 and change to Safeco Field.
Know how many the M’s had for Game 2 at home last year? When it was only April 1 instead of halfway through this cold baseball month? When the Mariners were playing the lowly Texas Rangers? Over 25,000.
Sure, Felix Hernandez was pitching that night. But he’d pitched here the previous few seasons. This was Griffey’s return. Anyone who couldn’t score tickets for the opener had a golden chance to do so last night.
But I suppose even nostalgia has its limits. I saw that as an Expos fan in the 1990s when Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter came back to play for them, with little tangible impact on ticket sales. I recognized that again while covering the Blue Jays back in the late 1990s when Roger Clemens was winning Cy Young Awards for them. There was no noted crowd bump for his starts. Not what you’d think for a guy putting an amazing season together. No, you can’t compare the fan appreciation for Griffey here to the indifference felt for Clemens in Toronto. And maybe Carter wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Griffey will almost certainly be. But the point is, individual players can be a tough sell. Nostalgia is a tricky thing.
Now, there are other things to consider. It’s possible the Mariners’ season-ticket base has been so decimated by last year’s on-field debacle and the ravaged U.S. economy that sales are going to be way down no matter what. Maybe the M’s would have had only 10,000 in the stands last night if not for Griffey.
We don’t know. We’ll never know. What we do know, or, at least, what we should now know based on the evidence, is that the only likely way Griffey will get some of his attendance clauses — the ones based on crowds of 2.5 million and 3 million this season — is if this baseball team keeps doing what it has. Last year’s team drew 2.3 million. So, to exceed that, and get near those upper Griffey contract targets, the team will have to surpass the pace of 2008 at the gate. As of right now, they are behind that pace by some 7,000.
Sure, it’s only one game. But these are the games where you can make an attendance difference on a team not expected to contend. The exception to that will be if these Mariners, led by Griffey, actually do keep playing as a team and winning games.
History has shown that fans will come out to support a winning team. Not right away, mind you. It can take months for fans to buy into a winner, as the Tampa Bay Rays showed last season. It’s why season-ticket sales are so important in this business. Why the idea that Griffey would pack the stands for weeks on end just because of who he is and the bond with this city was a nice sentiment, but maybe a tad naive.
Sure, it’s only one game. But the M’s are in first place. They’re playing the team favored to win ths division. Ichiro was making his debut, for crying out loud. What more do you need? Oh, yeah, Griffey was also playing only his second game here. Again, what excuses are we going to hear? That it was a little cold? That the shuttle bus wasn’t operating? Come on.
It was games like these where the Griffey nostaliga was going to make the biggest difference.
Instead, the M’s are 7,000 fans down from Game 2 last year.
And so, I submit that the best way these Mariners will be able to boost attendance is by continuing to do exactly what they are doing now. By winning. And Griffey has a huge part to play in that. We’ve already talked about his clubhouse contributions. But he needs to hit. He’d been scuffling for a good part of this week — only the first week, mind you, but still he’d struggled — before hitting that home run last night. That ignited the offense somewhat.
Sure, the biggest difference in that game was Shawn Kelley getting those two strikeouts in the seventh. I thought for sure the Angels were about to take the lead and win the game.
But Griffey played a key part. And he’ll have to keep on doing so. This offense faces challenges going forward and can’t afford any at the DH spot. Griffey needs to keep producing. This is about more than nostalgia. It’s about his bat.
This isn’t a shot at Griffey. It’s recognition of the fact he’s a surefire Hall of Fame ballplayer, not a circus act.
And it’s time to get rid of that circus mentality once and for all. Nostaliga made for some great moments on Tuesday. It made for some great times in the 1990s. But we are in 2009 right now. And nostaliga alone isn’t going to produce the ticket sale numbers listed as incentives in Griffey’s contract. Numbers somebody must have envisioned when they put them there.
Only winning will produce those. This 7-2 team, winners of six in a row and providing an early season shocker for pundits, controls its own fate in that regard. And Griffey the ballplayer — not the memory — will have a huge part to play in whether those team and attendance targets are achieved.

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