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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 11, 2009 at 2:43 PM

Why casual Mariners fans and winning baseball teams don’t always mix

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Not trying to sound overly harsh with this, but one phone message I had waiting at my office when I returned from Minneapolis this afternoon decided to take me to task for writing that Ken Griffey Jr. had to keep performing like he did yesterday.
“He’s done everything that was intended for him to be doing,” the fan, who said he was an online reader and subscriber to the Times’ print product, told me in his message. “It’s the Beltres and the Lopez’s and even the Ichiros who need to live up. You know, Griffey’s here mostly for the inspiration he provides and for a great ending to a great career.”
There was more. He apparently didn’t like my final game story line, stating that it will be easier for the Mariners to go on a winning streak if Griffey supplies the same power as a DH as he does off the field as a promotional tool.
“When you say that, you’ve got to be kidding me,” the caller added. “You know, what is he? Forty years old. He can’t get around on the fastball. But he’s still a great presence and when you write like that, you shows that you have very little feeling for what big league baseball really is. So, keep writing, big boy, you’ve got it wrong on this column.”
Now, normally I don’t respond in print to the dozens of phone messages left for me by fans each week. But I suspect that a great many Mariners fans feel exactly the same way as this one. He seemed relatively young, in his 30s or 40s, and spoke with the kind of tone I’m used to hearing in sports bars. You know, like a fan who watches games because he’s into more than the uniform colors and not because he needs an outdoor spot to talk on his cellphone.
I guess that’s what intrigued me the most. He sounded like a baseball fan. But in reality, if a major league team did it’s business for reasons he suggests, that team would be destined for ruin.
Once again, for the thousands of you out there who still don’t get it: the Mariners need Griffey to be a baseball player this season. A productive one at that. Not a marketing tool first and foremost.

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And the key to understanding that the team feels exactly the same way is to look at where Griffey is batting. He’s at No. 3 in the order. That’s not where you stick a player who’s around simply for the window dressing. If the team expected Griffey to be a .200 hitter, he’d be way back at No. 8 or No. 9 in the order. Not in the heart of it.
If you’re going to be satisfied with Griffey’s production prior to yesterday, which I know the man himself was not, then you obviously feel a .205 batting average and .670 on-base-plus-slugging percentage is OK for a middle-of-the-order hitter. Then, you were obviously not among those fans howling this week as the Mariners were losing six in a row while averaging about a run per game in offense.
That’s what happens when your No. 3 hitter is outperforming the clean-up guy with a .670 OPS. Hint: neither is acceptable.
If you thought Griffey’s performance prior to Sunday was good enough, then you must have been huge Jose Vidro fans. At one point last May, Vidro was hitting .239 with a .646 OPS — slightly better power with a better average, but fewer walks than Griffey prior to yesterday. No doubt, you shed tears when Vidro was let go.
And you were probably among the few giving Richie Sexson a standing ovation whenever he stepped to the plate. Like Griffey, Sexson also hit in the middle of the order. And a year ago yesterday morning, Sexson was hitting .209 with a .738 OPS. In other words, he was outperforming Griffey’s numbers as of yesterday morning.
Now, obviously, yes, there is a sentimental attachment to Griffey in the Pacific Northwest. I get it. But you can’t run a baseball team based on that. And believe me, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was well aware of that when he signed Griffey. Fans will have their bobblehead days and their Home Opener cheers during player intros. But what the team needs — and has always needed from Griffey — is middle-of-the-order production.
We’ve seen what can happen when the middle of the order, save for Russell Branyan, takes a holiday.
Of course Adrian Beltre also has to produce. And yes, so does Jose Lopez. So does Ichiro, though the latter has clearly come closer to providing what was needed of him than Griffey had prior to Sunday. And Ichiro, while four years younger than Griffey’s age 39, is still hardly a spring chicken. So, not sure why some fans will give Griffey a pass because of age but not Ichiro.
And believe me, this isn’t an attempt to take an icon down a few notches. Just to clear up some misconceptions about how major league teams operate. Even the Mariners. Even when Griffey is involved. I’ve said it before: I think Griffey can provide adequate DH production if he faces mainly righthanded pitching and doesn’t play the field. And this franchise needs on-field production. Any more 100-loss seasons and the team will lose a lot more money than Griffey nostalgia can bring.
With this team surprisingly still in contention for the division lead, nearly five weeks into the season, Griffey’s ability to contribute will now become more important than ever imagined back in spring training.
Once again, this is not 1995 or 1999 anymore. It’s 2009. The Mariners have not had a productive DH since Edgar Martinez left. They need a productive DH on a team that does not generate enough power from traditional outfield spots and non-traditional infield ones.
And they are counting on Griffey to do what he did yesterday, Believe me, that is how professional baseball teams operate.
And that’s why, baseball lovers who turn into “casual fans” at the mere mention of Griffey’s name are best to steer clear of any baseball front office when decisions have to be made. There’s a time to shower a player with the respect and adoration earned over years of service with a franchise, as Griffey clearly provided in the 1990s.
But there is also a time for a team to make decisions based on the production they believe a player can deliver, as the Mariners did this spring when bringing Griffey back.
And never the twain shall meet.
Believe me, Zduriencik and company are hoping for a whole lot more Mother’s Days. And it ain’t because they think Griffey posters will be more popular when he’s holding a pink bat.



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