Can’t go anywhere these days without getting asked the question. No, not whether the Mariners can still win the wild-card. That one seems to have stopped. Now, as the Mariners head into their final 4 1/2 weeks, the question has become whether Ken Griffey Jr. is playing his last month as a major leaguer.
It was asked of me again this morning by KJR AM 950 host Mitch Levy on our weekly Talkin’ Baseball segment and, as usual, I had no choice but to answer with honesty. Yes, I think this is Griffey’s final month. I think the team hopes so and I do think he is coming to realize it as well, even though, I’m sure, he’s going to miss the day-to-day reality of life in the big leagues.
Well, he’ll miss some of it, anyway.
He won’t miss what he went through yesterday, having an MRI done on a swollen knee. Having been through six knee operations, including one last December on New Year’s Eve (party on), I can tell you knees don’t get better. At best, you can hope to contain the damage for a while. But it isn’t like ligament transplant surgery on your elbow where guys claim they can throw harder than they used to afterwards. You don’t run faster after knee surgery. Or change direction better. Or feel better in the morning. I’m one year older than Griffey and in half-decent shape. But it’s a good thing I don’t have to play pro ball. Or even weekend warrior ball. I see Griffey hobbling around the clubhouse and know exactly why he can’t limp out for even DH appearances on a daily basis anymore. Hard to do that when it feels like somebody is jabbing a knife into the back and sides of your kneecap.
Sometimes, it’s almost better to have a ligament problem that can be fixed. But when the problem is long-term wear and tear, where the cartilege is eaten away and the fluid inside your knee becomes a permanent resident, there’s nothing to fix. As colleague Steve Kelley points out this morning in an excellent column on Griffey, the slugger is only at 373 plate appearances when most had hoped he’d reach 500.
Griffey is still on pace to finish within a dozen PA’s of that mark. But not the way he’s been going lately, having started just three of the past 13 games.
That’s what happens when you get older. Nobody is trying to push Griffey out the door by stating these facts. It just is what it is.
For me, it’s not the home run total. Griffey has hit about as many home runs as I thought he might when he signed with the club. I think we had the over/under pegged at around 15.
I did think his on-base-plus-slugging percentage would be a lot closer to .800 than the .728 it currently sits at. Also, that he’d be doing much better against righthanded pitchers.
That he isn’t, is another sign it’s time to step away.
Some of you might say I’m merely stating the obvious. Thing is, it isn’t obvious to all fans, judging by the comments underneath Kelley’s column and our paper’s online poll in which readers — by a 60-40 margin — say Griffey should not retire after this season.
Funny thing is, though, I’d bet if you ask those same readers whether they’d rather the Mariners make the playoffs in 2010, or wait another year until 2011, the vast majority will go with 2010. And that’s where the logic fades in the face of emotion. Because what this year’s team showed is that even with some of the best defense in all of baseball and three starters — until Erik Bedard got hurt — pitching with a top-10 ERA, this club is going to struggle to finish even .500 because of a lack of offense.
And one of the most obvious areas where this club can improve the offense is at Griffey’s DH spot.
Of the 11 guys at DH with as many plate appearances or better than Griffey, he has the worst batting average and second-worst OPS (Mike Jacobs of the Royals has a worse OPS). Griffey’s .399 slugging percentage is also the worst of that group and this Mariners team really doesn’t have a whole bunch of sluggers to step in and fill the void.
Some fans had envisioned Griffey playing the field this year. Well, they were wrong. As the Mariners found out very early, playing Griffey in the field was a recipe for health disaster because his knees couldn’t take it. Now, he’s struggling to even fill the DH role on a daily basis.
And when all is said and done, I have no doubt Griffey will come to that decision on his own. He isn’t going to be influenced by what I write, or Kelley, or anybody else. Just look to how he handled the whole free-agency thing last March, keeping everybody hanging until the last minute as he made up his own mind about whether to choose Seattle or Atlanta.
I think he made the right decision. And so does he, by the way.
The job he has done off the field this year has brought value to the club that can’t be measured in stats alone. He has helped, along with Mike Sweeney and the coaching staff, to make this ballclub into a professional-acting group again. He’s shown the younger players what it is to be and act like a major leaguer. And that’s been a full-time job for Griffey. He’s worked hard at it. It isn’t just a matter of him clowning around in the clubhouse. It’s taking active steps to make guys feel included. To help ensure the clubhouse is not dominated by cliques. That players hold themselves accountable for what they do both on and off the field. Accountable to themselves and to their teammates. Ever wonder why this team never seems to stop playing hard? Accountability is the key ingredient to that. And Griffey accomplished all that in his first year back with a club where he barely knew anybody, while at the same time trying to maintain a pro baseball career while dealing with the nagging hurts of a guy who’s 39.
And he still provided the fans with some flashback moments.
All told, I think the decision to bring him back this year was a success when you look at the entire package.
But the glow of that success will fade if it’s allowed to continue beyond this year. This team needed to be turned around and it was. But this was never going to be a multi-year project. Good teams have “role players” yes, but usually, they do have to bring a certain level of on-field production relative to their job. Even utility infielders offering intangibles aren’t kept around if their hitting falls to the bottom of the pack relative to other utility guys.
And for this team to take the next step, it has to bolster the DH position beyond what Griffey brings to the table. This season was about nostalgia and Griffey and company made a surprising run all the way to late-July despite a roster that — at least in the runs-scored/runs against column — probably should be well below .500 by now.
There really is no way to sugarcoat this for sensitive fans. I know that no matter how many layers of niceness I pile on to this post, there will be fans outraged that I’m even bringing this topic up. You’ll consider it an insult to Griffey that anyone should have an opinion on what he does next. Well, that’s OK. You feel what you feel. But this team will not be winning its first World Series or AL pennant with Griffey still playing for it. The sooner some folks shed that notion — nice and warm as it is — the easier it will be to come to terms with what has to happen.
Many of you have written in to this space the last three seasons complaining about a lack of playoff berths and championships for the M’s relative to other franchises. Believe me, I pay attention to what you say and understand the angst. Well, the first thing winning franchises will tell you is that you have to separate the business end from the emotional side. No franchise is as steeped in tradition and does the whole emotion and nostaliga thing better than the New York Yankees. But that’s also a club not afraid to cut ties with its past when a player stops producing. You build nostalgia and tradition by winning. Not the other way around. You don’t win by falling back on nostalgia.
Griffey deserves as warm a sendoff as fans can muster this month. And he deserves a chance to arrive at that decision on his own, without having his hand forced. From what I’ve seen so far, nobody is forcing his hand. They don’t have to. Griffey is a smart guy and I’d be shocked if he ever let it come to that.