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

August 10, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Sad ending for both Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu and franchise icon Ken Griffey Jr.

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Just over a year ago, I snapped a series of batting practice photos of Ken Griffey Jr. hamming it up with Don Wakamatsu’s 12-year-old son, Luke. Later, after publishing them on the blog, I received a request from the Mariners PR staff — Wakamatsu wanted to know if he could have copies of the photos.
At the time, I promised them yes. Wakamatsu later thanked me. He clearly had great respect for Griffey, as a player and a man, and wanted the keepsakes for down the road. Thing is, as the season unfolded, I never got around to emailing them. Now, I know for sure that it would be the wrong thing to do.
How could a relationship between two men go so wrong, so fast?
I tried to spell some of that out for you this morning in the paper.
Mariners president Chuck Armstrong is quoted in the story as saying that I’m “connecting the wrong dots” in trying to link the firing to Griffey. That Griffey did not have a call in what happened yesterday — that it was all Jack Zduriencik.
And maybe Armstrong is right about that on a technical front. Maybe Griffey doesn’t really care who is running this ship and would have come back for a retirement ceremony next spring regardless. Now, we’ll never know. But what we do know is, Wakamatsu lost a significant portion of the clubhouse after the May 10 Sleep Gate story written by colleague Larry LaRue in The News Tribune. In our story today, I quote a player who was there saying that Griffey quickly came to suspect that it was Wakamatsu who leaked the story to LaRue. Not only that, Griffey is said to have shared his opinions with others in the clubhouse.
Some of you would prefer that we not use anonymous sources for such stories. Well, hey, so do I. I also wish the tooth fairy would have left me $10 million as a kid. But let’s deal in reality. Who is going to put their name to this kind of stuff? You wouldn’t know a thing about what’s really going on with this team, or any other, if all we went with were on-the-record quotes. Zduriencik gave you a nice “Don is our manager” quote for the record last week. What did that tell you? How educated about the team were you for it? Here’s a quote for you: “It’s sunny outside”. But does that tell you whether it’s going to rain tomorrow? Nope.
All I can say is, I’ve used anonymous clubhouse sources to bring you accurate stories before. In 2008, I told you of the festering clubhouse problems between Ichiro and a group of his teammates — all of whom have since been cleared out by the new regime. Think it was a coincidence Griffey and Mike Sweeney were brought in last year to police the clubhouse?
This year, we used anonymous sources to tell you that Milton Bradley had left the clubhouse early during a game and why.
And now, I am using this one. You’ll have to trust me based on my track record. A belief system, if you will. My paper knows who the source is and there is a copy of the conversation with the player on file that a handful of people will have access to for legal reasons. But that’s it. The source will never be revealed.
So, if we’re going to talk about how Wakamatsu was unable to lead his players, it’s just about impossible to avoid the conversation about the 5,000-pound elephant in the room, going by the name of Griffey. Wakamatsu was tolerant — to a fault — of the mistakes made by his players. That much we know. But Wakamatsu was the same way last season. And when he called out Felix Hernandez in May of 2009 for a lack of preparation and focus, he had the “juice” of Zduriencik and the entire organization — and Griffey and Sweeney in the clubhouse — to back him up.
Not so this year.
Wakamatsu was forced to deal with a number of strategical decisions by Zduriencik that just never panned out. Right out of the chute, he was preoccupied on a daily basis with the trials and tribulations of Milton Bradley, a player Griffey was also spending an inordinate amount of daily energy trying to get on-track.
Eventually, that problem was dealt with by getting Bradley professional help a month into the season. By then, several veterans imported by Zduriencik for key roles had floundered miserably in the season’s opening month. Bradley, Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman, Eric Byrnes. The only guy who showed promise of actually hitting was Sweeney, who was glued to the bench in April as Wakamatsu continued to play Zduriencik’s hand-picked imports.
Not sure how much of an impact Wakamatsu was supposed to have in making those players hit better. I know he cut Figgins a ton of slack because of the difficulties in switching positions and spots in the batting order. Jose Lopez was also cut a lot of slack because of the position switch and his second-half track record from last year.
A belief system, if you will.
But by the season’s second month, with the Mariners unable to score more than two or three runs per game and starting to teeter out of division contention, it was time to make some changes.
Instead of bringing in reinforcements, the front office decided to fire hitting coach Alan Cockrell. The message was loud and clear from above: these may be the guys we chose, but you’re stuck with them and could lose your job if they don’t get better.
Faced with that gauntlet thrown, Wakamatsu began the unsavory task of trying to make the team better. And the most obvious place to look was at Griffey, a 40-year-old hitter on his final legs and with a potential replacement at DH in Sweeney.

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Now, how Wakamatsu went about removing Griffey from the picture will be the stuff of speculation in Seattle for years to come. We’re not the FBI. We can’t force people to talk under the threat of prosecution.
But one day after Cockrell’s firing, the Sleep Gate controversy with Griffey exploded.
Do I believe Wakamatsu leaked the story to LaRue? No way. In fact, I’m now told Griffey no longer believes it either and that the original “two young players” sourced by LaRue is the way he and the team’s management believe it all went down. As I wrote at the very beginning of the controversy, LaRue had no reason to lie about his sources. If indeed it was Wakamatsu, he could have simply described him as “a well-placed clubhouse source” without casting a shadow over every young player on the team.
But Griffey clearly still believed Wakamatsu was the leak on the day he left the team June 2, three weeks after the story first broke.
Why else would he be so angry?
And why would Griffey suspect Wakamatsu? No idea. But let’s go against the grain and connect some dots. Right after Griffey retired, a story was written by FOX Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal stating that Griffey was angered by Wakamatsu broaching the subject of retirement with him.
Wakamatsu denied that he had ever pressured Griffey to retire. But now, we’re getting into semantics. If the subject of retirement — or even the word “retire” — came up, Griffey could have taken it as a nudge.
And when did Wakamatsu begin having these conversations about Griffey and his future role with the team? Why, right after the Sleep Gate story. Within days of it, as a matter of fact.
And if you read the initial Sleep Gate story, there’s this little part:
Sooner or later, Wakamatsu is going to ask general manager Jack Zduriencik for a player who can help him win more than Griffey can. And Zduriencik is going to talk to president Chuck Armstrong.
And all of them are going to ask Junior to retire gracefully. If he doesn’t, the end of Griffey’s career will come, anyway – by way of a release from the Seattle Mariners.
All that is going to happen, probably this month.

So, if you’re Griffey, and you’ve read and festered about this story for days, then all of a sudden, Wakamatsu utters the word “retire” in a private conversation, what conclusion are you going to jump to? Again, this is just me playing detective here, trying to make sense out of a sequence of events. We now know that Griffey suspected Wakamatsu of being the leak. But it required a catalyst for him to jump from being a trusted partner in working with Wakamatsu to police the clubhouse in 2009, to suspecting him of leaking stuff about him to the papers in 2010.
And for me, the mere mention of “retirement” in any conversation just a few days after Sleep Gate could have been that catalyst.
Should Wakamatsu have picked his spots better before having such a sensitive conversation with Griffey? Maybe, but again, consider the timing. His hitting coach was fired the day before Sleep Gate broke. Wakamatsu and his staff were under-the-gun. Griffey was one of the worst-hitting regulars, OPS-wise, in all of MLB and the team had a potential replacement on-hand in Sweeney. The season was slipping away because of a lack of offense. What should Wakamatsu have done? Waited another two weeks while his team lost 10 more games?
I spoke to a former manager last week who laughed at the thought of the Mariners leaving a second-year guy in charge of telling a future Hall of Famer he was done. That conversation, he said, should have been spelled out to Griffey before he even inked another contract for 2010. That if the day came when the manager felt he was no longer producing, he was going to have to step aside. No coddling. No ego-stroking. That “done” meant “done” and it was not Griffey’s call. That he would step aside gracefully and retire for the good of the team.
If indeed that conversation took place prior to the season, there were no signs in May that it was remembered. Griffey has told people since leaving that he was upset that Wakamatsu did not adequately spell out the degree to which his playing time would be reduced.
Once again, though, that should not have been left solely up to Wakamatsu. As the former manager told me, you leave that task in Wakamatsu’s hands, you’re setting him up for failure. Even Mike Scioscia, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella aren’t going to want to tackle that chore alone.
Throw in Sleep Gate and the timing behind it, and it was a recipe for disaster.
So, it’s fine and good for the Mariners to now say how they’d lost confidence in Wakamatsu’s ability to lead. Small wonder. I don’t think that any manager could have maintained the confidence of their players given that situation.
When we see headlines stating that Wakamatsu “lost his clubhouse” it does not mean all 25 guys. That rarely happens. I just can’t see Michael Saunders, or Ryan Langerhans leading an anti-Wakamatsu revolt. But all it takes is a select group of players to lose confidence in a manager and it can be tough to win it back. We’ve been hearing all season that Piniella faced the same challenges from a core in his Cubs clubhouse.
I have no doubt that Wakamatsu was walking on eggshells with his players after the Sleep Gate episode.
When Felix Hernandez argued vehemently with him during a first inning mound visit eight days after Sleep Gate broke, there were no reprecussions. When Ian Snell flippantly dismissed some Wakamatsu comments after a losing start — days after Griffey retired — he too, kept his spot, though he did apologize for his words the following day and denied suggestions of a feud with the manager.
When Wakamatsu tried to move Chone Figgins to No. 9 in the order a week after Griffey retired, he got ripped for it by the player. But Figgins remained in the lineup and nothing furtther was said.
These instances, one after the other, raised questions about whether Wakamatsu’s graps on the team was slipping. As did his refusal to bench players after a series of base running and fielding gaffes throughout July.
But could Wakamatsu afford to do that, at that point, given what we now know about his tenuous clubhouse grip post-Sleep Gate?
And did Wakamatsu really have the power to bench Jose Lopez this past month, or was he being told to keep playing him by the front office to try to up his trade value?
By the time the dugout blowup with Figgins happened on July 23, Wakamatsu was as good as gone. In fact, catching consultant Roger Hansen, named bench coach after yesterday’s shakeup, was in town right before the Figgins-Wak showdown. Hansen told me that Zduriencik had called him to Seattle unexpectedly for a meeting. Now, it could have been to discuss catcher Adam Moore’s progress, but that’s something they could have done by phone. Given what we now know, it’s hard to believe Zduriencik did not broach the subject of a coaching position with Hansen at that point — before the second Figgins controversy.
The lack of reaction by the front office to support Wakamatsu in public after the Figgins debacle was just an indication change was coming. The blowup itself was almost certainly not the catalyst for change.
And now, today, we are left with the results of this season. They are sad for Wakamatsu, a good man who will certainly find work elsewhere. And they are also sad for Griffey, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who did so much good for this city, baseball and people behind the scenes you’ve never heard of.
Griffey will eventually overcome this. This is one episode over a brilliant two-decade career that was largely scandal-free. This should not tarnish his legacy and I’m betting it won’t — certainly not to the extent Wakamatsu has been harmed by this season’s events.
But the way Griffey has reacted to what’s gone on has brought much of this upon himself. The spin we’ve heard about “He Gone!” and how Griffey joked in spring training about faxing in his retirement is just that. It’s spin. A myth. Griffey retired the way he did because he was furious with Wakamatsu, plain and simple.
He jumped to some angry conclusions at the time. Back then, in mid-June, I penned this blog post suggesting it might benefit Griffey to break his silence.
Maybe Griffey feels it’s appropriate to stay silent and allow Wakamatsu to twist in the wind, both in public and in the clubhouse, because of events that transpired over his final weeks here.
If so, that’s too bad.
Wakamatsu may have made mistakes this year. Actually, he’s made several. But he is a good human being and Griffey knows this. And, until a few weeks ago, Wakamatsu was still universally lauded as a good manager. Maybe not Joe Torre or Bobby Cox or Tony LaRussa good. But good nonetheless.
And good men don’t let other good men go down in flames. No matter how hurt their feelings may be. They find a way to work things out. At some point, you have to stop trying to win a fight that can’t be won.
At some point, you have to be a Hall of Famer and rise above it all. Legions of Griffey fans would expect nothing less.

Well, it’s safe to say Wakamatsu just went down in flames. And Griffey, to this day, has remained silent. And for me, it’s a sad way to end a relationship between two men I sincerely believe are good people in their own ways.
I don’t know whether Griffey ever indeed said the things some have claimed — since back in early June — that he did: like how he’d never come back to Safeco Field with Wakamatsu still managing. That may have just been heat of the moment stuff. But I have yet to hear an outright denial from him, or from anyone I’ve asked directly. And while Armstrong may indeed be right in that yesterday’s firing was entirely Zduriencik’s call, the reasons stated by the GM — how Wakamatsu had lost the ability to lead — did not happen in a bubble.
Griffey played a part in it.
Oh yes, indeed, “He gone!” And the consequences of that sudden departure will be felt for a long time to come.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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