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March 16, 2011 at 3:56 PM

Ken Griffey Jr. says he left because he was “a distraction” to team

Ken Griffey Jr. says he retired abruptly last year because he felt he’d become a distraction to the team.
“I’m not upset,” he said. “I think people thought I was upset about certain things, but that’s not the case.”
Griffey said he merely feared that people he’d grown close to on the team would try to talk him out of retirement if he stuck around for a press conference.
So, I asked him, if everything else was fine, why hasn’t he spoken to former manager Don Wakamatsu since he walked away from the team and the game back on June 2?
“My phone rings,” he said, implying that Wakamatsu should have called him. “That’s just the way it is.”
Players and Wakamatsu himself say that the pair didn’t speak for the final two weeks of Griffey’s career. One player told the Times last summer that Griffey erroneously believed that Wakamatsu had been the source of the Sleep Gate story in which the future Hall of Famer was said to be napping in the clubhouse during a game in May.
The player said Griffey shared his opinion with others on the team and only realized weeks later — after he’d already retired — that Wakamatsu was not the story’s source. But today, Griffey merely says he wasn’t upset at the time and left because he feared he’d become a distraction to the team.
Griffey was asked what he has to say to fans disappointed by his abrupt departure.
“You want me to apologize for something that I felt was right? I felt that it was right for me to leave. I’m not going to do it. Because it’s not intended to hurt people. It was a decision that I made. I made that 15 years ago…there are some people who are upset and some people who are not. I can’t worry about it. I had to do what I thought was right for me.”
Griffey had indeed spoken for a long time of retiring without fanfare or a press conference. Again, though, one wonders why — if he insists he left with no ill feelings and had simply planned to leave this way all along — he didn’t extend his manager or general manager the courtesy of a phone call. And why, to this day, he still hasn’t spoken to a manager he had a close relationship with in 2009. He did call team president Chuck Armstrong, but, typically, if nothing’s wrong, the manager and GM do get calls and are offered an explanation when a player suddenly retires.
So, today, the question was asked and answered. Griffey’s phone rings is his answer. That’s all he’s prepared to say about it. We can keep asking the same question over and over again, but I doubt we’ll get a different answer.
So, that’s his explanation. Whether or not you accept it is up to you.
The bottom line, as I’ve written before, is that this franchise needs as many of its few icons to come back within the fold. It says a lot that one of the most popular, if not the most popular, public figures for this team was not a player, but a broadcaster. The death of Dave Niehaus left the Mariners reeling back in November, not just because of the human being they lost, but also because a part of the organization died with him.
Griffey said it will be hard for the organization and those who met Niehaus up-close to get over his death from a heart attack last November at age 73. He was asked whether it will be odd not having Niehaus around on Opening Day.
“Yeah, it’s odd,” he said. “If somebody tells you it isn’t, it is. Definitely, looking around and not seeing those white shoes, those tight pants he wears and that semi-tight shirt. And that voice. I think that’s the biggest thing. That voice saying hello to you, teasing you, having a good time at the ballpark.
“I think that’s the thing that a lot of the guys who were here over the years are going to really miss. And even the guys who knew him for a year or so, they’re going to miss him, too. But I’ve known him since 17, so like I said, in Seattle he’s like the grandfather to a lot of guys. I know he was one to me, so I’m going to miss that. You’re not going to be able to replace that. You can replace a player, but that voice, you can’t do it. It’s going to take 50 people and even those 50, it’s still not going to be the same.”

Griffey may not be the most popular guy for some fans right now, but he is a future first ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the most famous face for the franchise around the world of baseball and at-large.
He just got back from a trip to the Philippines, where he was serving as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United States government. Now, he’ll be an ambassador of sorts within the organization, especially when it comes to spreading the message to younger players about what’s expected of them.
“This is the organization I grew up in,” he said. “So, if there’s going to be an opportunity for me to be in baseball, it’s going to be here. I had an opportunity to get a chance to do it. It’s a lot of learning because it’s a little different. It’s not going to change. I’m still going to be the same person. You’re going to know how I feel.”
And what’s his main message going to be?
“Hard work doesn’t start during the game,” he said. “Hard work starts the night before.”
Regardless of what happened last year — and several good people did lose jobs because of the events of 2010 — the organziation has to try to put it in the rear-view mirror. It will take time for some to forgive Griffey. And some fans may never do that. That’s their choice.
But in my view, you do have to put the events of last year into the context of a 20-year career. If some of you want to include 1999 in that context, again, it’s your right.
You’ve read my stuff about Griffey and know how I feel about what went on last season.
But you also know, if you’ve kept reading this space, that I believe the organization, in the wake of Niehaus’s death, had to find some way to bring Griffey back into the fold. That he was too important a part of Mariners’ history — good and bad, but mostly good — to be estranged from the city he spent most of his career in.
Griffey said he has no regrets about coming back to play in 2010 after what could have been a storybook sendoff in 2009.
“No,” he said. “I mean, things happen. Through no fault of its own, things happen. I got to meet some great people last year. If I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet some of the people in Seattle that I did meet…and who still call me today. So, no, I’m not sorry that I came back.”
It may take time for some to get the appreciation back that many fans felt in 2009. And some may never get it back. But the team had to try.
Griffey came today and offered his explanation. It may be enough for some, not enough for others, but it’s a start. And it’s as good as it’s going to get.
We’ll see where things go from here.



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