PEORIA, Ariz. — Franklin Gutierrez was standing in center field when it quickly set in on him. Ken Griffey Jr. was next to him in left. Ichiro Suzuki was on his other side in right.
Talk about nice company.
“It was one of those moments I never think I would be in before,” Gutierrez said.
Many of the youngsters on the rebuilding Seattle Mariners have experienced similar moments since Suzuki arrived from the World Baseball Classic last week, putting two vastly different superstars in the same 10-foot radius of the Mariners’ clubhouse.
Griffey playfully took aim at the reserved Suzuki before the eight-time All-Star even got to Arizona this spring, adding him to a constantly growing list. Griffey tweaks everyone with the Mariners, from the few remaining non-rosters invitees still holding down a locker on “Survivor Island” to the clubhouse attendants.
Suzuki was just another target for the gregarious Griffey.
“I plan on having him take me out to dinner four, five times per week. Being that I haven’t been in the American League, I figure there is some new restaurants he can take me to,” Griffey said during his introductory press conference. “As long as he does not dress that way he has. We may have to change his wardrobe. The skinny ties? Those went out with Duran Duran.”
Suzuki has yet to break out a skinny tie since arriving in Seattle camp after leading Japan to another WBC title. But his fashion choices aren’t a concern. His relationship with Griffey is one of the intriguing questions for a team plagued by clubhouse strife a year ago.
“No matter where I go I’ll be the same. I’ll do the same routines. Ken’s here and that’s not going to change,” Suzuki said.
Then he added with a smile, “Sometimes he may get in the way of me preparing for the games.”
For all the teasing between the two, their relationship is based on respect. Griffey was Suzuki’s favorite player while he was playing in Japan and remembers fondly visiting the Mariners’ spring camp in 1999 and his initial interactions with Griffey.
“He’s the exact same guy now as he was back then. That makes me very happy,” Suzuki said. “He’s just like he was 10 years ago, he’s like a kid.”
Griffey said he still values the lessons he learned breaking into the major leagues 20 years ago, the advice he got from veterans like Dave Valle, Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis.
“I had all these guys that didn’t care that I was better than them, they always wanted me to get better,” Griffey said. “And that’s what you have to do. There may be some things I will say to a younger player that you will never hear about — and shouldn’t, it’s between me and him — about what to do and what not to do.”
Griffey could take some of the focus away from Suzuki, who was criticized by former teammates for being too focused on individual accomplishments and less on the team. That should free Suzuki, and others, to focus on what needs to be done on the field.
“I think there’s a couple of dynamics. Number one is (Griffey’s) presence and who he is and what he’s done in this game,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “And two is the way he’s come in here and worked to help bring this team together.”
When Suzuki gave his first interviews after arriving at spring training, Griffey stood behind the small gathering of reporters, listening to the entire 25 minutes of questions. Griffey even chimed in when the topic of what former players had to say about Suzuki and last year’s clubhouse issues was brought up, wondering why the issue needed to be broached.
On Suzuki’s first day, Griffey already was trying to deflect the attention from his teammate. But even the most anonymous players say Griffey would do the same for them.
“He treats all the guys with respect. He talks with everybody and he’s there if you need him,” said Shawn Kelley, a reliever with a slight chance of making the final roster. “He’s been everything I could expect from a guy I idolized as a kid.”
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