April 15, 2009 in Sports

Blanchette: It’s the little things that count on a big-emotion day

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Ken Griffey Jr. acknowledges the crowd.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

SEATTLE – In the bullpen, Carlos Silva was going through his pregame warmup, doing his best to block out the hubbub of the Opening Day at Safeco Field – the introductions, the fireworks, the red-carpet run his teammates were making out of the tunnel in right field.

“Then they announced, ‘Ken Griffey Jr.,’ ” he said, “and I had to stop just to watch.”

And listen. And drink in a scrapbook moment.

You might think that the much-reviled Silva should have had more pressing concerns at the time – those niggling details known as “outs,” for instance – but this is the new all-for-one world of the Seattle Mariners, and that it was Griffey’s day made it everybody’s day and vice versa.

The jog took maybe 15 seconds (“The first thing was not to trip on the red carpet,” Griffey said). The ovation – the embrace of 45,958 – as he made his way down the first-base receiving line of his second generation of Mariners teammates lasted maybe twice that, a roar as full and joyous and sincere as can be managed in this new culture of disposable devotion.

The peeps were every bit as jazzed at day’s end when Yuniesky Betancourt killed a bunt perfectly a few yards down the third-base line, hurrying relief pitcher Scot Shields into a wild throw that sent Franklin Gutierrez home with the winning run in a 3-2 10-inning victory over the Los Angeles Angels, the Mariners’ fifth in a row.

Junior was jazzed, too.

In the middle of the mob greeting Gutierrez at home plate, he lost his hat and wore a smile that, if not as incandescent as the one that glowed from underneath that famous dogpile in 1995, still lit up the day

“Guys talk about games not meaning anything in April,” Griffey said. “Yeah, they do. Everybody plays 162 games. Every game counts. We were able to win this one with the little things, and if we continue to do that, we’ll have a lot of fun.”

So which will endure as the historical footnote – Griffey’s return to Safeco after 10 unrequited years, or that the Mariners didn’t spoil the party and won?

Well, both if they’re lucky – and good.

For at least one more day, Griffey was larger than life – or the franchise anyway. Yet in the irony of all Mariners ironies, they suddenly don’t need him as a gate attraction or to create a diversion from their incompetence. They are 6-2, the surprise of baseball’s first week. The pitchers have a collective earned-run average less than 3.00 and Ichiro Suzuki hasn’t so much as taken one deep knee bend in the on-deck circle yet.

Griffey has all of three hits this season, and yet might win a clubhouse vote as MVP. Either that, or it would be a 25-way tie.

You can believe what you want to believe. You can believe that Griffey was brought back to sell tickets and lull the customers to sleep dreaming of old glories. Or you can believe general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu when they dissect it as a pure baseball decision – whether as a left-handed bat with power or a clubhouse presence with even more power to will disparate personalities into a team.

“There are baseball decisions,” Zduriencik said Tuesday, “that aren’t necessarily box score decisions.”

Junior is not everybody’s role model, but he can be a teaching tool. One of Seattle’s major failings over the past few years has been patience at the plate – too many indiscriminate hackers who don’t “understand that they don’t have to swing at the first two pitches,” Wakamatsu said.

“With him in the lineup, it gives us a little more patience. We feed off that,” the manager said.

And here’s what happened in the first inning Tuesday – one out, Roger Cedeno on first, Griffey pulls a long single to right that sends Cedeno to third. Adrian Beltre follows with a weak ground ball that has every chance to be a double play, except that Griffey’s slide gives Angels shortstop Erick Aybar just enough to think about that his relay pulls Kendry Morales off the bag at first, scoring the run.

Those who say Griffey doesn’t do the little things don’t pay close enough attention.

And it was a little-things victory, but a big-emotions day.

“I saw it in his face,” Wakamatsu said of the effect the thunderous greeting had on Griffey. “He’s an awfully humble guy, almost shy – you guys won’t believe that. But it really meant a lot to him, this first win. He came and gave me a big hug and it was pretty special.”

A hug?

“It was his first win at home,” Junior shrugged. “I’ve won in this ballpark before.”

There was some question whether he’d win here again when he weighed a late offer from Atlanta before re-signing with the Mariners in February. Asked about that Tuesday, Griffey couldn’t help but unsheathe the needle.

“What’s Atlanta’s record?” he asked.

Well, actually, it’s 5-2.

“We could be there in October,” he said.

Another smile. Not the big, broad home-plate smile – but the little ones are important, too.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email