The one undeniable positive should Ken Griffey Jr. return to the Seattle Mariners is the way it will pucker the backside of Howard Lincoln.
The cult of Junior made the starched Mariners CEO absolutely crazy … as did the Cult of Lou, the quick-draw mouth of Jeff Nelson and any other baseball employee who didn’t blend into the bland. “You can’t have prima donnas,” Lincoln once famously intoned about the Stepford Mariners as he doled out merit badges and toyed with changing the uniform color to beige.
Yet here are the M’s, clearing out Griffey’s old locker stall at the spring training facility in Peoria, Ariz., as a preface to the feel-good story baseball so desperately needs.
But wait – here come the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the free-agent ninth inning, looking to steal Junior away with all their TBS dough.
Would Junior really do this to the Northwest all over again? Not quite 10 years ago, he unplugged his famous smile, told the M’s no on a contract extension and insisted on a trade. His preference was Atlanta, then the closest contender to his Orlando, Fla., home, but the Braves found him too expensive at that point in his career. So, asserting the rights accorded him under baseball law, he demanded to go to Cincinnati, his boyhood home – stripping any negotiating leverage from the Mariners, who were lucky enough to wind up with Mike Cameron and three ham sandwiches.
In the end, he would accept considerably less money from the Reds than he was offered by the M’s and deferred a good deal of it to help Cincinnati try to win a pennant, which has not stopped the bitter souls in Seattle from raging about his “greed.”
Now after making goo-goo eyes at Seattle ever since the overwrought reunion in June 2007 when the Reds made a Northwest swing, Griffey is reportedly jazzed by the Braves’ late interest – again because of the proximity to his teenage children.
And the Mariners have, quite possibly, managed to screw up a free lunch.
Or perhaps this is exactly how Lincoln and new general manager Jack Zduriencik were hoping it would play out.
There has to be a reason they’ve been teasing Junior’s many fans with come-hither winks toward the ticket window while slow-playing the poker hand with Griffey himself.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that signing a brittle 39-year-old outfielder who doesn’t much want to DH does not square with Zduriencik’s plan to hoard and nurture young prospects while taking the predictable lumps on the field. Still, he is a wise enough baseball hand to know he has to sell a ticket or two, and that to do that it has to look as if the Mariners are at least trying.
Without a left-handed bat of even Griffey’s fading stature, the M’s might not muster 100 dingers out of its lineup. Seattle’s pitching staff is not going to be able to weather a steady support diet of a measly run or two.
Bobby Abreu would have been a younger, healthier, lower-risk alternative, but the division rival Angels snagged him – the Mariners unable to get serious because in these grim economic times they’re trying to hold to a budget. It didn’t help matters late last year when they had a chance to dump the $10 million owed Jared Washburn this year on the Minnesota Twins – but cagey club president Chuck Armstrong vetoed the trade, certain Washburn would fetch more down the line.
Chuck, along the lines of his hero John Paul Jones, has not yet begun to think.
Of course, the pros and cons of bringing back Griffey were being volleyed among M’s fans even pre-Abreu.
Those with a sentimental attachment remember him as the savior who built Safeco Field, an incandescent talent who kept baseball alive in Seattle until the franchise finally got good, a Northwest knock-off of Willie Mays. They claim to understand that he’s been hurt more than he’s been healthy since 2002 and that his abilities are in decline, but still they rationalize a full season of swings, 25 homers and much-needed veteran leadership.
Well, Junior was a clubhouse personality, but it’s arguable whether he was ever a leader. Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez, yes. But Griffey was the imp who skipped stretching and eschewed the weight room, able to get by on his many gifts. That encourages us that he alone among the Bonds and McGwires and A-Roids did it naturally – steroids aren’t as effective if you don’t push a little iron – but a get-after-it example he was not.
What exactly would he be back in Seattle, playing a position he didn’t want to, twiddling his thumbs in the visitors half? How would he be if he broke down again, unable to play? If the M’s were en route to another 100 losses? In a clubhouse without his buddy Bone – or much of anyone older than 30?
And if it all went sour, how would the sentimentalists remember him then?
On the other hand, if he made Howard Lincoln’s summer even a little uncomfortable, it might be all worth it.
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