February 19, 2009 in Sports

My, oh my! Junior’s back with M’s

In twilight of career, Griffey returns
Gregg Bell Associated Press
 
File Associated Press photo

Ken Griffey Jr., No. 5 on the home run list, is eligible for free agency.
(Full-size photo)

PEORIA, Ariz. – Ken Griffey Jr. has decided to return to the Mariners.

“He’s coming home. … I can’t begin to tell you how ecstatic we are. He is, too,” Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said in confirming the deal Wednesday night.

Zduriencik called Griffey “arguably one of the greatest athletes to ever play in the Seattle area.”

The 39-year-old star’s contract is for one year and believed to be worth $2 million in base salary, plus incentives.

“Ken is extremely excited to be coming back to Seattle,” Zduriencik said. “I know in his heart of hearts he probably wanted to be here all along.”

Atlanta appeared to be Griffey’s choice on Tuesday for the same reason the former Mariners star left Seattle in 2000: geography. The Braves’ spring training camp is about a 20-minute drive from the Griffey family home in Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta is about an hour away by plane.

But after conflicting reports about where the aging star would settle, Griffey ultimately chose to follow through on his proclamation two years ago when he came to Seattle while playing with the Cincinnati Reds – that he wanted to finish his career as a Mariner.

“We were informed tonight that Ken Griffey Jr. has decided to return to Seattle,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “We will continue to be open to other possibilities to improve our outfield offense and, at the same time, give our young players an opportunity to show us they can win that job.”

Zduriencik said the Mariners were the beneficiaries of Griffey wanting to cement his legacy in Seattle.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” he said. “Everyone knows Ken Griffey is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s returning to his roots. That doesn’t happen too often.”

The Mariners have a job as designated hitter and perhaps in left field waiting for him for 2009. The Braves were offering a spot in the outfield – plus that cherished proximity to home.

Griffey is fifth on baseball’s career home run list with 611.

He made his first opening-day start with the Mariners as a 19-year-old in 1989. He stayed for 11 seasons and through 10 All-Star games before he asked for a trade closer to his home. The Mariners obliged by sending him to Cincinnati just before the 2000 season.

Griffey’s return is a jolt for the Mariners, the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games – last season.

“A rejuvenated Ken Griffey coming back to where he started has to be a fabulous motivator for him,” Zduriencik said.

The GM had been trying to add a power hitter, and specifically a designated hitter, for months and was also talking to the agent for free agent Garret Anderson. The Mariners prefer a left-handed bat because the dimensions of pitcher-friendly Safeco Field are shortest in right field.

The configuration fits the left-handed Griffey so well, the Mariners presented him with a framed photo of their stadium before a Reds-Mariners game in 2007, with the words “The House that Griffey Built” across the top. Griffey played just half a season in it before getting the trade he demanded.

Griffey has been hampered by injuries since he left and had arthroscopic knee surgery following the 2008 season, the last half of which he spent with the White Sox. Zduriencik said the Mariners’ extensive research, which ended with Griffey passing a physical in Arizona on Sunday, convinced the team he is as healthy as he’s been in years.

He is the Mariners’ career leader in home runs (398), slugging percentage (.569) and trails only Edgar Martinez in team history in games played with 1,535. He’s also second to Martinez in Seattle history in hits, RBIs, extra-base hits, at-bats, doubles, runs and total bases.

Seattle’s starting outfield has Ichiro Suzuki in right field, Franklin Gutierrez in center and question marks in left, and Zduriencik left open the possibility Griffey could play in the field.

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