PEORIA, Ariz. – Ken Griffey Jr. spent 45 minutes Friday talking with the Seattle Mariners’ minor league players and, yes, there were some wide eyes and dropped jaws.
“I don’t know how much they’re hearing right now until they get over the shock of him actually standing right in front of them,” said Roger Hansen, the Mariners’ catching coordinator whose friendship with Griffey goes back 25 years. “As time goes by, they’ll settle in and hear everything he’s saying.”
There’s been a lot of that at the Mariners’ spring training camp this year, with former players coming back to share their knowledge of the game and pride in the organization.
Griffey arrived last week and spent several days around the big leaguers and minor leaguers. Former stars such as Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson and Randy Johnson also have been in the clubhouse, the dugout and around the batting cages.
“You’ve got to embrace your history,” Buhner said. “Look at the Giants after they won it all last year. What was their message? That this is for the guys who laid the foundation. That this is for the Will Clarks, for the Bondses, for those guys. You continue to keep passing on the tradition, passing the baton to the next group of guys. It’s not easy putting a pennant up there. Unfortunately, we’ve found that out the past 10 years.”
Granted, the Mariners’ 34-year history is thin compared with the number of legendary players and seasons produced by such organizations as the Yankees, Cardinals and Giants. But it’s their history – particularly the division championships in 1995, 1997 and 2001 and the players who were important to that success – that they want to build upon with a group of former players eager to help.
It’s nothing new for some of the best-known Mariners from the most successful years of the franchise show up at spring training.
What’s new this year is current manager Eric Wedge’s insistence that every player in the system – from major leaguers to A-ball rookies – should look, listen and absorb the knowledge and sense of Mariners history that the retired players represent.
“It just so happened, slowly but surely, that all of us are turning into old farts and retiring, but we continue to be a collective group,” Buhner said. “It’s pretty special. We all still call Seattle our home and bleed Mariner blue. We know it’s about continuing to give back to the game that was so good to us and we know it makes a difference.”
How much difference does it really make?
The presence of a half-dozen retirees probably won’t create any greater desire to win than the current players already have. There are coaches at every level of the system helping players throw a better curveball or hit a sinker.
“What makes it great here is that we know these guys,” closer David Aardsma said. “When we were growing up, these are the guys we were watching. To have Junior walking around, with Buhner here all the time … it definitely keeps in mind what the Mariners were in the years when they dominated the league. It makes us all want to be a part of that. It makes us all want to be able to walk around here in 15 years and have that kind of respect and know that we were winners.”
Aardsma has played for the Giants, Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox in his career and he’s been surrounded not only by the greats of those organizations, some of them Hall of Famers.
“With the Giants, Willie (Mays) was there all the time,” he said. “With the Cubs, Ron Santo was there in the clubhouse, and Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston were walking around. The Red Sox always had guys.”
Besides Griffey, the former Mariners who’ve come back may not hold the status of the Hall of Famers from other organizations, but Aardsma says it’s actually better for the current players.
“The older players talk more about the bigger history of the club and where it really came from,” Aardsma said. “What’s neat here is that we can relate to these guys because they are the players who we grew up watching, who inspired us to play. These are the guys we were watching when I was 10 years old just getting really into baseball. I remember when the Griffey rookie card came out. I had to have that 1989 Upper Deck card.”
Important as it is for the former players to have a presence, there has to be a balance. Too much reliance on the good old days can cause resentment.
Three years ago at spring training, then-manager John McLaren brought several former players and coaches back, and it seemed a lot like 2001. Some players became tired of hearing so many references to 2001, even though that team set a Mariners standard by tying the major league record with 116 victories.
“Are those guys still here?” Buhner asked. “Unfortunately, that was part of the problem.”
Aardsma and others on this year’s team welcome the former players.
“What they’re saying is, ‘We know what it took to win,’ ” Aardsma said. “There are common denominators in winning. There’s good team leadership and guys doing their jobs. Having these (former players) around, you understand it. They know what it takes and can help us to figure out what it takes to win. That’s what they’re here for, to help. There can’t be resentment. There should be understanding and respect.”
Heads do turn when the former players come back, especially when Griffey walks through the clubhouse – even though he was a teammate clowning around with many of these guys last year.
“When he came back, he wanted a kiss from me,” said 20-year-old catcher Steven Baron, who was in the big-league camp with Griffey last year. “I just gave him a hug. I really want his autograph, but I haven’t had enough nerve to ask for that yet.”
Pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen, trying to crack the major leagues for the first time in his career, did ask Griffey – somewhat sheepishly – to sign a set of baseball cards last week.
“I’ve had those cards probably 15 or 16 years,” said Wilhelmsen, who’s 27. “I heard he was coming to camp so I threw it in my backpack and waited for the day.
“It adds another level of pride when you see the greats who have played, guys you’ve watched on TV when you were growing up. Now they’re in the clubhouse and it’s, ‘Holy cow, I’m really here.’ ”
Baron took full advantage of Dan Wilson’s time at spring training, asking him everything from catching technique to what it was like to play under former manager Lou Piniella.
“I was asking him a bunch of question about back in the day,” Baron said. “What was it like to catch Randy Johnson? I asked him about Lou Piniella – how was it being a catcher for him? Wilson probably got all the blame when something happened and I’m sure he took a lot of heat from Piniella. He told me, ‘Yeah, I had to.’
“I asked him a lot about receiving, some little tips here and there. I used to watch him a lot. He used to get really, really low to the ground. I used to watch him catch all the time. I never thought I’d meet him.”
Buhner said he has had nothing but acceptance from the players at all levels.
“We all want to see the same thing,” Buhner said. “I want to see these guys be successful and get back to the postseason. Junior wants to do it, Edgar wants to do it, Danny wants to do it. John Olerud’s going to be a part of it. Whatever we can do to help this organization, why wouldn’t you utilize that?
“There’s not a long history here, but there is a history. That little bit of history, that saved baseball in Seattle. Thank God we’ve got a chance to continue that.”