Good morning Fackers. Late last June, as the Mariners came to the Bronx for the only 2009 series at Yankee Stadium, we ran this post as sort of our unofficial goodbye to Ken Griffey Jr. After a ten year absence, Junior had returned to Seattle, and it was assumed that 2009 would mark his victory lap and retirement tour around the American League.
Despite posting a .214/.324/.411 batting line and .323 wOBA, Griffey elected to return for a 22nd Major League season. I won't begrudge any player who wants to hang on as long as he can. And I could certainly imagine why Griffey would want to return to the M's, who were the surprise team of 2009 and made significant improvements in the off season.
Thus far though, 2010 has been an unmitigated disaster, both the for the Mariners and Griffey. The team is just 12-19, good for last in the weak AL West. While their pitching has been good and their defense has been characteristically outstanding, the offense has been downright abyssmal, ranking last in the league in virtually every meaningful category. Milton Bradley, the off-season acquisition brought it to bring some pop to the lineup, had his annual meltdown early this year and is on the restricted list. Eric Byrnes, picked up for the league minimum in hopes he could rediscover his mojo, played poorly, blew a suicide squeeze play, and then rode off on his bicycle to go play keg league softball in California. I'm not making that up.
As for Griffey, part two of the farewell tour is not faring well at all. He's hitting just .208/.265/.234 with a wOBA of .234. He's had just two extra base hits, both doubles. He's played at half win below replacement level. And it leaves the Mariners in quite a bind. They're desperately in need offense and they have a punchless designated hitter. As they look to salvage their season, there's a very real possibility that the process will entail putting a premature end to the career of a future Hall of Famer and quite possibly the greatest player in franchise history.
Yesterday, Larry LaRue of the Tacoma New-Tribune reported that Griffey will retire or be released by the end of the month. Even with all the Griffey-centric promotions Seattle has scheduled this year that news is sad, but isn't very surprising. What's both sad and surprising is the allegation in the story that Griffey wasn't available for a pinch hitting appearance last week because he was napping in the clubhouse.
Part of the justification for keeping Griffey around for another year was that he was a positive presence in the clubhouse, a good teammate, and a mentor to the younger players on the team. But if that story is true, it goes beyond Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson playing cards as the 1999 NLCS wrapped up and it goes beyond Rey Sanchez getting a haircut during the late innings of a game. At least those players were awake.
Regardless of the napping allegation, the end is near for Junior, and it's sad. It's sad to see what was once the top player in the game taken out of the race before he could even limp across the finish line. It's sad the feel-good atmosphere of his 2009 return to Seattle seemingly has vanished in the wind. And it's sad that, true or not, the Ken Griffey Jr story is going to end with the suggestion that a mid-game nap was one of the final acts of his career. Griffey wore #24 because Rickey Henderson was his favorite player; Rickey wore it because Willie Mays was his. Mays' final season is remembered for him stumbling about center field in the 1973 World Series. Griffey's will be remembered for taking a snooze in the clubhouse.
As uncomfortable as it is to ask, and as unthinkable as it seems at present, I have to wonder: will the Yankees face a situation like this in the years to come? Not so much the nap part, but the uneasy situation where a living legend has outlived his usefulness. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte will all be free agents at season's end. I can't possibly imagine any of them playing elsewhere in 2011. But they will 37, 41, and 39 years old, respectively, next year. Jorge Posada will be a 39 year old catcher in the final year of his contract. Alex Rodriguez will be 35 and will have seven years remaining on his monstrous deal.
While Pettitte and Mo may be content to go year-to-year from here forward, and while Posada may hang em up after 2011, Jeter and A-Rod aren't likely to be going anywhere in the near future. What happens if their skills abandon them early in their final season, or worse yet, with years remaining on their contracts? Would the Yankees dare cut ties with one of them if meant the difference between sinking or swimming in the pennant race? How would we as fans react if one of those players became a detriment on the field?
It's easy to say these guys wouldn't hang on when they are clearly done, but it happens all the time. World class athletes tend to be a very proud bunch. They also tend to be the last ones to realize it when their skills have left them. The club went through something similar with Bernie Williams, and even with Joe Torre's unending loyalty cushioning the blow, that didn't end well. I hope that's not a bridge we have to cross again in the coming years.