The players didn’t hear the news – Ken Griffey Jr. had just announced his retirement – until manager Don Wakamatsu huddled his Seattle Mariners around him just before batting practice Wednesday.
Milton Bradley glanced at the gray sky above Safeco Field and turned to teammate Mike Sweeney.
“It ought to rain on this day,” he said.
The face of the Mariners organization since being drafted as a teenager in 1987, Griffey retired Wednesday with a telephone call to friend and team president Chuck Armstrong.
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“While I feel I am still able to make a contribution on the field, and nobody in the Mariners front office has asked me to retire, I told the Mariners … I will never allow myself to become a distraction,” Griffey said in a written statement.
“Without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my teammates.”
Griffey left the game at age 40, after 22 big-league seasons in which he became one of baseball’s most recognizable players. He retired with a .284 lifetime average, 1,836 RBI and 630 home runs, which ranks No. 5 on the all-time list.
“Speaking for every other player on this team, I love Ken Griffey Jr.,” Sweeney said. “It’s hard, there’s a void that will never be filled. Ken’s heart, his charisma, you can’t replace that – on or off the field.”
This season, Junior batted just .184 in 33 games – 98 at-bats – and had seen his role diminish from primary designated hitter to occasional pinch-hitter.
“It’s a sad day for all of us with the team, because he’s not just been a great baseball player, he’s been a personal friend,” Wakamatsu said.
It wasn’t long after the news became public that people began talking about Griffey’s remarkable career.
“Junior was one of the finest young men I’ve ever had the opportunity to manage,” said Lou Piniella, now managing the Chicago Cubs. “When we were in Seattle together, I believe he was the best player in baseball, and it was truly an honor to be his manager. As great a player as he was, he is an even better person. I salute his Hall of Fame career.”
Armstrong said he and Griffey spoke Wednesday morning, and Junior told him his mind was made up. “Ken is both the finest player I have ever known and one of the finest people,” Armstrong said. “Ken is truly the heart and soul of this franchise. If Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth Built, then Safeco Field is The House That Griffey Built.”
Jack Zduriencik, the general manager who reunited Griffey with the Mariners in spring 2009, took a measure of solace in that.
“We feel honored that Ken was able to end his career where it began,” he said.
A 13-time All-Star, Griffey joined a franchise that had never had a star recognized around the American League, then became “The Kid” – with his name attached to chocolate bars, posters, Nike products and national ad campaigns.
Considered the best center fielder of his era, Griffey won 10 Gold Glove awards and seven Silver Slugger awards. His career power totals rank among the best in big-league history, and among the records he set or tied was one in 1993, when he homered in eight consecutive games.
In 1997, Griffey hit 56 home runs, then did it again in 1998.
After the ’99 season, Griffey engineered a trade to the team and city where he remembered his father winning a World Series ring – Cincinnati. There, his career began a slow downturn because of injuries that landed him on the disabled list in five of his nine seasons with the Reds.
With his return a year ago, it was apparent Griffey was no longer the impact player of his youth – he played only a handful of games in the outfield, and batted .214 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI.
He and Sweeney dominated a clubhouse filled with first-year Mariners, and helped rookie manager Wakamatsu build a group that won a surprising 85 games. When Junior and Ichiro Suzuki were carried around Safeco Field after the final game of the 2009 season, there were some who hoped Griffey would retire on that highlight.
He didn’t. He couldn’t walk away, he said, from a game he’d played his whole life.
“It would have been nice to go out like Ted Williams, hit a home run in the park you played your best years in, then walk away,” said former teammate and now batting-coach Alonzo Powell. “Ken was a living legend, a great player who played to and beyond the highest of expectations.”
Though Griffey has retired as a player, his future with the Mariners and in baseball remains open. “I look forward to a continued, meaningful relationship with them for many years to come,” Griffey’s statement said.
“Our relationship, professionally and personally, will continue,” Armstrong said.
Before Wednesday’s game, the grounds crew put a ceremonial number on the infield – Griffey’s No. 24 – and the team made another, more subtle tribute.
The Mariners didn’t replace Junior on their 25-man roster Wednesday, choosing instead to play for one night with 24 men.