PEORIA, Ariz. - There was no fanfare, no ceremony. Really, there was no warning.
Much like the way he left abruptly last season, Ken Griffey Jr. arrived at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex unannounced Wednesday afternoon.
Suddenly he was just there, clad in a black sweat suit and visor and ready to assume his role as “special consultant” to the Seattle Mariners organization today.
Even with his sudden appearance, Griffey knew that he wouldn’t be able to avoid discussing what transpired last season when he called Mariners president Chuck Armstrong from a gas station in Montana to say he was retiring.
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So Griffey walked into the small media room at the team’s complex Wednesday, sat on a counter and spoke publicly for the first time since his unforeseen departure June 2.
“I’m only going to do this one time, and this will be the last time I talk about it,” he said.
After a pause and a deep breath, he continued in a controlled, quiet voice.
“Last year, I felt it was necessary for me to remove myself from the team,” he said. “I told Chuck and Howard (Lincoln), No. 1, if I become a distraction or feel I’m going to be a distraction, then I will retire. Because that’s the one thing I didn’t want to become is a distraction to the organization.”
The trademark Griffey smile that fans came to know during both of his playing stints with the Mariners was nowhere to be seen.
“Second, I gave myself a little bit of a head start,” he said. “A lot of people that are friends of mine would have tried to talk me out of it. I just felt it was best for me and the organization to retire. No fault of its own. Things happen. I’m not upset. I think people thought I was upset. That wasn’t the case. I just felt it was more important for me to retire instead of being a distraction. It no longer became the Seattle Mariners. It became, ‘When is Ken doing this?’ ‘When is Ken doing that?’ That’s something that I didn’t want to have my teammates, who I truly care about, have to answer these kinds of questions, day-in and day-out.”
But that explanation might not sit well with fans who felt like they never received a proper goodbye.
One day he was there, and the next he wasn’t.
General manager Jack Zduriencik and then-manager Don Wakamatsu received as much notice as the fans – none.
Griffey often said during his first tenure that the media would come to his locker one day and there would be a sign, reading: “He gone.”
And he offered no apologies for the way he left.
“You want me to apologize for something I felt was right?” he said. “I felt it was right for me to leave. I’m not going to do it. It was not intended to hurt people. It was a decision that I made 15 years ago. It wasn’t like it was something you guys hadn’t heard before. I mean, you guys have heard it from Day One. There are some people that are upset, and there are some people that are not. I can’t worry about it. I had to do what I thought was best for me.”
There were several reports of a major rift that had grown between Wakamatsu and Griffey during the season. It started with the issue of playing time, and then the belief that Wakamatsu leaked the story of the Griffey napping in the clubhouse to The News Tribune. The two sides apparently have not reconciled.
When asked whether he had talked to Wakamatsu at any point, Griffey flatly said, “No.”
He was pressed as to why he hasn’t spoken to Wakamatsu since he left the team.
“My phone rings,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Regardless of the controversy and mystery surrounding his departure, the fact remained that Griffey had walked away from the only life he’d known since four days after graduating from Moeller High School in Cincinnati.
And the realization that he was no longer doing the only thing he wanted to do in his life hit him as he drove away from the city where he became a star.
“People think it’s easy, blah, blah, blah, that it’s not an emotional day,” he said. “Yeah, it’s emotional. It was best for me. I’ve always said I’m not going to have a big old press conference, but I guess people didn’t believe me. That’s not my fault. I always try to tell people the truth. I said I wasn’t going to have a press conference, and I didn’t.”
After discussing the past and his retirement at length, he finally got to speak about his future with organization.
“I’m happy to be back,” he said. “I’m glad that the Mariners gave me an opportunity to be part of the future and what goes on from here on out. I’m looking forward to the challenges. I think it’s going to be fun.”
What exactly does his job entail? Not even Griffey is certain.
“It’s just a matter of what they need me to do,” he said. “Jay (Buhner) is here. That’s going to help me out. He’s done this a couple of times. I’ll follow Jay’s coattails, then I’ll drag him on the road a couple of times.”
Griffey’s first bit of advice to players, particularly minor leaguers?
“Just go out and play,” he said. “The biggest thing is going out and playing baseball. That’s it. Play baseball.
“Like I tell everybody, the game doesn’t change from when you are 7 or 8. Just the stands change – the people in the stands. The game is still played the same. You catch, hit, throw. And it’s how you execute that counts.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org