Shawn Kelley got the word when his mother texted him early Wednesday – Ken Griffey Jr. had signed a one-year contract to return to the Seattle Mariners.
“She follows stuff a little closer than I do,” the rookie reliever said. “I got right on the Internet and checked it out. It’s great for the team. It’s a blessing for me.
“Another year with Ken? We wouldn’t have been the team we were last year without him.”
There were similar stories from Seattle players, who learned – like their fans – that general manager Jack Zduriencik and Griffey’s agent, Brian Goldberg, agreed on a deal that will bring Junior back for his 22nd big-league season.
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“His influence, his presence, a lot of guys on this club are excited to say they’re playing with Ken Griffey Jr. again next year,” Zduriencik said. “His role on the field will be determined in spring training.”
That role figures to be reduced. As the primary left-handed designated hitter last year, Griffey appeared in 117 games, batting a career-low .214 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI.
If Zduriencik’s offseason goes as he hopes, the Mariners – last in the American League in runs scored in 2009 – will bolster their offense. Griffey was well aware of the chances of his role changing, but Zduriencik said that will be decided in spring training, not in November.
“A lot has to be done, and we’re early in the process. Ken is part of this ballclub. He was part of the team that won 24 more games than the year before,” Zduriencik said.
“What Ken gave us last year, on and off the field, was beyond anything I expected. This is a very smart guy. He bought into where we’re going and what we’re doing. He knows his role. Ken is a great guy, a fun guy. He loves the Mariners and loves the community.”
Cynics can argue – as they did last spring, when the team first signed Griffey – that this smacks as much of a public relations ploy as a sound baseball move. Junior will turn 40 later this month, and is coming off his second knee surgery in as many winters.
None of those cynics, however, are Mariners.
Catcher Rob Johnson, recovering from the second of three scheduled offseason surgeries, summed up his reaction to the news with one word: Elation.
“I hope he has even a better year,” Johnson said. “We get the opportunity to play with one of the greatest players who ever lived. Ken’s a guy that makes everyone feel they’re on his level. Beyond the stats, to get to know his heart – he cares about everybody. I love him.”
Reliever Mark Lowe said he got chills when he heard Junior was coming back and, like Kelley, he heard the news when someone texted him.
“He was a huge part of the difference between 2008 and 2009,” Lowe said. “Last year, guys couldn’t wait to get to the clubhouse. It was fun again, and Ken had a huge hand in that.”
Griffey instituted the first clubhouse kangaroo court since the days of Bret Boone, and when some players initially groused about new manager Don Wakamatsu’s policy of wearing ties on team flights, Junior handled that.
On the Mariners’ first flight, Griffey had ties made with Wakamatsu’s face adorning them. Each player wore one and, on the plane, they had a ceremony in which Wakamatsu was given a tie.
Late in the season, Junior raided Wakamatsu’s office, made off with a family photo and then returned it a few days later – having altered it to include Griffey.
“I’ll admit last spring I had reservations about signing him,” Wakamatsu said Wednesday. “Now? He’s an absolute pleasure to manage, a joy to be around. I’ve talked to him three or four times this winter already.
“Junior believes he can contribute, and if he comes into camp in great shape, we’ll see. Remember, this is a guy who – with his knee bothering him – hit three home runs in our last homestand. He may have more left than people think.
“He’s an icon. He’s also a quality person.”
Griffey’s clubhouse leadership went beyond the pranks and laughter. Lowe remembered Junior approaching him after a bad outing, taking him aside and reminding him not only to shake it off but also how important Lowe was to the team.
“At that point, we hardly knew each other,” Lowe said. “I was a little surprised he knew who I was.”
Kelley remembered being in the training room after a pulled oblique muscle landed him on the disabled list.
“Ken was in there getting work done on his knee, and we’d talk baseball,” Kelley said. “I’m in my first season in the majors, and I’m talking to a Hall of Famer about the game, about family. I look back at last year, and it’s the little things, the conversations, I’ll never forget.”
One thing Griffey brings in his return to Seattle is credibility. In 21 seasons, he’s compiled a .285 batting average, 2,763 hits, 522 doubles, 630 home runs and 1,829 RBI.
“One of the things Kenny can do in a clubhouse is get the attention of his teammates,” Zduriencik said. “He’s the ultimate been-there, done-that guy, because no matter what another player is dealing with, Ken probably has been there and done that.
“At the end of the season this year, I talked to him about his thoughts, his desires. What he said was he wanted to be a part of this team. He said, ‘It’s your decision. If you want me back, I’d love to come back.’ ”
Rookie catcher Adam Moore met Griffey last spring, then spent part of September a few lockers away at Safeco Field.
“I loved it. Just being around him, he’s a great leader,” Moore said. “His smile carries across a clubhouse. Making a team with Griffey on it? That’s something you dream about, and that’s what I have a chance to do next spring.”
Wakamatsu, who was watching an Arizona Fall League game in Peoria, Ariz., said he had no doubt which player wanted Griffey back most.
“The happiest guy on the club today is Ichiro,” Wakamatsu said. “Junior’s love for the game, for his teammates, is infectious. He brought a lot out in Ichiro. Those two had quite the relationship.”
Working out a contract was easy – a rarity in this game no matter who is involved. The Mariners, for instance, offered contracts this week to three players: shortstop Jack Wilson, first baseman Russell Branyan and Griffey.
Only Junior accepted.
“I’d like to thank the Mariners organization for inviting me back to play in 2010,” Griffey said in a statement released by the team. “While 2009 was an awesome experience for me, my ultimate goal is for the Mariners to get to and win the World Series. To that end, I look forward to contributing in any role that Don (Wakamatsu) sees fit on the field, and any manner I possibly can off the field.”