Seattle icon Griffey to return to Safeco
06/20/2007 2:34 PM ET
By Jim Street / MLB.com
SEATTLE -- He arrived as The Kid, became the athletic equivalent of Mt. Rainier, and departed 11 years later as a husband and father with a different nickname.
The icon known as "Junior" left behind a facility designed with him in mind, and when he returns for the first time in nearly eight years on Friday night, more than 40,000 fans will welcome him back to where a Hall of Fame career began.
Of all the Mariners that have left and returned with other Major League teams, having Ken Griffey Jr. come back after being out of sight for so long shapes up as a must-see event when the Reds make their first-ever visit to Safeco Field.
"I hope the city opens its arms and gives him the response and tribute he deserves," former Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "This will be a special weekend for Junior and the fans."
The Mariners organization has set aside about 15 minutes prior to Friday night's Interleague series opener to pay tribute to Junior, who is, according to club president Chuck Armstrong, "The best player we ever drafted."
The Mariners were in trust at the time because owner George Argyros was trying to trade the Mariners for the Padres. Therefore, all club transactions had to get then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's approval. General manager Dick Balderson and Roger Jongewaard, the director of scouting and player personnel, persuaded Armstrong to recommend that Griffey be selected with the first overall Draft choice.
And so, in June 1987, the Mariners finally had the star it needed to succeed as a franchise.
"I am eternally grateful to Balderson, Jongeward and Ueberroth," Armstrong said.
The best all-around player ever to wear a Mariners uniform -- and the last one to have "24" stitched on the back of his jersey -- became an All-Star in 1990, his second season in the Majors, and was a Midsummer Classic selection for 10 consecutive seasons. He also won a Gold Glove Award from 1990 through 1999 and still holds the franchise record in home runs (398) and slugging percentage (.569). He's second in nine other offensive categories.
Griffey has done his best to downplay his return to Seattle, focusing instead on helping the Reds get their season turned around. Three Seattle-area newspapers sent reporters to either Cincinnati or Oakland to get Junior to talk about his "homecoming."
He politely refused to talk about this weekend, but will meet with the local media late Friday afternoon at Safeco Field.
"Junior is definitely excited and looking forward to it," said Brian Goldberg, Griffey's longtime agent. "He doesn't get excited about personal milestones, but baseball-wise, he's as excited as I've seen him in a long time. Believe me, he's plenty excited."
And so, too, are Mariners fans.
When Junior walks onto the field for the first time on Friday, fans are expected to give him a loud and warm reception. They know that without Junior, there probably would be no MLB team in Seattle, and definitely no Safeco Field.
"In New York, Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth built," Armstrong said. "In Seattle, Safeco Field is the house that Junior built."
In fact, when drawing up the architectural plans for the retractable-roof facility, club officials decided to make it a "Junior-friendly" facility.
"Yes, it was designed with Junior in mind," Armstrong said. "The porch in right field is closer to home plate and balls hit to right field tend to go farther. We also decided to make the fences lower in from center field to right field so Junior could make his patented catches."
But, unlike Babe Ruth, who spent 12 years playing his home games at Yankee Stadium, Junior spent only half of the 1999 season at Safeco Field before -- on his own insistence -- he was traded to the Reds for personal reasons.
Goldberg said Griffey had decided during the final six weeks of the '99 season -- the final year of his Mariners contract -- that he wanted to play for a team closer to the new home that had been built near Orlando, Fla., so he would be able to fly home on off-days during the regular season.
"The one thing that I hope people never forget about Junior is that he didn't leave because of anything anyone did to him," Goldberg said. "It was all about geography. Trey had started kindergarten late that August and Junior saw his family only six days the rest of the season. That made the decision for him. But it was still gut-wrenching when it came down to agreeing to the trade."
As it turned out, Griffey would spend a lot more time at his Florida home than he ever imagined.
During his eight-plus seasons with the Reds, he has been on the DL eight times, costing him more than 350 games. In 11 seasons with the Mariners, Junior was on the disabled list four times, costing him about 150 games.
Regarded as the premier player in the 1990s, Griffey was on pace to challenge Hank Aaron's career home-run record of 755.
As of Tuesday night, Junior had 582 home runs, including 19 this season, which has been, knock on wood, injury-free.
Hindsight being what it is, you have to wonder how many home runs Griffey might have hit if he had remained in Seattle. Perhaps he and Barry Bonds would be challenging the record right now.
"I would think so," Piniella said. "This young man, he had the swing, he had the power, and he had the drive, the ambition. No question. He was on a pace to do it."
And maybe the Mariners would have played in the World Series by now.
"I think about it, but he doesn't, and I don't think he ever will," Goldberg said. "Junior has become secure in who he is and his place in the game. He fully knows who he was and who he may not be anymore. But he also knows, if healthy, who he can be for a few more years.
"He's at peace with his standing in the game."
Besides Goldberg, Junior is bringing his wife, Melissa (a Seattle native) and their three children, Trey (13), Taryn (11) and Tevin (5) to Safeco. Unable to attend, however, are his parents -- Senior and Birdie. Both are currently battling cancer.
"I love the guy and feel really close to Kenny and his family," Armstrong said. "I'd like to see Junior do reasonably well this weekend, but don't want him to do too well."