Ken Griffey Jr. quit baseball with a long drive ... to Florida.
As morning was breaking on June 2, 2010, some 14 hours before he was expected to be in uniform for a Mariners game against the Twins in Seattle, Griffey turned the ignition key of his Infiniti QX56 and headed for home.
The excuse-me-while-I-disappear departure struck many fans as impulsive. It wasn’t. Griffey’s role at age 40 had been reduced to that of a left-handed DH and occasional pinch hitter. His batting average of .184 was statistically symbolic — 100 points below the .284 that will appear on his Hall-of-Fame plaque — and he had yet to hit a home run.
A sad moment revealed the extent of Griffey’s decline three weeks previously, when manager Don Wakamatsu called on him to bat for Adam Moore against the Orioles at Baltimore. Trailing 5-1 in the top of the ninth, the Mariners had men on first and third. Griffey lofted a fly ball to right field for a sacrifice fly RBI.
When Griffey got back to the dugout, he was embraced by veteran Mike Sweeney, his self-appointed bodyguard and mental-skills coach. Sweeney appeared to shout: “That’s what I’m talking about!”
The most electrifying player of his generation was being congratulated for having managed to drive home an inconsequential run in a 5-2 defeat.
Griffey had made a mistake common to virtually every baseball legend but Ted Williams: Not knowing when to say when.
A chance for a much more compelling exit had presented itself after the Mariners’ 2009 season finale, when Griffey took a joy ride around Safeco Field on the shoulders of teammates who regarded him as an idol. They suspected that his last-at bat of the game, an eighth-inning single, would be the last at-bat of his career.
Although Griffey’s offensive numbers during his ballyhooed return season with the Mariners in 2009 were far from spectacular — he hit .214, with 19 homers and 57 RBIs in 117 games — they were good enough to convince him and the front office that a final verse of the swan song was in order.
Besides, he’d had a blast. Serving as the team’s good-humor man and original prankster, Griffey’s ability to energize a dreary, polarized clubhouse was a subtle but prominent factor in the Mariners putting together their second winning record since 2003.
“He’s a superstar, and not just because of his numbers and his stats, but because of his personality,” former teammate Ichiro Suzuki said upon learning of Griffey’s Hall-of-Fame enshrinement. “He was about caring for each other. It’s something we all need to learn from him, and it’s what makes him better than a superstar.”
That Ichiro got to know Griffey involved a confluence of events beginning in 2007, when Junior came back to Safeco Field for the first time as an opponent. His request to be traded after the 1999 season — he wanted to be closer to his family in Florida — turned into a boondoggle fraught with complications.
A deal sending Griffey to Cincinnati, where he grew up, was worked out, and it worked out well. Among the players the Mariners received in exchange for their superb center fielder was Mike Cameron, another superb center fielder. Cameron was a key cog on Seattle’s 2000 wild-card team, and an All-Star for the 2001 powerhouse that won 116 games.
Still, Griffey was wary about the reception awaiting him in 2007 at Safeco Field, where Alex Rodriguez remains a pariah for signing the free-agent contract, then the most lucrative in American pro sports history, that delivered him to the Texas Rangers in 2001.
The “reception” was celebrated in the spirit of a garden party honoring a golden wedding anniversary. A 15-minute pregame tribute to Griffey concluded with a four-minute standing ovation that planted the seeds for him to wind up in Seattle.
After a 2008 season split between the Reds and Chicago White Sox, Griffey became a free agent for the first time. No suitors were more obvious than the Mariners, coming off a 61-101 record and desperate for some positive PR spin in the wake of several calamitous moves arranged by deposed general manager Bill Bavasi.
A few weeks before spring training, Bavasi’s replacement, Jack Zduriencik, and Wakamatsu, the newly appointed manager, met with Griffey, his wife Melissa, and agent Brian Goldberg in Arizona. The Mariners reportedly pitched a one-year contract to Griffey for $2 million. Along with incentives related to plate appearances and attendance, the deal topped out at $4.5 million.
But the plot was thickened when the Braves got involved, offering essentially the same salary. A National League destination wasn’t ideal for somebody who profiled as a designated hitter after knee surgery, but Atlanta presented geographic benefits beyond its relative proximity to Griffey’s Florida home in Orlando. He could drive to the team’s spring training site in 20 minutes.
Furthermore, there was a family-tree connection in Atlanta. Ken Griffey Sr. played for the Braves between 1986 and 1988, a bit of history Henry Aaron likely referenced when he made a phone call to Junior.
Griffey Jr. chatted with Willie Mays, who finished his career in New York, where his legend was launched in 1951.
“Willie hit on it a little harder,” Griffey’s agent, Goldberg, told ESPN.com in 2009. “But they both said, ‘You have to do what you want to do.’ They told him, ‘You might have to make some short-term struggles, but the bottom line is go by how you want to be remembered for the next 50 years after you’re done.’ ”
Newspapers in Atlanta and Seattle reported that a deal with the Braves was imminent, but Griffey, whose natural baseball talent did not extend to the business side of the industry, insisted he was flummoxed.
“We are still kicking things around and have not made a decision,” he told MLB.com. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve been a free agent, and it’s nerve-racking. I love Seattle, but you know how close I am to my wife and kids.”
It turned out that one of Griffey’s three kids, 13-year-old daughter Taryn, had a voice that resonated most forcefully with a man who’d been talking to Henry Aaron and Willie Mays.
“She told him, ‘Dad, I really think you should go back to the Mariners, and not have any regrets about how you finished,’ ” Goldberg recalled for ESPN.com. “That kind of put it over the top.”
The advice paved the way for a two-season experience that mirrored Griffey’s career: The first part was silky smooth and radiated the sheer joy of playing baseball. The second part was a bumper-car pileup that revealed the difficulty of playing baseball.
Bored by his consignment one night as a pinch hitter for a team going nowhere, Griffey went to the clubhouse during the middle innings and settled into his recliner chair for a nap. Taking a nap, while a game is in progress, isn’t as egregious a violation of baseball etiquette as, say, cracking open a beer and feasting on fried chicken. But Griffey’s indifference to a sport he once personified with his glad-to-be-alive-and-doing-what-I-love smile was heartbreaking evidence the end was near.
Hearts break, and hearts heal. For 11 seasons, Mariners fans had the privilege of watching a fabulous talent in his prime. And though he returned well past that prime, a final thought prevails:
There was greatness in the midst.
Past his prime and a free agent following the 2008 season, Griffey opted to return to Seattle. He played one more full season with the Mariners, reigniting the magic with the fan base that idolized him. He retired midway through the 2010 season.