John McGrath

John McGrath: Griffey comes through for the Mariners again

Former Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. headlines the State of Washington Hall of Fame's Class of 2018.
Former Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. headlines the State of Washington Hall of Fame's Class of 2018. The Associated Press, file

If the Mariners use their recently concluded homestand as the springboard to a playoff berth, the team’s MVP will be the Hall of Famer who retired six years ago.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Before Griffey showed up in Seattle last weekend, the Mariners were in a ballroom dance mode: two steps forward, two steps backward, expending energy and more or less having fun, but going nowhere. Through four months, their longest winning streak was four games.

Boston’s annual visit to Seattle underscored the blahs of a season absent energy, much less passion. Safeco Field served as Fenway Park West, a place that gave fans a chance to show their affection for the most ancient of ex-Mariners, David Ortiz.

The “home” team won a couple and lost a couple, and it was no big deal because the Seahawks had opened training camp. Fall was in the air.

Chatting with reporters last Friday afternoon, Mariners manager Scott Servais mentioned that he’d stopped by to check in on the Seahawks, who employ his daughter as an intern. Servais, like everybody else in the Seattle area, is mad about football, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up on baseball.

“We haven’t had that streak yet,” he pointed out. “It seems like every team has that streak at some point in the season where they win six or eight in a row. I’ve always said it’s the starting pitching that usually gives you a chance and our starters have, so we got to pick it up offensively.

“I still think we’ve got one of those streaks in us.”

Since Servais offered his prescient observation, the Mariners have put together the six-game winning streak that has revived their hopes for an AL wild-card berth.

What happened?

Ken Griffey Jr. happened.

Fans arrived as early as 8 a.m. last Friday to ensure themselves the Griffey bobblehead that would be given away before the Mariners game against the Angels. Players are accustomed to the methodical pace of a season with 81 home dates. They understand why it’s necessary to regard each game as no more important than the last one, or the next one.

But there’s something electric about a long line forming in the morning for a night game. There’s something electric about the noise a full-house crowd makes when everybody is cheering in unison.

When a red carpet was rolled out for Griffey on Friday — he waved to the crowd, saving the speech for the jersey-retirement celebration on Saturday — the Mariners were trailing the Angels, 3-0, going into the bottom of the first inning. They went into the top of the second with a 6-3 lead.

Connect the dots.

An even more stirring comeback scenario was posed to the Mariners on Saturday, when Shawn O’Malley hit the three-run, seventh-inning homer that he, and we, forever will remember as a storybook conclusion of an enchanted evening.

Said O’Malley, a Richland native who grew up rooting for the Mariners: “It seemed like a Griffey kind of night.”

Major league organizations are divided into two components, operations and marketing. Operations entail the baseball stuff — scouting, drafting, cultivating talent in the farm system, overseeing the ever-changing assemblage of a 25-man roster — and it’s the marketing department’s job to enhance the experience of watching players acquired by the general manager in charge of the operations side.

While I am encouraged by the work Jerry Dipoto has done since replacing Jack Zduriencik as GM last October, it’s too early for a comprehensive report card. As for a Mariners marketing department overseen by Kevin Martinez, its reputation is sealed as the best in the business.

Not merely the best in baseball, the best in pro sports, and the retirement of Griffey’s No. 24 exemplified why.

Instead of a one-day celebration, the Mariners turned it into a weekend, the bobblehead and throwback jersey giveaways sandwiching the main event on Saturday. And, oh, what an event: Baseball Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Tony Perez in person to represent No. 24, and Pro Football Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Cortez Kennedy in person to represent the Seahawks, and Gary Payton in person to represent the Sonics.

Rarely does a marketing promotion translate into something as tangible as a six-game winning streak, but in this case, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Thanks to Griffey and the buzz his presence generated, the 2016 Mariners realized they belong to a baseball franchise tethered to baseball history.

After the Wednesday night victory over the Tigers extended the Mariners’ winning streak to six, Servais acknowledged that the Griffey celebration “energized our ballclub. It energized the feeling around the organization and, really, in the city. It’s up to us to continue it on.”

Griffey is not the lone reason for the Mariners’ reawakening. Replacing closer Steve Cishek with rookie Edwin Diaz means ninth-inning leads are protected with pumped fists instead of crossed fingers. Meanwhile, catcher Mike Zunino, a framework master, is affording pitchers the occasional but very crucial called-strike call they weren’t getting with Chris Ianetta.

But if there’s no jersey-retirement celebration for No. 24, there’s no six-game winning streak. And if there’s no six-game winning streak, we’re talking football right now.

Of all of the crazy accomplishments associated with Ken Griffey Jr., the craziest might be his emergence as an MVP candidate, six years after retiring.

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