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Originally published March 22, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified March 23, 2010 at 7:38 PM

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Larry Stone

Jokes aside, Ken Griffey Jr. knows he must produce for Mariners

At age 40, Ken Griffey Jr. knows the jokes are nice, but this team needs him to produce, too. He's fully aware that there are some doubters, a vocal contingent that wonders if his presence now is about P.R. more than performance.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — Ken Griffey Jr. is still the pulse of the Mariners' clubhouse, his voice invariably ringing above the rest, the laughter — his own, and those in his sphere, i.e. everyone — a constant soundtrack.

No one has more fun playing baseball, one reason he hopped off his teammates' shoulders last October and decided, without much prompting, to come back for one more go-round.

Yet Griffey is wise enough, at age 40, in his 23rd spring camp, to understand that it's about more than practical jokes. He knows that this team needs him to be more than a clubhouse facilitator and cutup, as critical as that role proved to be last year and will be again in 2010.

Griffey knows that the bluster is nice, but this team needs him to produce, too. He's fully aware that there are doubters, a vocal contingent that wonders if his presence now is about P.R. more than performance.

"Who cares? They're not in this clubhouse, not part of this organization," he said of the cynics. "I don't worry about those types of things. I worry about the 24 other guys in this clubhouse and the coaching staff. People are going to have their own opinions. I have a few opinions about them, too."

On Monday, Griffey went 0 for 4 in Seattle's 7-2 loss to Oakland, dropping his spring average to .150 with just one extra-base hit (a double). But he says his spring plan this year has been about watching pitches and gauging pitchers, not about accumulating hits.

"That's how you get ready," he said. "Now, when I was younger, it was, 'I've got to get three or four hits.' Now it's taking pitches, getting in a rhythm, seeing what he's got, so you're not surprised when you go out (in the regular season). You try to get most of your work in the last 10 days."

That homestretch is about to begin. Griffey will also begin to tone down the joking and horseplay.

"When the bell rings, it's a different story," he said. "It's a little more serious. You can still have fun ... before you step onto the field. And then after you win, you can stir it up again. But that four-hour, five-hour period, you have to do some work."

Griffey again seems destined to get considerable time as the Mariners' designated hitter against right-handed pitching after hitting just .214 last year, with 19 homers and 57 runs batted in.

Asked what sort of playing time he expects, Griffey said, "It's a matter of what we need. I think that's the most important thing. I'm going to get my at-bats, I know that. I have to do what I'm supposed to do. There's going to be some days he's going to rest me, just because I'm 40."

Ah, the age question. For so long, during his extended run as one of the game's pre-eminent players, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Griffey could impose his will on a team. But that was before the ravages of injury, and the natural decline that comes with advancing years.

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"I still can (play at a peak level)," he said. "I just might not be able to do it six days in a row. That's the difference. You can still do things. You just can't do them every day. At 25, you bounced back day in and day out. At 40, it may take you a day and half. But there's a lot of things at 25 I didn't know, that I do at 40. It's a give and take. You just have to be a little smarter and understand things."

Griffey is encouraged that his surgically repaired left knee will allow him more mobility. He still loves the game, still believes he can produce. That's why the decision to return was not a particularly difficult one, though the joyous scene at last year's Safeco season finale had the feel of a valedictory.

"You have one shot at a career," he said with a shrug. "I was fortunate enough to come back to Seattle and play, and I was fortunate enough for them to ask me to come back. They wanted me to come back because they felt I had something to offer. People may not understand, because all they do is look at numbers. They don't look at everything that goes on, on a day-in, day-out basis, in terms of being a team player."

That obviously includes his role in the clubhouse, which last year he helped make a comfortable place for Ichiro. This year, a goal is to do the same for Milton Bradley.

"He's one of my teammates," Griffey said of Bradley. "I want him to have just as much fun as everybody else. He had a rough go last year. That's over with. My opinion of him is the relationship we have together. Not what somebody else said. Because I don't care about that."

Bradley has already given glimpses of his potential volatility by getting ejected from two games last week.

"He's a competitor," Griffey said. "You can't take that away from somebody. You can't take the desire he has away from his game. There's going to be good days, bad days, but for the most part, he's going to have more good days than bad. He just has to go out there and trust there's going to be 24 guys behind him. I don't think he's ever had that."

It's a team Griffey believes has a chance to finally get him to the promised land — his first World Series appearance, which would be a perfect capper to his career.

"With the moves we made, we have a good club," he said. "Pitching-wise, we have the best one-two combo in baseball. We have the best one-two punch on the top of the order. It's just a matter of everyone else doing the little things to keep us in ballgames."

In the meantime, the Mariners want Griffey to keep making the clubhouse a fun place and knock a few out of the ballpark in the process.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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