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Originally published June 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 28, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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Griffey returns to Seattle

The stance remains virtually unchanged, a tableau that any Mariners fan of a certain age can visualize in their sleep. Left elbow cocked high...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fun facts


• George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was born on Nov. 21, 1969, in Donora, Pa. He shares the birthplace and birth date — 49 years apart — of Hall of Famer Stan Musial. (Griffey also shares the birth date with Bjork, but she was born in Iceland, and isn't much of a baseball player).

• Griffey, No. 24 with the Mariners, wears uniform No. 3 for his three kids — sons Trey (13) and Tevin (5) and daughter Taryn (11).

• In 1996, Nike sponsored a "Griffey for President" campaign. Of course, he was too young to actually run, and save us from that whole Monica Lewinsky train wreck.

• Griffey appeared on TV episodes of "Arli$$," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "The Simpsons." In the 1992 Simpsons episode "Homer at the Bat," Griffey's head swells as he suffers from "Gigantism" after drinking too much of Mr. Burns' brain and nerve tonic.

• More than 1 million Ken Griffey Jr. candy bars were sold after their debut in 1989 — despite the fact that Griffey is allergic to chocolate.

Bill Reader

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CINCINNATI — The stance remains virtually unchanged, a tableau that any Mariners fan of a certain age can visualize in their sleep.

Left elbow cocked high. Bat poised at a menacing angle, then waggling back and forth, hands tight against his body as the pitcher delivers.

And sometimes the result is nostalgic, as well, as was the case Saturday when Ken Griffey Jr., in the midst of another disintegrating Reds season, sent two balls soaring out of Great American Ballpark.

They were home runs No. 580 and 581, which is both a statement of Griffey's brilliant career, and a reminder of where he could be if a staggering array of injuries hadn't wiped out so many games over the years.

Perhaps racing Barry Bonds to 755.

"I would think so," Cubs manager Lou Piniella, witness to so many Griffey heroics, had observed a few days earlier at Wrigley Field. "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."

Fun facts


• George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was born on Nov. 21, 1969, in Donora, Pa. He shares the birthplace and birth date — 49 years apart — of Hall of Famer Stan Musial. (Griffey also shares the birth date with Bjork, but she was born in Iceland, and isn't much of a baseball player).

• Griffey, No. 24 with the Mariners, wears uniform No. 3 for his three kids — sons Trey (13) and Tevin (5) and daughter Taryn (11).

• In 1996, Nike sponsored a "Griffey for President" campaign. Of course, he was too young to actually run, and save us from that whole Monica Lewinsky train wreck.

• Griffey appeared on TV episodes of "Arli$$," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "The Simpsons." In the 1992 Simpsons episode "Homer at the Bat," Griffey's head swells as he suffers from "Gigantism" after drinking too much of Mr. Burns' brain and nerve tonic.

• More than 1 million Ken Griffey Jr. candy bars were sold after their debut in 1989 — despite the fact that Griffey is allergic to chocolate.

Bill Reader

Poignantly, Griffey's long-awaited return to Seattle on Friday with the Reds, a full 20 years after he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Mariners in 1987, will be a time to ponder all elements of the Junior legacy.

The eminence and elegance. The breakdowns and the burdens.

The word in Cincinnati is that Griffey is eagerly anticipating his appearance at Safeco Field, where he played half a season in 1999 before his shocking trade to the Reds the following February.

Griffey is bringing his wife, Melissa (who grew up in the area), and his three children (sons Trey, 13, and Tevin, 5; and daughter Taryn, 11). He is expected to address the crowd during a pregame presentation on Friday in which the Mariners will honor Griffey.

"I know how much he's looking forward to going back," said Reds outfielder Adam Dunn, a close friend who has assumed the old Jay Buhner role as confidant and playmate.

"No question he's excited. He played in Seattle for a majority of his career. He had his greatest years there. I would assume the people there still absolutely love him and appreciate what he did for the city."

Griffey has chosen to publicly downplay his return, not a surprising stance considering his long-standing aversion to being the center of media attention. After his two-homer game against Texas, he dressed quickly and left the clubhouse without talking to reporters.

Friends believe that Griffey might fear that if he shows too much enthusiasm about playing in Seattle, it might mar his sometimes tense relationship with Reds fans.

On Friday, Griffey reluctantly agreed to talk to a Seattle reporter, but his discomfort was palpable. Local reporters said he has been brushing off, with growing acrimony, the increasing questions about Seattle.

"Everybody is looking at it like I'm upset about the whole thing," Griffey said. "I look at it like I've got a job to do here now, and not eight, nine days from now. I have to take care of business here.

"It's like, if you keep looking in your rear-view mirror, you'll find yourself getting passed by all those people. I'll worry about it when I get there, but I can't do it now."

Those with less invested in the story are anticipating a royal welcome for Griffey in Seattle. Indeed, the vibe seems to be growing that Griffey's return will be marked by an outpouring of affection, rather than the antagonistic boo-fest that greeted Alex Rodriguez when he returned with the Rangers in 2001 (and ever after).

"He was the face of baseball, and that city, for so many years," said Dunn. "I would expect nothing but a presidential welcome for him."

"I would imagine it will be a frenzy," said Reds first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who attended high school in Yakima and played at Washington State. "I grew up there, and I know what he meant to the city."

John Strazzara, who owns World of Collections, Cards and Comics in Edmonds, said the buzz in his shop is overwhelmingly positive toward Griffey's return.

"It's going to be a giant lovefest," he said. "I know there will be tears in people's eyes. We want to let him know that without Griffey in the '90s, chances are we wouldn't have baseball in Seattle."

Piniella, who watched Griffey's emergence as the game's pre-eminent player, knows keenly what Griffey meant to the Mariners, and also expects him to receive a hero's welcome.

"Junior was the first superstar they had there," he said. "He was immensely popular then. Just because he's been in Cincinnati for six or seven years, his popularity shouldn't wane at all. He's a Mariner."

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong called Griffey "an icon here. As I said when I gave him a lifetime achievement award for Baseball America, in New York, they say Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth Built. In Seattle, Safeco Field is the House That Griffey Built."

Yet time may have obscured just what a phenomenon — both athletically and culturally — Griffey was in Seattle.

After breaking into the lineup as a teenager, he quickly emerged both as a monumental talent and joyful presence, with his magnetic smile and backwards hat signifying a love of the game that was infectious.

"In his prime, he was as good as has ever played the game," said Reds manager Jerry Narron. "It was a franchise that was on the bottom, or near the bottom, before he got there. He almost single-handedly took it to the top."

Yet suggest to Griffey that he made his name in Seattle, and he bristles.

"No. My name was made before I even played," he said. "Before I even stepped on the field, I had a name people knew. I may have helped, but the name was already made before I got there."

Perhaps, but Griffey's name soon became golden. He was featured on cereal boxes and video games. A Griffey chocolate bar sold millions. An upstart trading card company, Upper Deck, boldly chose to make Griffey's rookie card their initial offering in 1989, and it helped the company take off. Nike made him its baseball centerpiece and launched a national "Griffey for President" campaign in 1996.

"He was the 'it' guy, no question about it," said Tom Feuer, who was Nike's international public relations manager in the 1990s and now is an executive producer for FSN West/Prime Ticket in Los Angeles.

"You have to remember, after the baseball strike, there was an effort to make heroes again. This was at a time Nike was trying to push a cross-training line of shoes. Griffey was perfect for that. Not only was he a great player, but he had an incredible, infectious smile. He seemed like a really friendly guy, and that goes a long way."

Griffey's departure after the 1999 season — another in a long line of blockbusters, with 48 homers and 134 runs batted in, after back-to-back seasons of 56 homers — evolved from a meeting in Orlando, Fla., that included Griffey; his agent, Brian Goldberg; Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln; team president Chuck Armstrong; and newly hired general manager Pat Gillick.

Griffey reportedly turned down an eight-year, $140 million contract extension. The two sides emerged with a statement from Griffey that he was requesting a trade to be closer to his family in Orlando. After a sometimes stormy process, Gillick finally struck a deal with the Reds, getting Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer in return.

"It was a no-fault situation," Goldberg said. "The Mariners didn't do anything wrong, or not do something to convince him to stay. It was just what he felt he needed to do, given the fact that with one year left on his contract, he was unlikely to stay after the 2001 season.

"I'll go back to what I talked to Kenny about before he left: Either where you live has to change, and you stay with the Mariners, or you keep the same living geography, and the baseball location has to change.

"That's all it came down to. The only thing I get disappointed at is if people try to make the facts surrounding why he felt he needed to make a change of baseball location more than it really was. It was never more than a matter of geography at that point in his life."

Reflecting now on the turn of events, Griffey said, "It's real easy. As a man, I have to do what's best for my family. I don't care what people want and what people think.

"They look at the money thrown at you, and always think money is the most important thing. There's a whole lot of people with money that aren't happy. There's a whole lot of people who don't have money that are happy."

Is it possible to have both money and happiness? "It depends on the person," he replied.

Is Griffey, who signed a nine-year, $116.5 million contract upon his trade to the Reds, one of those people?

"I've always been happy," he replied, stone-faced.

Yet his tenure in Cincinnati has had its share of turmoil, mostly centered on Griffey's health. He has been on the disabled list 13 times in his career, eight of them with the Reds, for an anatomically diverse group of injuries — torn left hamstring, torn patellar tendon in his right knee, torn right hamstring, dislocated right shoulder, torn tendon in his right ankle, torn right hamstring (twice more) and strained right tendon in his right knee.

"I think it's very tough to call his time here a disappointment," said longtime Reds broadcaster Marty Brenneman. "Has it been what everyone thought it would be? Absolutely not. But I think it's more of a case of him not being able to stay healthy than anything else.

"There's no question in my mind — if he had a run since 2000 of being relatively injury-free, we would be talking about an awesome run."

This season has been a redemptive one for Griffey, despite starting off ominously with a broken wrist suffered in the winter while playing with his kids in the Bahamas.

He's also been stricken with both diverticulitis and pleurisy, and yet, with 18 homers and 43 RBI, has been highly productive for a team heading for 100 losses.

Griffey has also made an uncomplaining adjustment to moving to right field, which must not have been easy considering how much of his baseball identity revolved around playing center field.

"Do I have a choice?" he asked with a shrug. "I'm in right field, and that's the end of it."

But Josh Hamilton, who has assumed much of the Reds' time in center, said there's more to it than that.

"He's been awesome," Hamilton said. "He helps me out in the outfield. When the ball's hit to center, he's screaming, 'In!' or 'Back!' That helps me out tremendously. He could have gone the other way, not say anything when balls are hit, but he's not that kind of player, or that kind of person."

In many ways, Griffey is the same person he was when he left Seattle — in Dunn's words, "Like a 12-year-old kid. He just has so much fun. He enjoys life so much."

Yet he is 37 now, closing in on the end of his career, father of a teenager, and son of parents who are both battling cancer. The days when he was known as "The Kid" and "The Natural" are in the distant past.

"To me, he's still the same person, but things come at him that he has to deal with," said Goldberg.

Griffey still dotes on his family and bemoans his lack of privacy. And he still crushes a belt-high fastball.

"Nothing's pretty much changed other than my address," he said.

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

Year Team G AB R H HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG
1989 Mariners 127 455 61 120 16 61 16 .264 .329 .420
1990 Mariners 155 597 91 179 22 80 16 .300 .366 .481
1991 Mariners 154 548 76 179 22 100 18 .327 .399 .527
1992 Mariners 142 565 83 174 27 103 10 .308 .361 .535
1993 Mariners 156 582 113 180 45 109 17 .309 .408 .617
1994 Mariners 111 433 94 140 40 90 11 .323 .402 .674
1995 Mariners 72 260 52 67 17 42 4 .258 .379 .481
1996 Mariners 140 545 125 165 49 140 16 .303 .392 .628
1997 Mariners 157 608 125 185 56 147 15 .304 .382 .646
1998 Mariners 161 633 120 180 56 146 20 .284 .365 .611
1999 Mariners 160 606 123 173 48 134 24 .285 .384 .576
2000 Reds 145 520 100 141 40 118 6 .271 .387 .556
2001 Reds 111 364 57 104 22 65 2 .286 .365 .533
2002 Reds 70 197 17 52 8 23 1 .264 .358 .426
2003 Reds 53 166 34 41 13 26 1 .247 .370 .566
2004 Reds 83 300 49 76 20 60 1 .253 .351 .513
2005 Reds 128 491 85 148 35 92 0 .301 .369 .576
2006 Reds 109 428 62 108 27 72 0 .252 .316 .486
2007 Reds 64 223 38 64 18 43 2 .287 .387 .570
Totals 2,298 8,521 1,505 2,476 581 1,651 180 .291 .374 .557
Statistics are through Sunday's games.

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