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Originally published Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 11:14 PM

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Steve Kelley

Savoring Griffey — but ready to say goodbye

As the baseball season enters its last month, Times staff columnist Steve Kelley salutes Ken Griffey Jr. for providing the leadership that a rebuilding franchise has needed. But, Kelley says, it's time for Junior to go.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Ken Griffey Jr. has done everything he could for the 2009 Mariners since he signed in March.

He has been the godfather to the parade of young players who have come into the clubhouse. He has been a close friend to the veterans. He has offered advice on pitchers' and hitters' tendencies.

He's been the class clown and the judge of the kangaroo court.

He has been a buffer for Ichiro, making sure the Mariners' outfielder has been included, not excluded, from clubhouse banter as he was in recent seasons. He has made the game fun again for fans who were dragged through last season.

He has been good for the club, good for the city and great to have around again.

And, every so often this season, he still has provided some turn-back-the-clock Junior moments that felt like 1995 all over again.

"This has been everything I could have asked for and then some," Griffey said of the season, talking quietly after batting practice, before Monday's game against the Los Angeles Angels. "It's been unbelievable here. I couldn't have asked for anything better."

In a sometimes-funny, sometimes-serious conversation, Griffey seemed genuinely uncertain about his future. He obviously enjoys the life of a ballplayer, and it will hurt him when he leaves.

But, as this season enters its last month, it feels as if it's time for him to go. He has provided the leadership and the thrills and an identity for a team that fans couldn't find with a GPS system last season. He has done what this rebuilding franchise needed him to do.

"I'll decide about next year at the end of the year," Griffey said. "At the end of the year, I'll figure out what's going on. I'm not worried about that right now."

His durability has been his problem this season. Griffey hasn't been able to stay in the lineup. He can't play the outfield anymore. Often he has been reduced to pinch-hitting.

Griffey, who will be 40 at the start of next season, hasn't gotten the 500-plus at-bats that were hoped for when he signed. Entering Tuesday night's game he was hitting .221, with 14 home runs and 43 runs batted in, in 373 plate appearances.

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Who knows how many at-bats he will get in September, but this month, Seattle baseball fans should cheer every one of them. They should celebrate Griffey's career and enjoy these fading, final Hall of Fame days.

"He's a special guy," outfielder Ryan Langerhans said.

Unashamedly, I admit I've been a fan since Griffey came to Seattle in 1989. I thought, with his knee surgically repaired in the offseason, he could hit 25 to 30 home runs and drive in 80 runs this season.

That knee, however, didn't give him the chance, and his contribution to the Mariners' comeback season will be measured more in abstracts than numbers.

"What he's done has gone way beyond X's and O's, batting stats and other things like that," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "It's putting a stamp on this team. He gave to this community another year of his life. He's brought to the table credibility.

"When he walks into that locker room, younger players, who want to know how to be a professional, have watched him this year and they've learned from him. It's been a nice marriage. Whether he comes back next year, I don't know. But certainly toward the end of his career, I think this has been a very good thing for him. He's loved and he's had an impact. I admire what he's done."

Since opening day in April, when he hit a home run in Minnesota, Griffey has been the happiest player in the clubhouse. Despite his disappointing numbers and problematic knee, this season has been fun for him.

"The hardest part about coming back was getting the mindset, not knowing how things were going to happen," he said. "But it's been nothing but awesome."

These could be precious days in Seattle's baseball history. Griffey's final games. A last chance to honor a career.

"He's been the heartbeat of this team," teammate Mike Sweeney said. "He's been instrumental in the turnaround, on the field and off the field. His presence in this locker room is more valuable than any price tag you can put on him.

"Whether this is his last month, or if he plays until 2015, he's a valuable piece of the Seattle Mariners. I was excited to play with him this year because I've always admired him from afar. But rather than be this almost-fictitious superstar that I'd envisioned in my head, he became a friend."

I wish Junior, like every great athlete, could run forever. I wish he still could be in the outfield on perpetual patrol.

But it's time to go.

So for this month, we should savor every last at bat, every interview, every moment with Griffey as a Mariner. The month will quickly pass.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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