Here’s what happened when a reporter asked Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik how long the team would keep playing Ken Griffey Jr.: “Zduriencik gave a long pause before answering.”
Oh dear. Questions you don’t want to hear someone take a long pause before answering:
- “Do you still love me?”
- “Why didn’t Pickles come back from the vet?”
- “That greenish discharge isn’t anything to worry about, right?”
- …and, for me at least, “How long will Ken Griffey Jr. keep playing for the Mariners?”
Though he’s off to a terrible start, Ken Griffey Jr. remains a touchstone of Mariner fan love. That is to say, my love. On Friday night at Safeco Field, Griffey led off in the 10th inning of a scoreless game. A home run there wins it. And, despite ample evidence that 2010 Griffey is no more likely to hit a home run than he is to chase Usain Bolt down from behind, we Mariner fans gave Junior a standing ovation–and stayed standing throughout the at bat. Why? Complete irrationality, motivated purely by the insane hope that slumping Griffey could provide just one more magical moment.
To Jeff Sullivan of the Mariner blog Lookout Landing, this outpouring of misplaced hope is “sad.” I happen to think it’s beautiful. I suppose it’s both. Read “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke. If you’re practical, it’s the embarrassingly maudlin ruminations of a boy who’d die in a pointless war. To a romantic…well, back to the game.
Griffey didn’t hit a home run. He didn’t even try. Sacrificing his chance at glory for the sake of the team, he squibbed a grounder to slow grounder to shortstop that the Rangers, aligned in a rightfield-heavy shift, could not defend. The winning run was on base, yes. But also, one of baseball’s greatest home run hitters had…basically, bunted. What’s worse than Mighty Casey striking out? Mighty Casey giving up.
In The Stuff of Thought, linguist Steven Pinker suggests an interesting thought experiment to explore the meaning of words. “Paul McCartney,” he points out, denotes the singer, composer, and musician. But if Jim and Mary McCartney had named their eldest son “Ian,” the word “Paul McCartney” would have no meaning at all.
“Ken Griffey Jr.” used to mean one of the most talented players in baseball. Now it means “Jose Vidro.”
Griffey hasn’t homered this season, and has just one extra base hit in 63 plate appearances. He and Mike Sweeney have turned the Mariners’ DH position into one of the worst-performing batting slots in baseball–as reader Jon Peterson pointed out to me today over Twitter, there are 12 National League pitching staffs with as many extra-base hits than the M’s DHs. That, my friends, is ugly.
If I were running the Mariners, Griffey would play every single day, and I wouldn’t take him out of the lineup until he asked. Of course, if I were running the Mariners, all fans would be required to score the game, the between-innings entertainment would be my favorite clips from “The Rockford Files,” and instead of playing the National Anthem before every game, I would stand at home plate and sing “I Swear” by All-4-One.
Jack Zduriencik is a far more rational man, and he knows he’ll soon be facing a wrenching decision. The Mariners play Tampa Bay tonight. If Griffey is in the lineup, as he likely will with the Rays starting righty James Shields, it’ll be the start of what’s likely a fortnight campaign to save his starting job.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, 20-year-old Jason Heyward, who was a fetus when Griffey made his major league debut, is having one of the most explosive starts in major league history. Drawing comparisons to Griffey, in fact. Those lucky Atlanta fans are loving watching the birth of a new star. Here in Seattle, we’re on the other end of the circle of life.