Commentary

Everything still fits for Junior in Seattle

Griffey brings old memories and new hope in return to Seattle

Originally Published: April 14, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Ken Griffey Jr. came home Tuesday a decade older, a decade wiser and, like most of us, many pounds heavier. No matter. His return left Seattle fans feeling so young again they probably stopped for Clearasil on their way home from the game.

In his first game as a Mariner in Seattle since Microsoft stock traded at $100 a share (those were the days), Junior singled, walked, grounded out, struck out and tied his own club record for most smiles produced. The sellout crowd cheered him loud and long when he took the field during pregame introductions, cheered him loud and long when he batted for the first time and probably would have cheered him loud and long had it seen him use the bathroom.

Way to go, man!!!

And it wasn't just the fans.

"When Griffey walked out there, I wanted to clap,'' first-year Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "We've been thinking about that moment since spring training and how the crowd would go crazy, and they didn't disappoint.''

[+] EnlargeMariners Fans
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenMariners fans forgot they were ever angry with Ken Griffey Jr. and welcomed him back with open arms Tuesday.

Wakamatsu might have felt like cheering, but Mariners rookie Matt Tuiasosopo was cheering. "Big time. That guy means so much to the organization and this city," Tuiasosopo said.

Griffey pretty much had saved baseball in Seattle, but the city's feelings toward him were much different when he left before the 2000 season. After embracing him for 11 seasons, fans felt rejected by his trade request and resented him for several years. But as the years passed and Griffey endured a seemingly endless series of injuries in Cincinnati, the ill feelings left and the good memories returned. Griffey said he was extremely nervous when he returned to the city for the first time with the Reds two seasons ago -- "I took some shots when I left'' -- but wound up overwhelmed by the outpouring of love. He was much calmer for this homecoming. "Knowing what to expect is a lot easier," he said.

"The first thought is not to trip on the red carpet,'' he said of the pregame introductions. "I got a compliment from my son on my big league trot. Once the first pitch was thrown, I was pretty much ready to go.''

Griffey said he had no special feelings pulling on his jersey before the game because he already had been in a Mariners jersey for the first six road games.

"It was the same jersey I've had on for a week. This was just a lighter shade of gray,'' he said. "No different. I didn't have any chill-bumps -- well, yes, but only from being cold. This was just a white jersey. Same jersey as 1999. Just one size up.''

Or maybe more than one size up, which would not be different from most fans. Griffey was gone long enough that all those old replica jerseys have faded or no longer fit, forcing fans to buy new ones or improvise. One fan showed up three and a half hours before game time with "Griffey'' and "24'' written in masking tape on the back of a Mariners jersey.

When Griffey walked out there, I wanted to clap. We've been thinking about that moment since spring training and how the crowd would go crazy, and they didn't disappoint.

-- Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu

"You don't get to see moments like that all the time,'' former Mariners teammate and current MLB broadcaster Harold Reynolds said. "I've been real fortunate. I get to do the Yankees home opener Thursday and Derek Jeter will get this big ovation, but it's still not going to be anything like Junior coming back to Seattle. It's been 10 years. How many guys can really be productive for 10 years, be gone for 10 years and then come back and still be expected to be productive?''

Fans don't expect Griffey to be the Junior of old but will be quite pleased if he can stay healthy and provide some power from the left side. He was the designated hitter for Tuesday's home opener because of reported back pain and is batting.167 with one home run and one RBI. Thanks to seven walks, though, he has a .400 on-base percentage.

More importantly, the Mariners, who lost 101 games with a $117 million payroll last season, are a surprising 6-2 after this season's first week. They swept the Athletics in Oakland over the weekend, then beat the Angels 3-2 in 10 innings Tuesday on Yuniesky Betancourt's bunt and Scot Shields' subsequent throwing error. They are off to such a good start that not only did Jarrod Washburn throw eight scoreless innings last week, but Carlos Silva actually had a quality start Tuesday.

"They're clamoring to have better years than last year,'' Wakamatsu said of the players.

This spring has been exceptionally cold in Seattle, and Tuesday was no exception. When a reporter mentioned Atlanta would have been warmer had he signed there instead, Griffey replied, "We could be there in October.''

Well, stranger things have happened, such as the Rays going to the World Series. Or an entire city suddenly feeling a decade younger and wondering whether those flannel grunge shirts hanging in the closet might still fit after all these years.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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