Inside Griffey's choice: Why the slugger picked Seattle over Atlanta
Griffey's Orlando home is just an hour flight away from Atlanta
Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Griffey's daughter all pushed for Seattle
Seattle GM: "[Griffey's] the greatest athlete that's ever played in the Northwest"
Drive 22 miles beyond Orlando, well past Walt Disney World and through a snarl of unlit dirt roads, and you begin to understand why the Atlanta Braves thought they had the inside track on a Hall of Famer.
Ken Griffey Jr.'s home in Windermere, Fla., is a sprawling, recently constructed mansion, but what's most impressive about all the space is how it's utilized. Every conceivable whim seems accounted for: there's the lounge, lined with wall-hung flat-screens, where Griffey regularly plays XBox 360 with his three kids; the dirt bike gifted to him by motocross legend Ricky Carmichael; the outdoor basketball court, not far from two lakes; the bowling alley in the basement; and, of course, the garage -- complete with a Pepsi vending machine sporting a younger image of himself -- which doubles as the go-kart hangar where the outfielder becomes "the pit boss," holding forth on sprockets and sparkplugs with his 15-year-old son, Trey.
"I've got a nice little set-up," Griffey said one night in December, as he gave this reporter the grand tour. "My family has a term for all of it: 'Griffey Forced Family Fun.' "
But now -- in the twilight of his career, no less -- all that fun has suddenly been put on hold. On Wednesday night, Griffey returned the call of an old friend, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, to officially accept a one-year, $2 million deal with Seattle, choosing the Mariners over the nearby Braves. (The contract could be worth up to $4.5 million with incentives.) The 39-year-old flies out to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., today.
"It had been a really gut-wrenching 48 hours," said Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, of the final decision.
The Mariners had made their offer the previous Wednesday, and Atlanta quickly followed with their own one-year, $2 million deal (with a possible $1 million in incentives) the next day.
That week, Griffey would actually choose to visit each franchise's top brass in person, which made the conveniences of being a Brave especially clear. For a guy whose greatest current thrill might be taking his family go-kart racing in Tallahassee, it was only 20 minutes by car to meet GM Frank Wren at spring training in nearby Lake Buena Vista. Griffey knew that flights from home in Orlando to Atlanta would only take an hour. And on top of all this, his 13-year-old daughter, Taryn, is the star point guard of an AAU team whose weekend games are in the Atlanta area, and Griffey calculated that he'd be able to make five of her eight games this season. (How good is Taryn? Her father alleges that she recently beat Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in a game of "Around the World" at their house.)
Five AAU games may not sound like much, of course. But Griffey also happens to be the type of dad who hires two friends to attend every single one of his kids' games -- no matter the sport -- so they can tape every play from two separate angles, allowing him to watch and re-watch the reels via a private website. (From memory, Griffey precisely narrated those videos as I looked on.) He is also a son whose own father, former Big Red Machine cog Ken Sr., now lives just up the road in Windermere by design. (Senior is currently taking cooking classes at the Orlando Culinary Academy on top of working as a Reds scout, and isn't above handing a teacher a baseball signed by Junior.)
But as reports slowly filtered out that Griffey would be doing the Tomahawk Chop with old pal Chipper Jones, it was Taryn, ironically, along with two other trusted advisors -- one a former Brave -- who pushed the Mariners just over the top. Taryn, Goldberg says, told her dad, "We're still going to have you for 50 more years after you're done playing baseball," so he should try to be remembered as the great player he was in Seattle. Hank Aaron called and openly wanted him to be a Brave, but he and Willie Mays, those two untainted, living home run kings, both advised Griffey to carefully consider his baseball legacy.
Moving west -- 3,124 miles away from home, to be precise, to the furthest possible part of the contiguous United States -- thus made sense. Too much sense. "When the family weighed the pros and cons," says Goldberg, "the answer became clear."
Now, some perspective. Griffey, to be sure, is a generation removed from that spry, 19-year-old rookie who happened to meet his future wife, Melissa, one night at a Seattle under-21 club called The Oz. Even at full strength, he is no longer the player he was from 1996 to '99, when he hit 209 homers. And with specks of white sprinkled in his beard, no team expects him to resemble the majestic centerfielder who won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from '90 to '99 -- all 10 of which now majestically collect dust in an uninhabited, still undecorated office on the first floor of his home. In fact, after enduring a down year (.249 BA, 18 HRs, 101 OPS+) amid a nagging left knee injury last season, Griffey had actually reached out to the Mariners earlier in the offseason, only to be rebuffed, told that nothing could be promised so soon.
As the hot stove eventually simmered down, however, one truth did become obvious: Griffey's presence, whether at DH or in a left field platoon with Endy Chavez, could invigorate a city that's desperately in need of new life. Seattle fans not only endured 101 losses last year, but -- oh yeah -- literally lost their entire pro basketball team to Oklahoma City. And still, after all these years, they wistfully looked upon the version of Junior Griffey that smiles from his basement Pepsi machine like investors reflecting on the dot-com boom.
In a purely civic sense, then, certain hyperbole is quite justified. General manager Jack Zduriencik happily proposes that Griffey is "the greatest athlete that's ever played in the Northwest" -- and he's right. The Seattle Times says that the former MVP's return elicits "adrenaline-filled, forehead-slapping, giggle-inducing reactions." Make no mistake, either: he can still hit homers, but so much nostalgia is explicitly incorporated into the terms of Griffey's contract, where his incentives are tied not only to healthy plate appearances but cumulative stadium attendance at Safeco Field.
And yet the biggest psychic benefit of all does not even accrue to the state of Washington, but arguably to the institution of baseball at large. By turning back the clock -- visually, if not physically -- Griffey's legacy is already being reaffirmed at this apex of steroid cynicism. Having taken advice from Mays and Aaron, this is Ken Griffey Jr. officially walking in the door as a headline-stealing reminder: Here, if you happened to forget, is the image of a great, natural slugger.
Even if he's 3,124 miles from his Florida funhouse, few homecomings are so overdue.
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