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In this backward baseball era, when so many of the best players simply refuse to age, Griffey's steady decline may be more of a testament than an indictment. He has not been linked to steroids, not even in clubhouse gossip circles, and his body did what most unenhanced middle-aged bodies do—it became softer, slower and prone to breakdowns. "I think we know now," said the scout, "after everything we've seen, that Ken Griffey Jr. was clearly the best player of his era."
"I'm not a player who beats his own drum," Griffey says. "I put up O.K. numbers—not Bugs Bunny--style numbers like some other guys—but O.K. numbers. It doesn't bother me that I didn't get all the recognition. It really doesn't. I tried to keep things as honest as possible. People will either appreciate it over the years or they won't."
Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who says he had been plotting Griffey's homecoming since the All-Star left, paid him a visit in February at the National Pro-Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach. The two had dinner, during which Armstrong asked Griffey to come back, not because he would be a boon to the box office, but because the team needed a lefthanded power hitter in the middle of the lineup. Griffey was thinking seriously about signing with the Braves because they play closer to Orlando, but then he remembered Emmitt Smith going out with the Cowboys, Jerry Rice with the 49ers, albeit on ceremonial one-day deals. "The difference is, those guys didn't get to play," Griffey says. "I would have loved to see Emmitt get one more carry." A phone call from Willie Mays, brokered by Griffey's former Mariners teammate Harold Reynolds, helped close the deal. Mays had finished his career in New York with the Mets, hitting .211 in his last season, Exhibit A of a player who had hung on for too long. But Mays told Griffey that he was actually grateful for that opportunity because it allowed him to reconnect with the city that had embraced him first.
Like Mays, Griffey could be setting himself up for an ungraceful exit, but so far he is in the right place. At week's end the Mariners led the American League West, and though Griffey's batting average was .206, he had two home runs and an on-base percentage of .357. But Griffey is not here to work walks. When he homered in the second game at Safeco, against the Angels, he showed the crowd what it came to see—the facile, looping lefthanded swing, the casually dismissed bat, the middle-distance stare toward the rightfield seats.
He still provides comic relief, one part of his game that has not changed. Griffey stopped an interview this spring at the Mariners' complex in Peoria, Ariz., when he spotted outfielder Ichiro Suzuki fiddling with a brown bag that looked suspiciously like a man purse. "I know that is not your bag!" Griffey howled at Ichiro.
"Yes," said Ichiro, just back from the World Baseball Classic. "That is my bag."
Griffey shook his head in mock horror. "Oh, no," he said. "Now I guess I've got to take you shopping, too."
DURING THE final week of spring training, as Griffey stood in the on-deck circle during an exhibition game in Peoria, he was reminded just how his unique relationship with the city of Seattle began. Sitting in the crowd was George Argyros, who owned the Mariners in 1987, when they had the No. 1 pick in the draft and Griffey was coming out of Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati. Argyros lived in Newport Beach, Calif., and he wanted the Mariners to pick righthanded pitcher Mike Harkey from nearby Cal State--Fullerton. Bob Harrison, a senior Mariners scout, liked Griffey better than Harkey, but when he graded the two, he gave them both 70 points out of a possible 80. About three days before the draft Harrison heard that Argyros was on his way to the Mariners war room at the Kingdome, and he knew what would happen if Argyros saw the identical grades. "He would tell us to take Harkey," Harrison says. "So I added a couple of points to Griffey's score." When Argyros left the war room, he told Harrison, "You take whoever you want, but be damn sure you're right."
Without those couple of fudged points in '87, without that furious sprint in '95, there would likely be no Seattle Mariners, no Safeco Field, no Butherus child named Griffey due in July. Griffey is uncomfortable with all the adulation, but he savors the notion that people will come to Safeco this summer to see him and stick around to watch someone else, maybe the next incarnation of the Kid. Because in a year, two tops, Griffey will slip back to Florida for good and into his second career as a self-proclaimed "permanent vacationist." But for now he is still working nights, so Seattle can take one last trip back in time.