Junior Sleeping Just Doesn’t Feel Right
By Mike Salk
It took me some time to compose my thoughts on Larry LaRue’s Ken Griffey Junior story from Monday. It’s a difficult story to comment on because a) Junior is a legend; b) he has napped in the clubhouse before; c) we don’t know how upset his manager, coaches and teammates were; and, d) the team is out of town so I don’t have an opportunity to really ask anyone about it (including Junior).
But with that in mind, I posted this last night in a series of Tweets :
I know Junior has slept in the clubhouse before and maybe people are ok with it. And maybe I’ve been ok with it. But it just doesn’t feel right. If it felt right,it wouldn’t have caused an uproar and made national news.
And when I woke up this morning, I felt the same way. This just doesn’t feel right. Not to me. Not to some of the other writers and columnists who cover the team (including Larry Stone, Jerry Brewer, Dave Boling, and Kirby Arnold). And not to many of you. I might even say most of you, at least based on the ones who took the time to call, email, text or Tweet. In fact, 70% of you voted to either reduce his role (51%) or release him (19%) on our poll on Monday.
I took some flak last year for suggesting that the team would be better off playing Junior less and reducing his role to pinch-hitting. And through that I learned that this town has an incredible (if bordering on unhealthy) love for the player that brought them national relevancy, saved local baseball, and delivered countless moments of joy. In the past year, I’ve gotten to know Junior himself and found that he is an incredible source of knowledge on baseball history, strategy, and opinion. He’s taught me about some of the first black major leaguers (aside from Jackie Robinson), tried to convince me he doesn’t notice the shift (and that it does more harm than good), and argued with me about the value of UZR.
And I’m sure if I had the opportunity to talk to him about this issue, he would present a compelling argument as to why this is not a big deal. I’m even reasonably sure he could convince me that this whole napping story was blown way out of proportion. He can be very convincing.
But the fact is, it doesn’t sit well with me. And as many of you have pointed out, that may be because the team isn’t winning and Junior isn’t hitting. We all had that friend who didn’t have to work hard to get good grades and it was fine that that person would blow off their homework or write their paper at the last minute as long as they kept getting A’s. But, if that same person started bringing home C’s and D’s, don’t the funny anecdotes of partying the night before a test lose their humor?
I’m not suggesting that Junior isn’t taking this game seriously or that he isn’t trying. I’m only trying to point out that stories about him cat-napping during games are a lot more benign when the punchline is a walkoff home run rather than a .208 average and an OPS below .500, not to mention a team that lost eight straight games at home.
Baseball clubhouses are unique places. Guys make fun of each other, respect each other, and sometimes don’t like each other. But they are bonded by their common experience as a member of an elite club. The players know when it’s ok for someone to have their own rules and when it isn’t. They understand the difference between allowing a legend some perks and when that goes too far. The fact that LaRue got the quotes he did makes me wonder if that line has been crossed.
As far as I know, Junior was brought back to Seattle for three things: to hit, to be a leader, and to make the fans happy.
For the most part, he has not hit since he’s been here, at least not like a top-tier designated hitter. And this year, his numbers have been awful.
He played a pivotal role in creating the incredible dynamic in the clubhouse last season and helping get this franchise turned around. But we had hoped this season that he could help manage Milton Bradley’s fragile personality. That hasn’t happened. And while leaders come in many forms, they typically aren’t asleep when their team needs them to hit. This team may need a different kind of leadership to take them to the next level.
And while fans have been happy to see Junior at Safeco, it has not translated into skyrocketing attendance figures. Already this year, we’ve seen four of the five lowest attended games in the park’s history. Yes, the bobblehead nights have been successful, but where is the midweek draw just to see Junior? Couldn’t the bobblehead nights go on without him?
So what now?
LaRue suggests that the team will ask Junior to retire. And that if he doesn’t acquiesce, it will release him. I find that hard to believe but my gut tells me that LaRue has that information from a good source. So, the best way out for everyone is for Junior to decide on his own that he’s done playing. But can he do that immediately after this napping story? It would be as if he was admitting that he had done something wrong, and that doesn’t seem like the way a proud man would go out. Hence, you get LaRue’s “within the month” timeline. I would guess Junior plays less and less this month, and eventually retires by June 1. Just a guess.
Last year, you rushed to the defense of your hero when I suggested the team should limit his role. And that makes sense. This year, the cry seems more organic, more of a grassroots idea. Mariners fans seem to know they have a team that could contend this year and if their favorite player is preventing that, they want a change. Now we’ll just wait to see if and how that change occurs.