Junior overstays welcome (but not by much)

Well, this is about as graceful as it could be:

    "While I feel I am still able to make a contribution on the field and nobody in the Mariners front office has asked me to retire, I told the Mariners when I met with them prior to the 2009 season and was invited back that I will never allow myself to become a distraction," Griffey said in a statement.

    "I feel that without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my teammates and their success as a team is what the ultimate goal should be," he said.

This now seems inevitable.

Oh, not Junior's performance this season. Last season he wasn't good, but he did hit 19 homers in 117 games; there was no way to guess that he would play in 33 games this season without hitting a single home run. (Even Babe Ruth, in his abbreviated last season, hit six homers in 28 games.)

No, what now seems inevitable is Griffey's mid-season retirement. Maybe he could have survived Clubhouse Nap Affair. Maybe he could have survived the Mariners' terribly disappointing record. Maybe he could have survived his own awful performance. But he couldn't survive the ultimate impact of all those things: getting benched.

On the 20th of May, Griffey came up as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth inning and delivered the game-winning hit. Three days later, he started against the Padres and went hitless in three at-bats. Since then he's played just once, pinch-hitting against the Twins on the 31st. With Milton Bradley and prospect Michael Saunders on the roster, there simply wasn't room in the lineup for Griffey. Management couldn't (or didn't want to) simply release Griffey, but someone must have figured that if they benched him, he wouldn't stick around for long.

So maybe this was the best ending available to everyone, once the M's (foolishly) decided last winter to bring Junior back this season, only to discover that he didn't have anything left in the tank.

In the end, though, Griffey probably has established himself as the Seattle Mariner. For a long time, it was Alvin Davis; they still call him "Mr. Mariner" in those parts. And then it might have been Edgar Martinez forever, if Ken Griffey, Jr. hadn't returned to Seattle, all the hard feelings from 10 years earlier having vanished. As a result, there's nobody in Seattle who wants to read what I'm going to write next ...

He was a great player. No question about that. But for many years, he wasn't quite the player people thought he was, or was supposed to be. In retrospect, did Griffey really deserve his spot on the All-Century Team? Did he really deserve to win 10 Gold Glove Awards? Did he really save baseball in Seattle? Tomorrow, it will be said that Griffey was the best player of his era who didn't use steroids. Was he really, though?

Actually, he might have been. Only three of Griffey's contemporaries are credited with more Wins Above Replacement: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Jeff Bagwell ... and Bagwell's just slightly ahead of Griffey, well within the margins of measurement error.

Griffey's reign as baseball's greatest player didn't last long, and he didn't hit 800 home runs. But he played in the same outfield with his father, he symbolized baseball in Seattle for a decade, and even while struggling with a long list of injuries during the second half of his career, he built a brilliant career that will land him in Cooperstown the moment he's eligible.

Maybe he wasn't as good as he could have been. But he was better than almost everyone else.