February 2009

Beltre in play-and-see mode

Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre says he wants to “play a couple of games” to see how he feels before he decides whether or not to play in the World Baseball Classic.

Beltre, listed on the Dominican Republic’s final roster, said he would decide before Sunday’s reporting date.

“I want to see how I feel after playing a couple of games,” he said this morning after walking into the Mariners clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex. The Mariners play the Padres in a charity game this afternoon, but the starting lineup has not been posted.

He most likely would play Thursday’s Cactus League opener against the Padres and/or the game against the Dodgers on Friday at Peoria Stadium.

— Jim Street

Fastballs to golf balls

Many of the Mariners exchanged their gloves and bats for golf clubs on Tuesday, facing their Spring Training partner Padres in their annual golf tournament.

Manager Don Wakamatsu, who hasn’t played much golf lately because of his day job, said he has shot in the 70s (not recently), but didn’t anticipate a low round on Tuesday and was seeking for some help.

“I’m looking for a ‘ringer’ to put on my team,” he said.

That could be Ken Griffey Jr. After all, he played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last weekend, shooting a nine-under over three rounds. His pro partner was Jason Bohn. They went even-par the first day, followed by five- and four-under rounds, but missed the cut.

“I am the best putter not on tour,” Griffey proudly proclaimed with a wide smile. “They call me “Liquid Drano.”.

Meanwhile, Wakamatsu said he has been pleasantly surprised with the physical condition Griffey’s in.

“Yesterday,  he went through all he drills and set the tempo,” the manager said. “That’s exciting to see.

“Today was kind of a big day to see how he responded from yesterday and everything seems good. You’ll see him in the DH spot before you see him in the outfield in Cactus League games.”

— Jim Street

Aumont Classic bound after all

The Mariners will have several players join their respective World Baseball Classic teams — including one large surprise.

I just talked to Phillippe Aumont, the organization’s prize right-handed pitcher, and he told me that he has decided to pitch for Team Canada after all and will join the team next Sunday in Florida.

“(Team Canada) wanted me to go as a starting pitcher and I said ‘I can’t do that,'” he said. “The  Mariners didn’t want me to go as a starter either. But after I got here (Peoria) and started throwing some bullpens, my arm felt really good. I decided to see if I could be on the team as a reliever.”

Aumont contacted his agent, who talked to Mariners and Team Canada officials, and everyone agreed to let the 20-year-old right-hander to pitch in the Classic — in relief.

Team Canada opens the 16-team tournament at Rogers Centre in Toronto — against Team USA.

— Jim Street

Some kind of birthday gift

Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu celebrated his 47th birthday on Sunday and received a unique “gift” from the team.

At end end of practice, the players gathered near the batting cage by veteran Mike Sweeney.

“You knew it was coming,” Wakamatsu said. “I didn’t know if it would be a pie in the face, or what. But that’s Sweeney.

“I couldn’t figure out why everybody was staying, especially the veteran guys,” Wakamatsu said. 

All of a sudden, Sweeney escorted Ken Griffey Jr., to the manager. Happy Birthday, indeed.

“They gave me my birthday present — our new hitter,” Wakamatsu said.

The group dispersed and Sweeney led a happy birthday rendition as players and spectators joined in the serenade.

— Jim Street

Junior is in the building

The Comeback Kid is in the house.

It is 11:40 a.m. here in Peoria and I just exchanged greetings with Ken Griffey Jr., who was in a nearly-empty Mariners clubhouse, standing in front of his locker, dressed in street clothes and, what else, swinging a bat.

He looks good. A little older, maybe, but the unmistakable Junior smile was there.

A large box of baseball shoes, compliments of Nike, were on top of the large trunk that took up much of the room near his locker. He probably needs a second locker for all his equipment, etc., and I’m sure that can be arranged.

After exchanging some barbs with the franchise legend, I was invited to leave the clubhouse as players began coming in from practice.

Next up is the 1:30 p.m. press conference.

— Jim Street

Fenced in

Club officials usually stand on the “field” side of the fences during the Mariners’ Spring Training workouts. But general manager Jack Zduriencik stood on the fans side of the barrier on Saturday morning.

He was watching the team go through situational hitting drills when long-time Mariners fan (and season-ticket holder) Marilyn Cook, standing next to her husband, Jim, asked Zduriencik about the identity of a player she didn’t recognize.

“I am still learning the names myself,” the GM politely answered.

Minutes later, club president Chuck Armstrong walked up, saw his GM on the spectator side of the fence, greeted him with a finger handshake through the wire, and Marilyn suddenly realized that he wasn’t a normal fan. She asked Zduriencik was with the team. When he introduced himself, she could have been knocked over by a feather, apologizing for not recognizing him.

“I’m so embarrassed,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it,” he answered.”It’s no big deal, really.”

If the Cooks were not Mariners fans for life before the exchange, they certainly are now. In less than a minute, they discovered that the person who helped bring Ken Griffey Jr., back to Seattle is a down-to-earth individual.

— Jim Street

The bag is coming back

For the one or two (hopefully more) readers out there in cyberspace that have missed the Mariners Mailbag, a weekly (or weakly) staple on the Mariners site the past few years, it’s coming back.

It has a new name — Inbox — but the ground rules are the same. Fire questions my way and I’ll do my best to answer as many as I can.

Until further notice, the best way to communicate, and we are in the communcation business you know, is to send me an email through my MLB account, which is top-secret and sworn to secrecy.

Well, not really. Send your queries to jim.street@mlb.com and remember, include your name and city where you live, use words that any five- or six-year old fan can understand, no swear words because those emails will be 1) immediately deleted or 2) forwarded to USS Mariner.

Have fun, but don’t ask me about who the team is going to trade, acquire, fire or hire. No one tells me that until the move is signed, sealed and delivered.

— Jim Street

A buzz in the air

The chatter inside the Mariners clubhouse at 7:30 this morning was all about Junior.

Players sat in front of their respective lockers, talking about the bombshell news that Ken Griffey Jr. was coming back to Seattle.

“I don’t know him, but I’m looking forward to getting to know him,” pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. I think he can bring some leadership for the younger guys. He obviously brings a presence to the lineup, but maybe the biggest thing he can bring is some excitement to the ballpark. I don’t think any of us are nave enough to think we are going to be packing the stands early on, but he will help bring people to the ballpark and help create an atmosphere that is more conducive to winning. And it will more fun.”

Right-handed pitcher Brandon Morrow said it was “awesome” and can’t wait for the future Hall of Famer to walk into the clubhouse and become a teammate.

“It wasn’t a huge shock, because there has been talk aboiut it for awhile,” he said. “Awesome. I mean, his presence for sure is big. We don’t have anybody like that right now.”

Mariners head athletic trainer Rick Griffin, who probably knows Griffey better than anyone in the clubhouse, said he received a phone call from his daughter, Nicole, who was at a sports bar in Bali watching ESPN when the ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolled across with the big news.

“She started jumping up and down, screaming, and people thought she was crazy,” Griffin said. “They didn’t know what was going on.”

There is a whole lot of celebration going around right now.

— Jim Street

New player in camp, but not Jr.

The Mariners just put out a press release — but it had nothing to do with you-know-who.

Mariners public relations director Tim Hevly handed out the release, which announced the arrival of Minor League catcher Israel Nunez.

Nunez, 23, appeared in 59 games at Class-A Wisconsin last season, hitting .224 with eight doubles and one home run.

Now, for the latest Ken Griffey Jr. saga.

It is 9 a.m. MT and the Mariners are having a team meeting inside the clubhouse before going onto the field for the first full-squad workout. Junior was not in the group and is status remains in limbo-land.

Word out of the Braves camp in Orlando is that Griffey is angry about a story in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution that he had a “done deal” with the National League team.

Not so fast.

About an hour after that story broke, Junior told me it wasn’t true and he had not made a final decision. As far as I know, he still hasn’t made a decision.

There is some serious squirming going on. AJC reporter David O’Brien, who co-authored the “done deal” story said in his blog: “And so we begin Day 4 of the Junior Watch, and if Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t officially a Brave by the end of the day, please shoot me.”

Naturally, he was joking, but this never-ending story stretches from one coast to the other.

It eventually will end. . .and not a minute too soon.

— Jim Street

A strange day at Mariners camp

This has  been one of the most bizarre days of my 39-year career covering Major League Baseball.

When I read early Tuesday morning that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story that said  Ken Griffey Jr. had made his decision to play for the Braves in 2009, I called Junior’s agent to make sure the story was correct.

Brian Golberg anwered the call and, listened to my question, and said the story wasn’t accurate and Griffey still hadn’t made a decision.

Moments later, a voice came on the phone that said, “Hey, how you doing?”

After covering Griffey for the Seatte Post-Intelligencer from 1986 through 1998, I immediately recognized the voice.

Hello, Junior. How you doing?

He told me that he had not made a decision on whether to play for the Mariners or Braves next season and it was difficult because he “loved Seattle” and Mariners fans so much. But he also said the Braves, who were not even a team he was considering until the past week, had offered him a chance of play for a team close to his Orlando, Fla. home. He basically was torn between two the two cities.

Knowing Junior the way I do, I knew exactly what he was talking about. He is a teriffic family man and is wife, Mielissa, and three kids, are the most important things in his life. Junior is as genuine as it gets when it comes to family,

Until the Braves entered the picture, he was ready to sign a contract with the Mariners.

But the Braves offered something the Mariners couldn’t — proximity to his home in Orlando, Fla. It is a powerful thing, one that could sway Junior to sign with the Braves. That is something I expect to happen sometime on Wednesday.

When it happens, the Journal-Constitution will report that they were correct all along.

I don’t know one of the co-authors, David O’Brien, but I do know the other writer, Terence Moore, having worked alongside him many times in the 1980s when both of us worked in the San Francisco Bay Area — he for the San Franciso Examiner and me for the San Jose Mercury-News. I have great respect for Terence, but someone jumped the gun on this one. As Goldberg said later in the day, the report was based onb “bad information.”.

Needless to say, the scene in the press room at the Peoria Sports Complex — and perhaps in Orlando as well — was weird after MLB.com posted the comments from Griffey, who denied  the reports that he had reached agreement with the Braves.

Stories and blogs that said Griffey was heading for Atlanta, according to unnamed, but yet impeccable sources, were suddenly not as accurate when Junior said “I haven’t made decision.”

The scene would make a wonderful Mariners TV commercial, the kind that wins awards. One writer had the audacity to say Griffey was lying about the whole thing and insisted that his “source” was accurate that a deal had was done.

I expect Junior to play for the Braves next season, but if you hear anyone say, or write, “I told you so”, ignore it and laugh just a little, while at the same time agonizing over the probability that Griffey won’t be playing in Seattle season.

But remember his: he is signing a one-year contract and there is always next year..

— Jim Street