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Baseball Notes

May it be a clean getaway for the prodigious Griffey

By Nick Cafardo
June 6, 2010

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Let there be one player who retires without suspicion in this horrible steroid era. Let it be Ken Griffey Jr. Please, let it be.

It may be the most naive of wishes, but there has to be one who went through it all and didn’t take something to taint his career.

We want to believe that Griffey’s grace, his elegance as an outfielder, his sweet stroke as a hitter were so pure that they couldn’t possibly be enhanced by anything except great genes and athleticism that hadn’t been seen at the center-field position since Willie Mays. That’s the Griffey — The Kid, as he was known — who should be honored and remembered as the guy who did it the right way in an era when few did.

“The game came so easy to him,’’ said Brewers scout Tom Mooney, who hails from Pittsfield and still resides there.

Mooney was the area scout who signed Griffey as the No. 1 pick of the Mariners in 1987 out of Moeller High in Cincinnati.

“He was an extremely gifted high school player who could throw guys out, steal bases, hit for power,’’ said Mooney. “He could do it all. Skill-wise, I’m not sure I’ve seen a player comparable since.’’

What really stinks is that on the day Griffey announced his retirement, the Armando Galarraga story stole the headlines. Griffey was a “by the way’’ item in many newspapers and websites when he should have received his due for 22 seasons of excellence.

Having come to the tough realization that it was over, he did something about it immediately. He didn’t let his team linger with the issue of “what are we going to do with this aging legend?’’ He walked away very quietly, with little fanfare, just as he said he would.

In fact, Griffey wasn’t even on hand when the Mariners announced his retirement 10 minutes before game time Wednesday night. All of a sudden, fans saw the number 24 sculpted into the outfield grass and highlights of his career playing on the scoreboard, and that was it, folks.

Whether Griffey was upset by his lack of playing time at the end, only he knows. Not even the Mariners front office could reach him when he took off cross-country back to his Orlando, Fla., home.

There’s no doubt Griffey will enter the Hall of Fame in five years, with a Mariners cap on his plaque. He saved baseball in Seattle and may be the major reason the Mariners built Safeco Field. He was their Ted Williams. And like Williams and Ernie Banks, he never won a championship, but that didn’t diminish his extraordinary career.

Seattle had never seen a superstar until Griffey, and as great as Edgar Martinez and the young Alex Rodriguez were, their contributions don’t compare to the 12 1/2 seasons Griffey gave the Mariners. He retires with 630 home runs and a legacy of great defense, a player who could run and was a solid teammate.

Could it have ended better? Of course. There was the mid-May report of Griffey falling asleep in the clubhouse when he was supposed to be available to pinch hit — though Griffey and manager Don Wakamatsu disputed the report.

By that time, Wakamatsu had diminished the struggling Griffey’s playing time, and there were reports that it led to Griffey’s retirement. Wakamatsu denies that he persuaded Griffey to call it quits or even talked to him about the subject. But playing time certainly seemed to factor into the decision.

No doubt Griffey benefited by growing up in a baseball environment. His father was part of the Big Red Machine of the ’70s, so Junior was around Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, etc. as a youngster. He got to play in his hometown of Cincinnati for eight-plus seasons after his Seattle days, and while he cranked it up a couple of years there, injuries took their toll on what could have been an even more phenomenal career.

One of Griffey’s friends was Barry Bonds, and they spent one offseason working out together. If you ask players, they will tell you that nobody was better than Bonds — steroids aside — at breaking down hitting. Griffey, though, realized at some point that associating with Bonds probably wasn’t the best thing, and he distanced himself from the all-time home run leader, citing a desire to spend his offseasons in Orlando with his family.

Now that his most prized signing has retired and is heading for Cooperstown, Mooney feels a little older — but also feels a sense of pride.

“He was a good kid who you could tell had grown up with baseball,’’ said Mooney. “It was very important to him to be the No. 1 pick, and there was no doubt. At the time, Mark Merchant was a ‘can’t miss’ type prospect, but there was no doubt that we were going to take Griff with the first pick.

“The whole process was enjoyable. Got to know his dad during the process. He was playing in Atlanta at the time, so it was mostly his mother and grandmothers who came to his games.

“The one thing about him which was different than other prospects is that he never felt the pressure that other kids do to perform with scouts in the stands. So many kids get nervous in that situation, and Junior was never nervous like that, and I’m sure it was because of his background.

“He was a kid who really cared about the game and he wanted to be great. And at the time, there was no better player in the country. That he went on to do what he did . . . probably not a surprise.

“Though there’s never a sure thing when you’re scouting players, he continued to excel as a pro player.

“He was ‘The Natural.’ ’’

We can only hope.

SLUGGER PLAYS DEFENSE
Canseco backs Clemens on steroid denials
Jose Canseco (left) is a lot of things, including a credible witness when it comes to steroids. In fact, you might call him the Father of Steroids in baseball. He’s the one who really blew the cover off by admitting his own use and naming names.

But one player he didn’t turn in during federal grand jury testimony Thursday in Washington was former teammate Roger Clemens, who played with Canseco in Boston in 1995 and 1996 and in Toronto in 1998, when Clemens won his fifth Cy Young Award and where former personal trainer Brian McNamee claims he began injecting him.

In addition to being fingered by McNamee, Clemens’s name appeared in the Mitchell Report, but Canseco testified that he never saw Clemens take steroids and that Clemens never asked him how to obtain them.

Clemens has denied McNamee’s allegations, and Canseco’s appearance was a fairly powerful defense for Clemens, who for the most part has been on an island by himself.

“I had my suspicions back then of a lot of players because it was so rampant in the game of baseball,’’ said Canseco. “But if you ask me if I have any solid evidence, did I ever inject Roger Clemens or put him in contact or did he ever use steroids? Never.’’

Canseco and McNamee don’t seem to be linked during their year together in Toronto, which is strange for two guys who knew so much about steroids.

“I definitely spoke to Roger Clemens about steroids, just like a lot of other players,’’ Canseco said. “But what we didn’t talk about was Roger Clemens using steroids.’’

The grand jury is trying to determine whether Clemens lied to Congress about steroid use and whether to indict him on that basis. It has been interviewing witnesses for 16 months.

“It’s been a long time coming up,’’ said Canseco. “There’s got to be better ways of spending taxpayers’ money.’’

PHENOM BRINGS HOPE
Long National nightmare ending soon?
There has to be some territorial envy going on in the Baltimore/Washington area. The Orioles, a proud franchise that flourished on excellence and built the first real modern ballpark at Camden Yards, are dangerously close to taking a back seat to the Nationals, who will debut Stephen Strasburg (above) Tuesday night against the Pirates.

While the Orioles have fired their manager and have the worst record in baseball, the Nationals will be celebrating their phenom at Nationals Park this week. The Nationals also will likely select phenom Bryce Harper with the first pick in the draft tomorrow. They are hardly in the clear in terms of going forward, but there’s hope.

In the National League East, where the top spot is up for grabs, the Nationals were in last place entering the weekend but only 5 1/2 games out. They’re missing more than Strasburg, but who knows? If Strasburg can dominate, maybe general manager Mike Rizzo will make some moves.

Rizzo desperately needs a right fielder; the Nationals have used a host of players there — including Roger Bernadina, Willie Harris, Michael Morse, Justin Maxwell, and Cristian Guzman — and they were hitting a combined .198 with a .297 OBP and a .380 slugging percentage.

Overall, the Nationals aren’t hitting when it’s important — in the clutch. They’re hitting .229 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Adam Dunn is hitting .277 overall but is an astounding 0 for 22 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

And they’re also not a good defensive team (hold on to your hat, Mr. Strasburg). They had committed 14 errors in nine games heading into Friday and led the NL with 50 overall.

Meanwhile, a scout who has watched the Orioles’ prospects think they do have pitching with Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta, but “their guys haven’t taken that next step forward. They’re kind of stuck and maybe have even taken a step backward. But sometimes that happens. Every kid has a hump they have to get over once they hit the big leagues.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing
1. Remember when the Red Sox had Esteban Beltre?; 2. Sorry, don’t like the knee-jerk reaction that baseball has to change everything just because of one incident that may never happen again; 3. Close race for the Milk-It Award among Rick Ankiel (hamstring), Coco Crisp (rib muscle soreness, after a broken pinky), and Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs); 4. Wouldn’t Don Baylor be the best manager for the Orioles?; 5. In the ’87 draft, when Ken Griffey was taken No. 1, the Red Sox took Reggie Harris and Bob Zupcic with their first-round picks.

Updates on nine
1. Mike Lowell, 1B/3B/DH, Red Sox — Nobody deserves to go somewhere and play consistently more than Lowell. As we reported last week, the Rangers would likely take him, but beyond that, there hasn’t been much interest. The Angels, Mariners, and White Sox are all possibilities, the Mariners more so now with Griffey gone. The White Sox have lost Mark Teahen for a while, but as a team official told me last week, “Just doesn’t fit for us right now.’’

2. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees — He was considered one of the Yankees’ top prospects mostly because of a powerful bat but is hitting .226. He has lost a lot of weight but has looked much better behind the plate than anticipated. The Yankees, like the Red Sox, don’t have much at Triple A and are certainly happy that Francisco Cervelli has emerged.

3. Mike Napoli, C/1B, Angels — One reason the Angels aren’t interested in Lowell is that they’re going to use Napoli at first base in Kendry Morales’s absence (broken ankle suffered in a celebration at home plate). Napoli has always been the offensive catcher in the platoon with Jeff Mathis, and this will give manager Mike Scioscia the opportunity to utilize Napoli’s bat and take the pressure off him as a catcher. It also allows them to keep Bobby Wilson around as a backup catcher. Wilson is out of options. There have been rumors about Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko, but the Angels are already getting old and probably don’t want to get older.

4. Kurt Suzuki, C, A’s — You can see why the Red Sox brass really likes Suzuki, who is 35 for 98 against them in his career. With Victor Martinez unsigned and no prospect ready to assume the catching duties next season, Suzuki will likely be the Sox’ top target in the offseason. Chris Snyder and Chris Iannetta are also on the radar, but Suzuki, who signed a one-year contract in March, seems like a great fit with the combination of offense and defense the Sox want. What it would take to get him is an entirely different story, but he may be worth the price.

5. Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees — For me, the Hall of Fame voice for Pettitte is getting louder by the day. He is now 100 games over .500 (236-136) and has the most postseason wins in history (18). Pettitte, 37, is 7-1 with a 2.48 ERA and keeps reinventing himself. If he gets his win total over 250, it will be awfully tough to keep him out of the Hall.

6. Dan Haren, RHP, Diamondbacks — There has been discussion within the organization about dealing him as part of sweeping changes, but one baseball executive doubts it will happen. Could the D-Backs make a Roy Halladay-type deal for Haren? Sure. But why? In the NL West, you don’t have to go crazy with rebuilding because you’re always only a player or two away from being in first place. “That’s why I would never deal Haren,’’ said the competing NL GM. “He’s one of the best. Might as well build around a guy like that.’’

7. Jim Joyce, umpire — Don’t know if this is perception or reality, but umpires in general seemed to perform much better in the days when there was less pressure put on them by Major League Baseball. They are now under constant evaluation and scrutiny. Supervisors watch every game, every call. Their strike zones are constantly questioned. No wonder some have become defensive and confrontational. They seem to be fighting for their job every time out there. Perhaps reducing some of this pressure would relax umpires so they can do their job properly.

8. David Eckstein, 2B, Padres — Wasn’t Eckstein done a long time ago? Not by a long shot. The 35-year-old second baseman, a former Red Sox draft pick and farmhand, has been a leader for the Padres. “He’s been fantastic for us in terms of his play and the energy he brings to our ball club,’’ said GM Jed Hoyer. Eckstein had no errors heading into the weekend, while batting .287.

9. Amiel Sawdaye, scouting director, Red Sox — All eyes will be on the new scouting director when he makes four of the first 57 picks in the draft, which begins tomorrow. We’ve speculated on one possible sandwich pick, Wabash Valley College outfielder Mel Rojas Jr., who is also coveted by the Blue Jays. It’s a big draft for the Sox without former scouting director Jason McLeod, now assistant GM in San Diego.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck Files: “Last season, the Red Sox’ batting average for balls in play — a tool for measuring defense — was .313, compared with the league average of .300. This year, it’s .287, compared with the league average of .295, which indicates the run prevention plan is working.’’ Also, “The average team on-base percentage is .330, which makes the Yankees .370-ish even more impressive. The Yanks were also the first team with over 300 runs scored this season.’’ . . . The fourth Beckett Bowl will be July 29 at Lucky Strikes Lanes in Boston. Tickets for the bowling tournament and after party are on sale through ticketmaster.com. Companies and individuals can sponsor four-person bowling teams (call 617-338-2766 or visit beckettbowl.com) . . . Happy 24th birthday, Junichi Tazawa, and happy 38th birthday, Tony Graffanino.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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