They celebrated like a playoff-bound team, despite the fact that their season had just come to a close. A third-place finish in a four-team division is not often cause for celebration, but for all accounts and purposes this ballclub was a winner.
Before the year began, forecasters pegged the Seattle Mariners for a .500 record or worse. An 81-81 showing would be a 20-game improvement over the year prior, and a positive step in the right direction.
By Sunday afternoon, when the 2009 season ultimately came to its conclusion, the M’s had posted a record of 85-77. They finished eight games over .500 and 24 games better than a miserable 101-loss 2008 campaign.
Following a 4-3 victory over the visiting Texas Rangers — the Mariners’ 35th one-run win of the season — players embraced on the field, saluted an encouraging crowd, then embarked on a victory lap of sorts around the warning track, tossing souvenirs to fans as they marched.
Amidst all the bedlam stood one George Kenneth Griffey, Jr., 39 years of age and barely one hour removed from his final at-bat of 2009. An at-bat that resulted in a no-doubt-about-it line drive single up the middle, no less.
In perhaps his last plate appearance as a big league baseball player — let alone a Mariner — Griffey responded to a crowd that had greeted each emergence of their hero with a standing ovation. He politely doffed his helmet on more than one occasion, attempted to remain focused on the task at hand, and at the last possible moment delivered what the enthusiastic faithful had waited all day to see: a base hit.
Seconds later, the future Hall of Famer was lifted for a pinch runner — 22-year-old outfielder Michael Saunders was the guilty party — and could hold back his emotions no longer.
Entering a dugout full of teammates that had been molded and shaped by Griffey’s attitude all season long, the designated hitter let tears fall for the first time that afternoon. He gave one last curtain call to the desiring crowd, then quickly departed down the tunnel to the team’s locker room.
An inning later, Griffey reemerged as his teammates took to the field following the final out of the ballgame. Closer David Aardsma ensured the team’s 85th triumph with his 38th save, and the postgame handshake turned into an outpouring of emotion rarely displayed by a third-place finisher.
As teammates hugged and paraded around Safeco Field, their senior member spent time wiping his face and hiding behind a pair of dark sunglasses that only partially masked what he was really feeling. Before the party ended, Junior was on their shoulders and being lifted off the field, an exit to rival even the greatest of departures.
The Mariners brought Ken Griffey, Jr. back not to sell tickets, not as a publicity stunt, and not to be some beacon of inspiration for the players to feed off of. They plainly and simply brought him here to win.
At this point, there’s no telling whether Junior will ever be spotted in a Mariners uniform again. Let’s face it, the spikes themselves are this close to being hung up for good.
But whether he stays or goes or returns or retires, the fact remains that this city’s Golden Son did exactly what he was signed on to do: win baseball games.
From 101 losses a year ago to a winning season and a foundation for the future just 12 months later. It was an experiment that worked to perfection. And we owe much of it to Ken Griffey, Jr.