Mariners Griffey Present, Hernandez the Future

seattle_mariners_logo1If this was the end, what an end it was. Two eras could end in Seattle very soon as both Felix Hernandez and Ken Griffey Jr. may have set foot on the grass at Safeco Field for the last time.

The two players are on very opposite ends of the proverbial candle that represents their respective careers. Hernandez is 23 years old and figures to have another decade-and-a-half of baseball left, while Griffey has just finished his 21st season, and will turn 40 years old in the middle of November.

While Felix Hernandez is the face of the team, Griffey is the face of the franchise. So when it was Griffey and Ichiro carried off the field on the shoulders of their teammates in the season finale, it was fitting, as King Felix was forced to surrender his throne.

SEATTLE - APRIL 15:  Ken Griffey, Jr. of the S...
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Griffey was instrumental in putting the formerly-unknown team on the map. He was the best player in baseball for quite a while, and the first true star the Mariners had, with apologies to Alvin Davis.

From tape measure homeruns to a winning smile, from a backwards hat to an unbridled, child-like love for the game of baseball, from homering back-to-back with his dad to leaving Seattle to play closer to home, and closer to his own children.

Seattle has experienced ups and downs with Griffey. He grew up with the team, and we grew as baseball fans.

In 1995 we watched Junior break his wrist running down an early-season fly ball and crashing into the wall. And we learned about hustle.

Later that year we watched Griffey hit key homeruns, clutch blasts that propelled to team to a 13-game comeback in the division race. And we learned about power.

We watched Griffey, amidst the team’s first playoff appearance, score the game winning run as the Mariners took the final three of five games against the Yankees in the American League division series. And we learned about winning.

Then “The Kid” decided to leave Seattle, forcing a trade to the Reds, and suddenly Griffey’s age became more apparent. And we learned about losing.

In a town lacking deities, Griffey was a god.

His return this year, in any capacity, at any level of production should help give Hernandez, who was hastily appointed the moniker “King Felix,” some perspective on the cost of being royalty.

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 02:  Starting pitcher F...

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While Hernandez stands to take in a king’s ransom, Griffey’s return shows that perhaps the grass isn’t always greener where the greenbacks are stacked higher.

At the beginning of the year I said that Griffey could have gone 0-500, with 500 strikeouts, and when he stepped into the batter’s box for his 501st at bat, he’d still be cheered.

In the past I’ve been critical of the Seattle sports fan base, which has a deserving reputation as a fair-weather fan base.

SEATTLE - APRIL 15:  Ken Griffey, Jr. of the S...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

But if 2009 is any indication, the town appreciates greatness and rewards loyalty. They love their players, but especially love players with whom they feel a personal connection.

The odd oxymoron in play, however, is that when the smoke clears and decisions are made, while fans may want to see both players back, either’s exit could ultimately be in the best interest of the team’s long-term viability.

The Mariners can almost surely replace Griffey’s production. Griffey batted .214/.324/.411, hardly unique.

However, going into his first offseason as essentially a full-time designated hitter, perhaps Griffey will train differently. A year’s time adjusting back to the American League would probably be widely considered more tolerable if Griffey wasn’t approaching 40 years old, but the theory exists nonetheless.

And either way, unless the Mariners are World Series bound next year, don’t he and the fans deserve at least one more dance?

It’s hard to push out legends. Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, football coaches at Florida State and Penn State have spent the better part of the last decade fighting father time and his band of critics.

This situation is nothing like that.

Junior has now played basically two seasons in the stadium that he’s responsible for, and one that was built to equalize the pitcher-batter matchup, but to accentuate his abilities.

At an expected steep discount in salary compared to this year, he deserves to stave off the retirement home for another year at least, and to dwell in the house for which he laid the foundation.

He hit .268/.382/.548 in Safeco Field, which is not only acceptable, but near-equal to Russell Branyan’s .249/.371/.548 line in the home park.

Hernandez is different. He’s a great player, and has finally realized his potential after being perhaps one of the most frustrating players on the Mariners ball club. Hernandez’s talent is unsurpassed, if not unmatched, and yet he’d been only above-average at the beginning of what should be a great career.

His gamble to wait on a long-term contract has paid off, and he’s in an ultimate power position right now, and his value is at its peak.

That value however, applies to both his contract leverage and trade value.

If the Mariners don’t feel they can extend Hernandez, they’d be fools to hang on to him right now.

Regardless, while Griffey laid the foundation for the present, Hernandez will do the same for the future, either by way of a long-term contract or trade that could net the Mariners several top prospects and future contributors.

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