What the Mariners Owe Griffey

If nothing mattered in this sport beyond VORP or WARP, this would be simple. In this case, though, we have a human being involved. And not just any human being. A human being who has been one of the greatest players of modern times. And he matters…. People like Griffey can’t merely be crumpled up and fed to the waste-management trucks when they stop hitting. They deserve more. They’ve earned more. Clearly, the Mariners are wrestling with how to afford this particular human what he’s earned. And that means he can’t be just another name in the transactions column.

Jayson Stark, May 13, 2010

I don’t have a problem with Jayson Stark; I think he does a fine job. I don’t want to make media criticism a habit, but I do take issue with some of Stark’s comments on the Ken Griffey, Jr. situation in Seattle.

We’ve been over Seattle’s DH situation before, and nothing has changed. Griffey and Mike Sweeney are a waste of time and money in terms of their likely performance. Although I find the notion that Griffey makes up for what he costs in wins with merchandise sales dubious, that is not the issue, either. Hey, maybe there is some sort of CPAP cross-promotion that will give the organization more money to put into player development and free agency. Jokes aside, this isn’t about the “sleeping incident,” either.

This is not another re-hash of Griffey’s performance, (alleged!) clubhouse nap, or the value of the 38 Ken Griffey promotional nights the team still has remaining in the season. The issue is Stark’s moralizing tone. It is as if people are talking about sending Baseball Immortal Ken Griffey, Jr. off to the nursing home or the pound. Ken Griffey, Jr. is a “human being.” What, unlike Pat Burrell, Josh Anderson, Eric Byrnes, or scores of players who are let go (practically speaking) without asking their permission first? Were these violations of their “dignity”? Apparently, Griffey is “not just any human being,” but a certain kind of human being that can’t just be “thrown out,” and one who’s “earned more” and “deserves more.”

Ken Griffey, Jr. has had a great career and is a Hall of Famer. But “earned more”? Ken Griffey, Jr. was last anything like Good in 2005, and that’s about the only time during the FanGraphs WAR era. He was last great, according to Sean Smith‘s numbers, in 2000, ten years ago with a 5.8 WAR season. To get perspective on how long ago that was, Yankee quasi-icon Bernie Williams, last seen being angry at the Yankees for not bringing him back for a fifth year of near-replacement performance, was still excellent that season, posting 5.0 WAR in 2000, with a couple very good years remaining.

That’s right — Bernie Williams, who has been out of the game for four years already (and was clearly finished some time before that) was a really good baseball player more recently than Ken Griffey, Jr. It isn’t as if the Mariners would be “throwing him out” as soon as he got bad. Griffey hasn’t been worth having around for a long time, and he hasn’t “earned” his giant paychecks in years. Since 2002, he’s been paid in excess of $60 million dollars by baseball teams (mostly the Reds) while being worth about a quarter of that. Maybe Stark just meant “hitting.” But it isn’t as if Griffey just started now hitting — as DH’s job is just to hit, and Griffey didn’t hit last season despite being heavily platooned.

This isn’t about whether Griffey can still play. Almost everyone agrees that he can’t. But what has he “earned” beyond that? Stark isn’t talking about money, of course. Respect? Dignity? A basic level of human dignity isn’t something earned, it is a universal right. Ken Griffey, Jr. is owed that. So is Pat Burrell. So is Eric Byrnes. So is Milton Bradley. Has anyone complained of such a “violation” when those players have been traded, cut, or DFAed without the players’ endorsement? No.

I don’t deny that the Mariners face a potential public-relations minefield in dealing with the situation, or that they might make decent money from Griffey promotional nights. However, those things have to do with corporate self-interest, not some extra obligation they have regarding Griffey’s “dignity.” Stark invokes some additional moral obligation to Griffey that he’s apparently “earned.”* He thinks Ken Griffey, Jr. is special in his own right, despite Junior last being useful about five years ago.

* Perhaps one could make the case on the basis of Griffey forcing his way out of Seattle in a trade that ended up being utterly lopsided in the Mariners’ favor (since Mike Cameron by himself blew away Griffey’s production in the succeeding seasons), but that isn’t Stark’s angle.

Publicity and performance aside, all the Mariners owe Griffey is what a team owes any player: a basic level of human respect and the prorated remainder of his guaranteed contract.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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The Diamondbacks faced this problem several years ago with Luis Gonzalez. Face of the franchise, hero of the state’s only championship, and also extemely expensive for the level of production he was giving the team in his final years. Most people were, and still are, angry over the decision to let him go, but things have cooled a bit after he took a position in the front office. The front office and ownership took a lot of heat, but I was always fine with it, as the team was trying to cut it’s payroll in an effort to go young, and Gonzo just never fit into the team’s plan.