Fans weep at the idea of Seattle sans Junior

Ken Griffey Jr.'s desire to leave the Mariners has left many fans,

When Freddie Yudin learned that Ken Griffey Jr. had asked the Seattle Mariners to trade him to another baseball team, he had a decision to make: Should he break the news to his son before soccer practice? Or wait until afterwards?

"I figured Josh wouldn't be able to make it through the workout if he knew," he remembers. "So I waited."

It was the right decision.

"I cried for about 30 minutes," eight-year-old Josh says. "Griffey had been my favorite player since I was 3 or 4. I have 53 Griffey baseball cards. Two Griffey jerseys. I have his baseball glove. When I was in bed that night I was like, 'Griffey, you're stupid.' And then I cried more."

Seattle has never had a hero quite like Ken Griffey Jr. Though there have been sports figures who enjoyed mass popularity and adulation here, none of these could bring Seattle what Junior has: the respect and awe of the world - and a sense that, in at least one thing, this city has one of the best there is.

Were this a city less fixated on its image as the Mecca of Politeness, the response would be easier: The fans would brand Griffey a traitor, trash him verbally, erase him emotionally, and devise a next hero. Seattle, however, is searching for it's own answer to what happens when a city builds a near deity out of a sports figure and that sports figure decides to leave.

On the field, Griffey is the perennial all-star centerfielder for the American League. He wins the Golden Glove for defensive excellence every year. He has led the league in home runs. Nearly always, he bats over .300. In 1997, he was the league's Most Valuable Player. This year, Griffey was immortalized as a member of baseball's All-Century Team, and also as Player of the Decade for the 1990s.

His off-the-field exploits are no less impressive. Though he never seeks publicity, sources inside the ball club say Griffey has flown planeloads of children to Disneyland. He also works with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in many of the major league cities, spending time with children whose futures are grim.

"He's nice to all kids," says Erin Klein, a 14-year-old fan from suburban Lynnwood. "He's not a big jerk like Albert Belle (the Baltimore Orioles' highly paid outfielder)."

Griffey's godlike prowess and grand, if anonymous, beneficence made his recent actions seem all the more confounding, disconcerting, and hurtful to many Seattlites - particularly the young.

In November, Griffey rejected the Mariners reported offer to extend his contract and pay him $135 million over eight seasons - an offer that would have made him the highest-paid baseball player in the history of the game.

Instead, he told the team, Seattle had become inconvenient for his family, which lives most of the year in Florida. He gave the Mariners a short list of teams to which he would accept a trade, pointing out that his contract gave him veto power over any deal.

Soon the Mariners arranged a swap with the New York Mets, one of the teams that Griffey had agreed to. At the last minute, however, Griffey not only nixed the trade, he announced that the only team he'd agree to was the Cincinnati Reds, the club in his boyhood home, where his father, Ken Griffey, had starred.

The implications are not lost on Seattle fans: No other team in baseball is likely to propose a trade for Griffey, knowing that his preference is to play out the 2000 season and then go, as a free agent, to Cincinatti. And Cincinatti would be foolish to trade talented players to the Mariners for Junior now, when they can have him in 2001 for no more than the cost of his contract.

So when Griffey leaves Seattle, as seems virtually certain, the Mariners will get nothing in return.

Locals believe that, whether by design or ineptitude, Griffey has sucker-punched his team and his fans - not the kind of treatment people expect from their deities. Griffey has become part of the persona of so many here that, as he contemplates taking his talent home to Ohio, emotions run high.

Some, like Jeff Clay, 16, use untempered anger to avoid their sorrow: "I think he's a stupid idiot. He's got a good thing going, and he wants to mess it up."

Others, like nine-year-old Noah Gallo-Brown, try to be reasonable, though it comes across more as a child's denial: "I see why he wouldn't want to be on the Mariners. I think he mostly just wants to be on a winning team. I think then comes money. And then comes his family. It makes sense."

He says it all matter-of-factly, as if parroting the rationale of the adults in his world. But keep him talking and his emotions begin to show.

"When I heard he was leaving, I was just so disappointed because he's my favorite player," Noah says. "I think I have, like, four Griffey jerseys. Two blue ones, a white one, and a gray one. And I have one Griffey bat."

Ask him if Griffey's decision is by now acceptable to him or if he feels betrayed, and he answers instantly: "Betrayed."

Noah concludes with contradictory thoughts that combine to deny the large loss that looms: "I just hope he doesn't leave. I hope we get something for him."

Explaining the complexities of a celebrity culture and the economics of sports to children is never easy. This is particularly true at a time when America seems to have fewer and fewer heroes.

Mr. Yudin, whose son says he'll cry again when Griffey finally does leave, struggles to comfort Josh.

"Parents have a winter to talk to their kids about what it's going to be like without Junior in the line-up," he says. "How do you deal with it? I don't know yet. Maybe by the spring I'll be able to answer that question.

"I'll tell you this though, seeing his face - seeing his face! - on the night I told him that Griffey didn't want to play here, that was the most painful moment of my life. Such hurt!"

But there is hope, Yudin concludes: "He's still buying Griffey baseball cards. I think he might have 60 by now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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