KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The Atlanta Braves emerged from the dugout as though it was just another spring training day. The pitchers headed to the mound. The hitters wandered in and out of the cage, taking their swings. Bobby Cox wobbled around the field trying to get a look at some of the promising kids.
"We move on real fast," the venerable manager said, standing along the first-base line after his team took the field.
But there was an undeniable pall hanging over the Braves camp Thursday, the sense that another player who might have helped this franchise recapture its glory days had gotten away.
Twenty-four hours earlier, they were confident — in the case of third baseman Chipper Jones, downright convinced — that Ken Griffey Jr. would soon be donning a tomahawk jersey. After all, Junior was the one who initiated the talks, telling Jones and team officials that Atlanta was a perfect fit for his family, the best place to spend the twilight of what will surely be a Hall of Fame career.
But late Wednesday, Junior delivered an unexpected curveball, informing the Braves by phone that he preferred to finish out where it all started. He’s heading back to the Seattle Mariners, which left the Braves back at square one when it comes to bolstering their feeble outfield.
"The only thing I question is why he came to us," said Jones, the reigning NL batting champ and a leader in the effort to recruit Griffey to Atlanta. "Our time could have been better served exploring other options. That’s unfortunate."
Not that he didn’t sympathize with Griffey’s back-and-forth decision.
"He wanted to come here," Jones said. "That’s why he reached out to us. But with every major decision in your life, you’ve got to do some soul-searching. He had options, and he didn’t chose this option. There’s no hard feelings."
But there was clearly some bitterness over the turn of events, some of it directed at media outlets that reported Griffey had decided to play for Atlanta.
Pitcher Tim Hudson got into a heated argument in the clubhouse with a newspaper reporter, claiming his story angered Griffey and led him to back out of dealings with the Braves. A team official had to step in and lead Hudson to a back room.
The Braves wanted to add Junior to an outfield that produced only 27 homers last season, worst in the majors.
While clearly past his prime, the 39-year-old Griffey seemed to fit two key criteria — he still has some pop in his bat (18 homers last season, 30 two years ago) and he wouldn’t require a major financial investment. Having already doled out a $60 million contract to free agent pitcher Derek Lowe, the cost-conscious Braves weren’t prepared to make a similar offer to a hitter.
Griffey wasn’t even on the Braves’ radar until he got in touch with them last week, saying he wanted to play for a team that wouldn’t take him too far away from his wife and children.
"I think he clearly felt like this is where he was going to go," Wren said. "Whatever factors entered in after that, I don’t know, but he changed his mind."
Apparently, the chance to return to the city where he played his first 11 seasons, where he became one of baseball’s biggest stars and is still viewed as an icon, was just too much for Griffey to pass up. The Mariners also sweetened the pot — he’ll get a guaranteed contract for around $2 million, plus incentives — by assuring he’ll remain a part of the organization even after he hangs up his glove.
"They wanted him to have a relationship, a role with the club post-career, which made all the sense in the world to them, but not necessarily for us," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
So, what’s next for the Braves?
They could take a shot at one of the remaining free agents, such as Garret Anderson. They could try to swing a deal with an overloaded team such as the New York Yankees, who might be willing to give up Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady for prospects. Or they could just stick with what they’ve got.
That would appear to be the least-appealing option, though the Braves’ outfielders insist they’ll be much better as a group than they were in 2008. Start with right fielder Jeff Francoeur, a once-budding star who looked totally lost while batting .239 with 11 homers and 71 RBIs.
"I truly feel, as bad as were last year, we’ll be as good this year," said Francoeur, who avoided arbitration by agreeing late Wednesday to a contract for just under $3.4 million. "I’d sure like to think I’m going to hit more than 11 homers this year."
While Francoeur is only 25 and certainly has some history — he hit 29 homers in 2006 and had more than 100 RBIs each of his first two full seasons — the other two outfield spots are manned by prospects and journeyman types.
Matt Diaz, who likely would have platooned with Griffey in left, hopes to get another shot at a full-time job. He batted only .244 last season and was limited to 43 games after tearing up his left knee in May. But Diaz has lost a significant amount of weight and looks forward to recapturing the form of the two previous seasons, when he hit over .300 as a part-timer.
In center, Josh Anderson appears to have the edge after batting .294 with 10 stolen bases in limited time last season. Gregor Blanco and Jordan Schafer also will get long looks.