Wednesday, April 2, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opening Day -- M's 4, Yankees 2 -- Griffey Hammers A Tribute -- Two Home Runs Will Stand As Slugger's Effort To Honor Robinson On Anniversary

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When Ken Griffey Jr. takes destiny into his hands, it usually is to decide the outcome of a game or a series, someday perhaps an entire season.

But this time he did it to pay homage.

Before Opening Night against the New York Yankees, Griffey was upset with the placement at the Kingdome of the sign paying tribute to the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's historic first season.

The sign is tucked in a high corner of the right-field fence near the foul pole.

"I hope the Mariners can do better in a tribute to Jackie Robinson," said Griffey, who is respectful of the history of African Americans in the game. "Maybe they can find a better place than that for a sign and maybe make it bigger."

While the Mariners contemplate a change, Seattle's standout center fielder fashioned his own tribute.

After catching the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Robinson's daughter, Sharon - "If she's throwin' it, I'm catchin' it," Griffey said - the Mariner center fielder hit two home runs to help the Mariners and Jeff Fassero win 4-2 in the 1997 season opener at the Kingdome.

"Let them stand as my tribute to Jackie," Griffey said. "I'm not going to try to tell you I tried to do that, hit a homer for Jackie, never mind two. I just try to do what I can to help this team win. But since they came and I'd like to have something to mark this game for Jackie, they'll do."

Leave it to Junior to rise to a big night. Did you say Opening Night? National TV? Easy as 1-2-victory.

"Kenny rises to an occasion as well as anybody I've ever seen," Seattle Manager Lou Piniella said.

"When adrenaline flows, the concentration gets sharper. Add the ability factor and you've got a hell of a mix."

Taking an inning or two to get into the new season, new league, new park, new opponents, Fassero was dinged for a run in each of the first two innings.

Griffey got the first one back in the bottom of the first, crashing a 2-2 pitch from Yankee starter David Cone into the third deck in right-center.

It came after two un-Junior-like hacks. "I'd like to tell you I was just setting Coney up, but really he threw me nasty sliders and I swung over the top of them," the Mariner all-star said. "Then he left a forkball up."

Russ Davis opened the third by smacking a solo shot of his own off Cone's hanging breaking ball to make it 2-2.

"It was nice to start out with a homer, considering I left off last July with a broken ankle," Davis said.

"Griffey? If he stays healthy I'm sure he'll hit more than 62."

For a time Griffey was on a pace to hit about 600, one every time up. With two outs in the third, Alex Rodriguez hustled out a hit despite a spectacular try by shortstop Derek Jeter after the ball deflected off third baseman Wade Boggs' glove.

That kept the inning open for Griffey's adventure at-bat. Cone fell back 3-0, got to 3-1 and made Griffey miss a change-up badly to fill the count. Then he fouled a ball off his foot, which left him walking off the sting.

Griffey got under the next pitch, which left the bat like a Fred Couples sandie. Up, up it went. Out?

"I thought (right fielder Paul) O'Neill was going to catch it," said Griffey, who wasn't standing around admiring this one. "I didn't think it was going out."

Neither did Rodriguez.

"I saw it go up and I figured, `Let's hustle it out, get our gloves and get on the field.' Then it went out . . .

"Junior . . . what can you say about him? It seems every time he does something, we win.

"And he does a lot."

Rodriguez called the ball, "a five grainer," referring to good wood in Griffey's black beauty bats.

Hearing this, Griffey pulled the weapon in question from his locker. It had eight or nine grains, great wood. "I've had this bat at home for three years," he said. "I brought it in today because some of my bats didn't feel right in spring training. Guess this felt better."

Ironically, Griffey's second home run drew 57,586 sets of eyes to the spot he had fretted about earlier. It left the park just to the left of the Robinson sign he thought no one would notice.

"Fitting?" he said. "At that point, I was just hoping it would go out, anywhere."

From there it was Fassero, who allowed just one hit and two base runners over his last five innings, and the bullpen duet of Bobby Ayala and Norm Charlton. Three former National Leaguers in a game that reeked of NL ball.

"We get pitching like that," Griffey said, "and this year is going to be as much fun as everyone has been hoping. From where I stood, they were all great."

And from where he stood or walked or ran, Griffey paid tribute to Robinson, the black man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

"Check this out," he said, showing the heel of one of his personally designed Nike baseball shoes.

On it, he had written, "Jackie, 42/50" - referring to Robinson's uniform number, 50 years ago. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Opening statements Ken Griffey Jr. has hit five Opening Day homers. A closer look at his fast starts:

Date Team Pitcher .

April 9, 1990 California Blyleven . April 6, 1993 Toronto Morris . April 27, 1995 Detroit Bergman . April 1, 1997 New York Cone . April 1, 1997 New York Cone .

Full house Top 10 regular-season Mariner home crowds: 1. April 11, 1994 Minn. 57,806 . 2. April 6, 1977 Cal 57,762 . 3. April 1, 1997 N.Y. 57,586 . 4. March 31, 1997 Chi 57,502 . 5. May 25, 1996 N.Y. 57,175 . 6. May 4, 1996 Clev 57,132. 7. April 6, 1996 Milw 56,882 .

May 5, 1996 Clev 56,882 . 9. Sept. 20, 1996 Oak 56,533 . 10. Aug. 28, 1993 Tor 56,074 .

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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