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Tuesday, December 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners

After 14 years with M's, Buhner retires

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After 14 seasons patrolling the 'Boneyard' in right field for the Mariners, Jay Buhner has decided to retire, citing a series of injuries.

Starting next season, the Mariners will have a little less heart and a little less history, and a lot more hair.

Jay Buhner has decided to retire.

"I'm done," said the outfielder, who came to the club in its best trade, from the New York Yankees for Ken Phelps, in 1988, and brought class, character and competitiveness to an organization in dire need of all of that.

"Yep," he said yesterday, "I'm done."

All you need to know about the regard held for Jay Campbell Buhner was shown when the Mariners offered him salary arbitration two weeks ago.

But the day before he was to meet with Lee Pelekoudas, Seattle's assistant general manager, about his future, Buhner had to fly to Houston when his dad developed a complication from diabetes. Not long after, team officials left for the winter meetings in Boston and since have been tied up with trades and talking with free agents.

The salary arbitration offer could cost the club about $1.5 million, a 20 percent cut from Buhner's 2001 salary. But the Mariners never hesitated in making the offer.

"We don't expect him to use the offer," Pelekoudas said at the time. "But there's no way we don't give Jay the courtesy, not after all the years he's been with us, not after all that he means to our organization and our fans."

Buhner was touched.

"I really appreciate what they did," he said. "It was really classy of them to do that."

Thus, the 37-year-old outfielder will make formal, probably this week, what has been expected for some time. There will be no need for arbitration. He's done.

No wonder. Plagued by injuries, he is injured again.

"I need surgery just to retire, on my left shoulder, which froze up on me, and on my left knee," he said, laughing at the irony of limping out the door as he often limped onto the field. "In fact, I'm headed out to get an MRI on the shoulder. It's hell to get old."

There is simply a ton of wear and tear on Buhner's rangy physique, which he honed with a winter of hard work this time last year, only to reinjure his left foot in his first spring training at-bat.

"If I had tried to come back again, the only thing I could have done was pinch-hit, and that was questionable, too," he said. "I couldn't hold up the organization any longer. We've been supposed to meet for weeks. I have to let them know I'm hanging them up."

He has been tempted not to. While his children have wanted him to stay home, wife, Leah, has been understanding. For men like Jay Buhner, baseball is so much more than a game or a living, it's a love.

"I've had guys calling and asking me to go one more year," he said. "And I see Norm (Charlton) coming back and I'm going to miss him and my buddies on the club and in the game. But (Seattle team physician) Mitch Storey told me, 'I'm not going to let you play. I can't.' I told him, 'Do me a favor and don't let me talk myself out of it.'"

Although retirement was an obvious step, Buhner had held off on an announcement, held out "this little hope maybe, just maybe," a little offseason rest would help him recuperate enough to be back one more season.

"Nope. The time off hasn't helped," he said. "I've taken it as far as my body has let me and I don't think I've done that badly."

No one familiar with Buhner, who turned right field at the Kingdome into the Boneyard, would ever think to link "badly" with any aspect of his play or persona.

The man is beloved, truly a part of the community, where he and Leah would walk with the family to see the sights of Salmon Days in Issaquah.

He is a genuine character in an arena where the breed is disappearing. He could vomit on cue, one of Buhner's favorite gags.

He was once known to skip around the clubhouse in spring training, wearing nothing but a pair of black socks — and a bagel. A classic big-game performer, he was renowned for his power and run production and often, his strikeouts. He once summed up his approach to hitting after a three-strikeout game: "They can get me three times, I only have to get them once."

A .254 hitter during the regular season over his career, his average jumped to .309 in postseason play. As if to close a circle of a big-league career that started in New York in 1987, his last start, last hit, last home run (No. 310) and last RBI came at Yankee Stadium in 2001.

"That was amazing," he said. "It would've been better at home in Seattle, best if it had helped us win and get to the World Series. But it wasn't meant to be, and it was still weird to have it end there."

His lone regret is that he did not reach 1,000 RBIs, finishing with 965.

"Driving in runs was my game, and I'd surely liked to have reached a grand, but, hey, it's not meant to be," he said. "I think everyone knows I'd have been there except for the injuries."

Buhner has been injury prone all his life. He spoke once about going to a hospital three times in his senior year of high school in Houston, once when he was knocked out of the bed of a pickup truck in an accident, flying in the air and landing on his head.

He recalled, "It got so that my mom knew everyone down at the emergency room by name, and they knew her."

The injury bug struck him in his earliest years with Seattle, when he missed seven weeks of 1989 after spraining a wrist running into the wall in Kansas City (he held onto the ball) and two months of 1990 when he badly sprained an ankle in a spring game in Yuma.

In those early days he chafed to play. Riding the bench, former coach Bill Plummer had to restrain him from hitting Manager Jim Lefebvre in 1989, when Lefebvre said in a Times story the team needed right-handed power but had no one to supply it.

Buhner was on the DL 10 times, but only once between 1990 and 1998, when he started a stretch of four major injuries in four years.

In all, he missed about 500 days, nearly three full seasons. Given his averages of 25 homers and 75 RBI, had he not missed the time, Buhner, with 310 homers (No. 82 on the all-time list) and 965 RBI, would have wound up with close to 400 homers and 1,200 RBI.

"I think what we achieved as a team makes up for what I may have missed as an individual," Buhner said. "Nothing can top us saving baseball in Seattle and having the satisfaction of being part of one of sports' biggest success stories ever.

"We had some great times and I have the memories of the 1995 charge to the pennant, four playoff teams in my last seven years, teammates I've had that have become friends for life. Norm, Junior (Ken Griffey Jr.), Edgar (Martinez), Randy (Johnson), our trainer Rick Griffin, all our wonderful front-office people, who get so little credit for all we've done as an organization, men like Chuck (Armstrong) and Howard (Lincoln) and Lee (Pelekoudas) and John (Ellis) and the owners who have been so supportive."

Griffey and Buhner were inseparable as pals, teammates for 11 years, and neighbors in Issaquah who drove to the park every day together and shared the tribulations of the bad years as well as the triumphs.

Griffey called Buhner, "my bald-headed brother with a different mother."

"Now, everyone in Seattle is going to feel the way I have for two years," Griffey said. "I have missed Jay more than I can say. I've looked over to my left in the outfield and it's never been the same. In Seattle I never knew who'd be in left field on any day, but I always knew I never had to worry about anything to right, Jay would take care of it.

"Not many people know what he meant to the team and organization. They don't make many like him. In fact, they only made one and he was a beauty."

And that one simply could go to post no more.

"We'll miss Jay, day in, day out," Manager Lou Piniella said. "We were obviously a better offense and defense with him out there on the field. But more than that we were an immeasurably better team just with him around."

Armstrong, the Mariners president whose relationship with Buhner is based on both being from Louisville, said: "I've always been closer to Jay than any player ever in our organization, because of the way he has given back to the team and to the community, and for his leadership on and off the field, in so many tangible ways and so many intangible."

Retirement should not mean an end to Buhner's time with the Seattle club. Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln has said that keeping Jay in the organization is a goal of his.

Buhner would like to put the Mariners Blues on occasionally, "to go to camp in the spring, work with the young players, and maybe soften the impact of retiring."

The final decision will be up to GM Pat Gillick and Piniella, who has said he likes the idea of taking a page from the Yankees' practice of bringing back lead players to help in spring training.

"I'd like to continue to help somehow," Buhner said. "I've pretty much maxed out what the Lord meant for my body and for my abilities. I don't think I could get any more out of them."

It remains to be seen what the Mariners will do with Buhner Buzz Night. One of pro sports' unique promotions, with its memorable catchphrase, "Bald is Buhnerful," it celebrated the outfielder's popularity and his pate, which he started to shave after a couple of seasons in Seattle.

From 1994 to 1999, more than 16,000 fans participated, including 186 women and 1,923 men who were already bald.

There was no Buzz Night in 2000, but it was restored this past season and, sensing it could be the last one, 6,246 fans participated, including 112 women and 988 who were already Buhnerful.

"Just another big piece that I'll miss," Buhner said, "and another I'll never forget. It was a blast, and I really hope no one ever regretted doing it. They all looked great to me after going through it."

But dearer to him than the annual shearing night are his charity events, the annual Cystic Fibrosis Golf Tournament, which has become one of the area's top charity days, and his work on behalf of the Diabetes Foundation, in honor of his dad.

"I'll take a little time now and see where we go from here," he said. "I know it's going to be rough missing the game and the spirit of the clubhouse. But I'll get to spend a lot more time with the kids. Brianna's in fourth grade, Chase is in second and Gunnar is in first. I'll get to get on with life.

"It's time. You can work and practice and overcome slumps and injuries and all sorts of troubles. But when it's time to go, when it's time to ride into the sunset, you go."

Bob Finnigan can be reached at 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com.

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