SEATTLE — Mariners hitters on Tuesday tried hard to have the decency to not whoop and holler at the news about the soon-to-be shortened fences at Safeco Field.
My hunch is that Justin Smoak wanted to dance Gangnam Style down Edgar Martinez Drive, with Jesus Montero at his side.
That would be a breach of decorum, of course — and insensitive to Seattle’s pitchers, who might not be quite so sanguine about a decision that is bound to cost them ERA points.
Yet the Mariners presented a united front of support for a tweak that reeks of common sense. No, it won’t solve all that ails them, but it will help in two vital areas that could be hugely beneficial to propelling them forward.
The first is assuaging the battered psyches of the young Mariner hitters, beaten down by too many well-struck blasts which scream “home run” off the bat, only to die a maddening death at the warning track.
And the second is making Safeco Field a viable destination for free-agent sluggers who heretofore broke into a cold sweat at the mere mention of the ballpark, and instructed their agents not to take a call from Jack Zduriencik under any circumstances.
“I’m sure there are a lot of veteran guys out there, free agents, that have declined because of that reason,” Smoak said. “This should definitely change some things.”
Felix Hernandez — an ardent supporter of the dimension change, yet another proof that he is about as ideal a teammate as you could ever find — was asked what he would get out of closer fences.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just happy for the hitters. It’s going to help them a lot. I’ve heard guys say, ‘Man, I hit that ball hard, and it didn’t even make the warning track.’ I say, ‘Welcome to Safeco.’ Now it’s going to be different.”
How different? It’s not like Safeco is going to turn into pre-humidor Coors Field. Assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, who was a point man in masterminding the new distances, says that he still sees Safeco playing as a pitcher’s park.
“But rather than being an outlier, or 28th, 29th (in offense), we think we’ll be closer to, say, 20th,” Kingston said. “We still want to build this team around pitching and defense. But we wanted to give the hitters a chance where if they felt they really squared a ball up and hit it 390, 400-plus feet, they’d be rewarded for it.”
The word heard over and over on Tuesday to describe the new-look Safeco was “fair.” Hitters at Safeco have been screaming about the injustice of its dimensions since the day it opened. Teammates still remember newly arrived Bill Hall going into his home-run trot on what turned out to be merely a long fly out — and not just once. Finally, Adrian Beltre pulled Hall aside for some friendly advice: “This is Safeco. You can’t be stylin’ here.”
Smoak has heard the grumbles as he mingles with the enemy.
“Oh, every time a guy gets on first base, all they talk about is how terrible this place is to hit,” he said. “Everyone hates hitting here.”
Just ask the Angels’ Torii Hunter, an interested observer since he first came here with the Twins in 1999. He’s seen several generations of frustrated Mariner hitters come and go.
“Oh, for years,” Hunter said. “This is before all these young guys who are here now. Guys before that. And before that. This ballpark eats up the hard-hit fly ball out there. Guys were frustrated when they built the stadium, and it was hard to hit home runs. I’m talking about A-Rod, Griffey, Cameron.
“Right now, they have some guys with really good power. Montero and Smoak, they have all the power in the world, but it’s being taken away. You’re not going to be able to get the most out of those guys.”
But now, just maybe, they can. Liberated from the tyranny of the unrewarded blast, perhaps the Smoaks and Monteros of the world will be able to soar. Hey, for a team that hasn’t sniffed the postseason in more than a decade, and has taken up permanent residence in last place, it’s worth a shot. If it livens up the deadly dull atmosphere of barren offense that’s permeated Safeco, so much the better.
Smoak certainly had a glow about him Tuesday as he contemplated a world in which he’s not shaking his head in frustration and kicking the dirt as the center fielder hauls in his long drive.
“It can change your whole day around,” he said. “Definitely a game-changer.”
This is a team that has desperately needed its game changed. Wise decision.