Seattle @ Oakland
OAKLAND, Calif. — From the outside looking in, this Mariners spring has been about homers and thump and the nearly foreign premise that their offense has the requisite components to succeed.
But from the inside, from manager Eric Wedge’s vantage point, it has been about something more subtle, more elusive, and much harder to quantify. Yet this quality — we’ll call it attitude, but it’s really more complex than that — is what he keeps coming back to.
Wedge sees bonding. He sees camaraderie. He sees leadership. He sees mentoring — and young players eager to soak it up. He sees the growth of confidence, and the raising of expectations. He sees players “holding each other accountable” more than previous years.
And these signs of growth are what have him just as excited — perhaps more so — than the Mariners’ record number of spring victories or their Cactus League slugging as the 2013 season dawns with Monday’s opener.
I can sense you rolling your eyes, and perhaps for good reason. If the Mariners limp out to a 6-18 start, we’ll see how long all that bonhomie remains intact. Most teams in baseball are talking about the same thing right now, and for many, it will evaporate once the cruel happenings of a 162-game season start to batter and bruise their psyche.
Heaven knows, we’ve seen that deflating process play out in recent years with the Mariners, to the ultimate extreme in the 101-loss seasons of 2008 and 2010. Those years, Seattle had the textbook definition of a dysfunctional clubhouse, and while you could debate all day about the chicken-and-egg genesis of such an attitudinal disintegration — do the bad vibes develop because of the losing, or help cause it? — in the end, what matters is that it happened.
Yet I’ve been around enough winning teams (though the memory is getting dimmer by the day) to know that it can be a thing of beauty when the momentum starts to move in the other direction. There’s nothing quite so vibrant and electric and fun and contagious as a contending clubhouse, and the energy mounts as the contention becomes more intense.
Wedge has been there, with a Cleveland team that was one win away from a pennant. You may scoff at such intangible notions, but he believes in them — and so do most players I’ve encountered.
Just about every time I’ve asked Wedge for an assessment of his team, or their spring, the answer quickly centers on his pleasure over what he sees in the clubhouse. Here’s what he said during spring training:
“I’m excited to see the dynamic in the locker room, and excited to see how it translates to the field. The conversation is so good. The relationships are so good. I’m not looking for a bunch of choir boys, but I am looking for baseball players that understand what it takes to win. I think we have a lot of young people that are in the middle of learning what that means, and we have some veterans here now that understand and know what that means.”
And here’s what he said Sunday, during a light workout at the Oakland Coliseum, when I asked him to assess his mood heading into his third season with the Mariners:
“I think we have a great clubhouse working out there. How the young kids continue to evolve, and the veteran players coming in here and what they’ve added. It’s been a great dynamic out there. I’m just looking for that to carry over into the regular season.
“We’ll see how things play out early on and make whatever adjustments we need to make, but I think what you’re seeing in the clubhouse out there is real, and we’ve filled some holes we felt we needed to fill. Not just from a tangible standpoint, but for the intangibles, and I think that’s worked out well.”
So scoff if you’d like, and hang your hat on the power that Michael Morse brings to the lineup, not the wisdom he might pass on to Justin Smoak. Judge Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay on the production they offer as spot starters, not the tips they might give Jesus Montero and Michael Saunders about persevering through a long season.
We’ll reassess later to see if those intangibles hold up under the potential distress of a rotation that may be vulnerable beyond Felix Hernandez, and a lineup needing a whole lot of advancement from struggling young players.
When Wedge takes the temperature of this Mariners team, he loves what he sees, and what he feels. But now they are being thrown in the fire. We’ll know soon enough if it’s real, to use one of Wedge’s favorite phrases, and sustainable.