WALLA WALLA — Think spring! Think baseball!
The Seattle Mariners Caravan brought a breath of spring to the Reid Campus Center at Whitman College Thursday afternoon.
Outfielder Casper Wells, pitcher Charlie Furbush, broadcaster Dave Valle, and the Mariner Moose welcomed fans to a brief respite from the dark and dreary Walla Walla winter with dreams of an upcoming baseball season.
Wells and Furbush are both imports from the Detroit Tigers organization, as they were acquired in the trade that sent pitcher Doug Fister to the Tigers, and both made their inaugural Walla Walla visit.
The 27-year old Wells is coming off a 2012 campaign in which he hit 10 home runs and drove in 36 runs, and looks for brighter things for the Mariner offense in 2013.
“I’m living in the moment and looking forward to next year,” Wells said. “We’re bringing in some guys who have been veteran leaders (Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay) and some guys (Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales) that have proven to have good offensive numbers that can help our pitching staff. That has been tremendous the last couple of years.”
Wells patrols the Mariner outfield, but finds the 2013 picture to be crowded with nine candidates for only three starting spots.
“In my eyes, it doesn’t matter how many guys you bring in,” Wells commented. “I feel like the battle is within myself. If I prepare myself and go out and carry out my business, I’m working to be the starting right fielder. All the hard work this offseason is building toward getting a starting position and helping the team out. We’re going to have an awesome year and I’m hoping to be a big part of it.”
The Mariners moved the Safeco Field fences in to hopefully accommodate Wells and his offensive teammates.
“The fences are in pretty significantly,” Wells said. “It evens the playing field a little bit. We’ll get a couple more balls over the fences to help our pitching staff. It’ll add excitement for the fans.”
Furbush, who worked out of the Mariners pen and posted a 5-2 record with a 2.72 ERA, was a part of a pitching staff that posted the 10th best ERA, 3.76, in major league baseball in 2012, but No. 2 starter, Jason Vargas has departed by trade to the Angels.
“I think we made big strides last year as a team,” Furbush said. “We’re all looking forward to getting back on the field and trying to surprise people this year. Someone might step up to fill the role (left by Vargas) or we may go get another guy. At this point, we’ll just keep taking it a day at a time and see how it plays out.”
Furbush was a part of baseball history when he participated in a combined no-hitter thrown by six Mariner pitchers last season. Furbush was the first reliever to follow starter Kevin Millwood after Millwood retired with an injury with the no-no in play.
“That six-man no-hitter was something special for me,” Furbush said. “It was odd to have Millwood go down and not finish it. The rest of the five guys came in and got it done. It was really cool.”
And the pitchers take on the closer homefield fences.
“We were, as a pitching staff, jokingly petitioning for them to move the fences back,” Furbush said. “It is a good thing for our team. It will benefit the team as a whole. It will help bring Seattle back to that championship level.”
Valle, a retired Mariner catcher, works out of the broadcast booth and observes on a daily basis how the Mariners progress.
“I don’t think the Mariners are done (making moves),” Valle said. “Morse and Morales are going to have a huge impact on this team offensively, and that’s been where this team has struggled, to score runs. Furbush has been a starter throughout his career. I’d love to see him be given the opportunity to compete for a starting spot.
“If there’s a strength on this club, it is the pitching,” Valle concluded. “I don’t think the Astros will be a factor in the AL West. The teams the Mariners have to be concerned about are the Rangers, Angels and A’s. The Mariners have good, young kids that are hungry.”
But this breath of spring was all about the Mariner faithful. Wells and Furbush answered questions from the audience and gave Walla Wallans the opportunity to interact on a personal level.
The Mariner Moose showed up on cue to award door prizes.
Alicia Walter, 15, walked away with the prize of the night as the Moose presented her with a Mariners jacket.
“I came because my whole family, especially my dad, really likes the Mariners,” Walter said. “I came for my dad and it was kind of a surprise as he didn’t know we were coming. He loves the Mariners. This (the jacket) is really cool.”
It was a winter break for fans of all ages.
“These (Furbush and Wells) are two of my favorite players,” 62-year-old Diana Osborne said. “We’ve virtually followed them (the Mariners) since they began. We try to go a couple of weekends a year.”
“My favorite Mariner was Ken Griffey Jr,” Diana’s husband, Kent, 63, chipped in. “I like Casper Wells and Furbush is a good pitcher. Raul (Ibanez) is back and that helps. I’m hoping for a playoff.”
And to prove you can never be too young: “Our granddaughter is here and has been a fan all her life,” Diana added. “She’s 4.”
The next Seattle Mariner baseball fix will be Fan Fest at Safeco Field Jan. 26-27.