PEORIA, Ariz. – Jack Zduriencik is a solid guy in an unstable world, with all the burden that implies.
He is a man grounded by the sort of fundamental values (and heavy legs) that, restated on a Friday morning and outlined against a blue-gray desert sky, sounded like the diktats of an old football coach from Pennsylvania, which he happens to be. When he seeks emphasis on a point, he holds and curls his hands at belly level and shakes them, as if strangling to death some pip-squeak cornerback. Or, for that matter, some middle infielder.
“My point,” he said, “is being the best you can be every day. Every single day. Be a quality ballplayer. Take nothing for granted. … It’s getting back to what we stand for.”
As he spoke, what remained of his 101-loss Seattle Mariners was reporting for duty, position players joining pitchers, some of whom lived through the wretched summer of 2010, others having come for the opportunities it created.
From the promise of 85 wins the season before, the Mariners not only failed to sustain their momentum in 2010, they collapsed. Big egos fell upon bigger egos, bad seasons fell upon worse seasons, the clubhouse fell in upon itself, and organizational icon Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) fell into the front seat of his SUV and drove away.
By the time the season was done – mercifully done – what the Mariners stood for was malfunction. What could go wrong, did. What run could be scored, didn’t. What could become an embarrassment, paraded straight down Edgar Martinez Drive.
In camps throughout Florida and Arizona, is there a franchise more looking forward to putting a little PFP between itself and its most recent past? And of all the men in charge, is there one more eager to get back to the business of building an organization?
Over 10 minutes on what amounts to the back lawn at the Mariners’ spring facility here, Zduriencik summed up the 2010 season thusly:
“Things got away from us.”
“As disappointing a season as I ever had.”
“A very difficult year.”
“A lot of things went sideways.”
Nobody likes disappointing. Fewer like sideways.
Then there’s Zduriencik, the son of a steel worker who strikes me as a guy who last went sideways during his senior prom, and even then had to be dragged.
So the plan, whether the Mariners had won 101 games (they didn’t) or lost as many, remains fundamentally the same. It’s about the foundation, building something sustainable, developing players such as Justin Smoak(notes), Dustin Ackley(notes), Michael Pineda(notes) and Johermyn Chavez, and counting on more from the likes of Chone Figgins(notes), Franklin Gutierrez(notes) and Jack Wilson(notes). Beyond that, the Mariners have the second pick in the June draft and still hope to sign left-hander James Paxton, their fourth-round selection from last June.
This might not be exactly what Mariners fans want to hear, but Zduriencik raised his eyebrows and said, “It’s just time, that’s all.” That’s a tough sell to a fan base that hasn’t seen a postseason game in going on a decade, and whose displeasure has resulted in declining attendance at Safeco Field for three consecutive seasons.
Meanwhile, Friday’s clubhouse teemed with new faces – Miguel Olivo(notes), Jack Cust(notes), Brendon Ryan, Adam Kennedy(notes), Nate Robertson(notes), Chris Ray(notes), manager Eric Wedge and his coaching staff among them.
These are the people – along with Felix Hernandez(notes), Ichiro(notes), dare I say Milton Bradley(notes) – charged with covering the ground between here and there, between 101 losses and something a bit more competitive, and a lot more dignified. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.
“I think that comes on every individual,” Figgins said. “Everybody saw how things went.”
Along with who went. The manager, Don Wakamatsu, for one. It is Wedge who will deal with the wounded psyches left over, starting when he addresses the full squad for the first time Saturday. Wedge had some winners over seven seasons in Cleveland. And he had some losers. None, however, lost as many as 101 games, and certainly not twice in three seasons.
Asked if he sensed there was repair work to be done in his new clubhouse, he shook his head.
“That hasn’t even come into my thought process,” he said. “I’m more of a push-forward type.”
If Wedge is pushing things forward with a well-swung toe of his boot, all the better. He certainly seems to be Zduriencik’s kind of guy, which, of course, is critical if everyone above Zduriencik – Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong, for two – is going to allow the time for the Mariners to build under Zduriencik.
“A big step in that was to bring in a manager that had credibility,” Zduriencik said. “He’s bought into our all-in attitude. We’re connected at the hip. He and I are going to run this thing side by side. And it’s been perfect.”
And, just in case anybody has ideas otherwise, Zduriencik added, “He’s the leader in that locker room. And that’s very important. You can have leaders in that locker room, but the manager leads the club.”
To where, is anyone’s guess. But a little stability would be a nice start.