I stopped by Safeco Field Friday. The grass on the baseball playing field, you will be pleased to know, was a rich green. The home-plate and infield areas had been raked and appeared ready for opening day, still nearly three months away. My friends and I, all middle-aged and above, were figuratively pounding our gloves and ready to field a few grounders and fly balls.
The occasion was one of many gatherings convened recently by the Seattle Mariners to introduce their new general manager, Jack Zduriencik, and members of his new management team. I attended a similar session with Zduriencik several weeks ago. He has given several radio and TV interviews, as has new manager Don Wakamatsu. On all occasions the new Z-W duo has made a favorable impression on knowledgeable and committed Mariners fans.
This weekend the two will meet with Mariners coaches, scouts, and front-office staff. It will the first time since their hiring that all Mariners "baseball" (as distinct from business) staff will be together in the same place. There will be a weekend-long discussion of ways and means of improving last year's pathetic team, which lost 101 games with a payroll of about $120 million — a new record for major-league cost ineffectiveness.
With Zduriencik, and with Wakamatsu too, we will get what we see. Both are blue-collar, humble-origins guys who have paid their dues on sandlots and low-minor-league fields; have strong work ethics; and have made clear they will have little patience with high-paid players who do not play all nine innings hard, every day.
Wherever he has gone in the Northwest in recent weeks, Zduriencik has been quite forthcoming about the current Mariners roster and where it needs improvement. He expects improvement in 2009 and, with a break or two, a chance that the Mariners will have a winning record and be in pennant contention in the American League West. He is stuck with some high-salaried white elephants, notably pitchers Jarod Washburn, Carlos Silva, and Miguel Batista, and catcher Kenji Johjima. These players who will fill payroll space which might otherwise be devoted to younger, hungrier talent. There is little chance that any can be traded to other teams.
He is still talking trade with several other teams, Zduriencik has said, and hopes to add another bat or two before opening day. Ken Griffey Jr.? That would be a long shot. He does not use their names but it is clear Z expects second baseman Jose Lopez and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to tighten their defense and, especially with Betancourt, plate discipline. He already has made trades to construct a first-rate outfield defense.
After this weekend's meetings, the Mariners baseball staff will begin heading to Peoria, Arizona, and the Mariners training complex. There, early in February, the countdown will begin to opening day. I will spend a week there, as I do every year. I recommend it to anyone who loves baseball. You can watch not only the exhibition games but the back-field workouts involving rookies and up-and-comers striving to get to The Show.
Zduriencik is Old School and perhaps more personally devoted to baseball than any previous Mariners general manager. In Wakamatsu, he has the manager he wants. Players, he has made clear, will be told from Day One exactly what is expected of them. If they do not perform, he says, they will no longer be Mariners. The inmates appeared to be running the asylum much of last season under former GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren — at least until Bavasi and McLaren were fired. No more of that.
If organizations reflect their leadership, and almost all do, then we will see some hustling, hard-nosed baseball this summer at Safeco. I think it unlikely the 2009 Mariners will make the American League playoffs or World Series. But I do expect them to play better than .500 baseball and be on their way to much better in 2010. This team is now in strong, professional hands not in evidence since Pat Gillick and Lou Piniella left the premises.