It was midmorning of a day so mild that the Seattle Mariners could have played a matinee game with the roof open at Safeco Field.
Instead team officials were hosting the annual pre-spring-training media meeting Thursday (Jan. 27), with the jackals of the press assembled in the subterranean interview room to hear more about a franchise that has lost most of its games for most of a decade.
The 2011 vintage arrives with the reigning American League Cy Young Award-winner (Felix Hernandez), a will-be Hall of Famer right-fielder (Ichiro Suzuki) and more questions than a pop quiz.
One would like to report that answers — positive, negative, neutral — were forthcoming. One can’t do that, however, possibly because this is a franchise with little accountability, at least at its high echelons. Lower-level personnel, including a procession of managers and players, have been perennially expendable. Owners and execs? They’re b-a-c-k.
Two seasons ago the team seemed to turn a corner with a winning record. Last year it was back to the bottom and a 61-101 finish.
The latter reality wasn’t exactly a morning mood-enhancer. Worse still for an event pegged to the coming weekend’s FanFest activities at Safeco was the solemnity rendered by the obvious absence of what may have been the team’s greatest asset during its third of a century. The death in November of venerable announcer Dave Niehaus left a pall over the assembly, as Randy Adamack, the vice president of communications, gamely commenced with business. Baseball, after all, is supposed to be about looking forward, even in a town where, as regards the Mariners, everything new seems old again.
That includes the so-called news. Little was imparted during the three-hour session, probably because so little is known. The M's go into spring training two weeks hence with a fair idea about starting pitching, a few position guys penciled in and the palpable expectation of playing to finish as high as third in the four-team division.
Jack Zduriencik, the general manager, didn’t exactly sound boastful in noting a pair of off-season acquisitions, possibly because former M’s catcher Miguel Olivo (he’s played in four towns since leaving Seattle in 2005) and ex-Oakland outfielder Jack Cust aren’t exactly marquee players.
Otherwise, the GM insisted he’s “happy with the way things have gone” going into his third season in Seattle, emphasizing the notion that he and others in the organization have been “laying a foundation that can sustain itself.”
If he’s correct, however, that “we have not deviated” from his original plan for the ballclub, one wonders what frustrated fans are to conclude.
Zduriencik’s strongest promise was that the weeks to come would bring “a very interesting spring training for us,” with “interesting” left undefined.
Then Jack Z broached what could be called The Wedge Issue. It concerns new manager Erik Wedge, who followed the GM in order of appearance at the event.
If his best-known recent predecessor (Don Wakamatsu, heartily praised by the same Zduriencik last year at this time) reminded one of Brando during his mumbling era, Wedge is George C. Scott and his staccato approach to the dialogue of General Patton. Wak: passive; Wedge: active . . . well, manic.
Wedge, observing his 43rd birthday, was given to clichés such as “you gotta be some kind of tough to play major-league baseball,” even while insisting that “a lot of this sounds like clichés but it’s not.”
The new field boss, who has had success as a big-league manager, was no more forthcoming than Zduriencik about a possible opening-day lineup when the club starts the season in Oakland April 1. Wedge indicated that it will probably fall upon him to try to salvage some value out of Milton Bradley, the volatile outfielder still owed millions for the coming season.
“I may know Milton better than anybody in the game,” Wedge said, leaving one to wonder whether that’s to be considered good or bad.
Perhaps the most encouraging news as far as fans go came from trainer Rick Griffin, who reported that: closer David Aardsma will be on crutches eight to 10 weeks following successful hip surgery before starting rehabilitation; lefty Erik Bedard, with just 18 decisions since being acquired before the 2008 campaign, “is feeling great” coming into spring training.
Other bullet points:
- The M’s picked up an extra series at Safeco because Florida will have no home field June 24 to 26. The Marlins will be the “home” team as far as batting last, and National League rules will apply.
- Mariner players will wear “Dave” patches on their uniforms this year to honor the deceased Hall of Famer Niehaus.
Otherwise, much of the chatter at the event had to do with Dustin Ackley, the 2009 number-two draft pick who played second base at triple-A Tacoma last season. Team officials indicated that Ackley will have ample chance to win the position in the bigs out of spring training, with Chone Figgins definitely shifting to third base.
Given a coming season with apparent scarcity of promise, Felix Hernandez was on hand toward the end of the event to put his ceaseless grin into the photo frame with his Cy Young Award. I later posed something of a pop quiz, asking the prized right-hander to predict how many wins he’ll get this season, perhaps a fair question for the notoriously run-support-deprived starter (he won just 13 times in 2010 but still claimed the top prize for pitchers).
Let it be noted that he was still grinning when he finally responded. But for weary M’s fans it could provide a January day-brightener to know that King Felix distinctly answered: “Thirty-four.”