Julio Rodriguez wants to end the post-season drought at the Seattle Mariners

PEORIA, Arizona – Challenge Julio Rodriguez at your own risk. During a spring training session here more than two weeks ago, Jerry Dipoto, president of Seattle Mariners baseball operations, did just that with the team’s 21-year-old potential.

Sitting on the bench, Rodriguez, the third most promising in the sport, turned to Dipoto and told him how much he was driven by what people say he can’t do. So Rodriguez, mostly a corner outfielder in the minor leagues, asked his boss if he thought Rodriguez could play center. The dipot, a former Premier League pitcher, said yes, and Rodriguez smiled and assured him that he had already worked hard.

Then Dipoto hit Rodriguez. “Do you know what I don’t think you can do?” I don’t think you can do 30/30 or win a triple crown, “he said, referring to two unique achievements – hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in one season and leading the league in mid-range hitting, home run and the rune cut.

“I had this as a joke, just to see where it would go,” Dipoto later recalled. And he said, “Don’t you think so?” I said, “No, I don’t.” Then he picked up his bat and said, “Turn it on.” Since then, every time he is at first base, he runs away. “

When the Mariners begin their 2022 season on Friday against the Minnesota Twins – a day later than expected due to the rain in Minneapolis – Rodriguez is expected to be at the center of the field, the culmination of a lifelong dream for him and his parents. fly from their home Dominican Republic to watch their son’s debut in Major League Baseball.

It will also serve as another reminder that Rodriguez – with his big dreams and big smile, self-confident self-confidence, English ability and footballer-like body – can achieve a lot when he decides to go for it. This off-season Rodriguez struggled to improve a skill that had previously lagged behind his others – his speed – to cope with the center field. And now Rodriguez, who has been announced with 6 feet 3 and 228 pounds, is close to an elite level runner in baseball, according to Dipoto.

“He’s a five-instrument player,” said Dipoto, “who somehow managed to improve all his instruments.”

Rodriguez now faces a major challenge: to deliver on the promising promise of a new era for the Mariners. After years of recovery, Seattle won a surprising 90 games last season and fought for a place in the playoffs until the last day of the regular season. However, Rodriguez did not play any role, creating a stellar 2021, in which he hit 0.347 with 13 home runs in two levels of the minor championship and helped the Dominican baseball team reach the bronze medal at the Tokyo Games.

Since Rodriguez was 17, the year he signed with the Mariners for $ 1.75 million, he has known about the franchise’s grim history in October. In 2001, the Sailors equaled the record in the major leagues, winning 116 games, but broke out in the second round of the postseason. They have not returned since, the longest active drought in the playoffs in the major professional men’s sports in North America. They are the only active team that has not reached the World Series.

When Rodriguez and his father flew to Seattle last fall to receive an award from the Sailors’ Premier League before a game at T-Mobile Park, Rodriguez explained the franchise’s disgraceful past.

“He said, ‘Dad, look, I want to be part of the team that breaks that record,’ his 53-year-old father, also named Julio Rodriguez, said in a telephone interview in Spanish. “We want to change the history of Seattle.”

This, of course, feeds the younger Rodriguez. His father had always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but he failed, so he passed that desire on to his son. He placed a plastic bat in his son’s arms at birth, and as his son walked, the older Rodriguez threw balls at him to hit them in the backyard after work. At 12, he was shooting and hitting at higher speeds.

And so, like many Dominican boys, the younger Rodriguez ended up in a baseball academy in his teens. But his parents wouldn’t let him until they figured out a way for their son to finish high school, a rare achievement among young Dominican players who focus on baseball to support their families financially. Rodriguez’s parents understand the importance of education – his father is an agricultural engineer and his mother Yasmine Reyes is an odontologist.

“My parents always said that even if you’re good at baseball, it’s uncertain,” said the younger Rodriguez. “Anything can happen on the field. So my parents always thought that if something happened, I would have a future from it.

From a young age, Rodriguez said he wanted to learn English because it sounded cool. He listened to his mother’s CDs in English for beginners. Even while he was away at a baseball academy, his parents still sent him to English classes on Saturdays. To help control the colloquial speech, Rodriguez listened to Drake, following the rapper’s text on his phone. And when he was around his colleagues from the smaller leagues in the United States, he enlisted their help.

“My English was terrible at the time,” he said. “So I’m not afraid to confuse things and say to everyone around me, ‘Hey, if you hear me say something that doesn’t sound or just isn’t that good, tell me.’ I was lucky that not everyone around me started looking at me and laughing. They just opened the door. “

Rodriguez is so insistent on practicing that even in a recent interview with another Spanish speaker for this article, he often answered in English, sliding smoothly between the two languages. His English skills contrast with Kevin Mater, the former Mariners president who resigned last year after making conflicting remarks about the manipulation of the list and the English abilities of Japanese player Hisashi Iwakuma and Rodriguez.

“When he said that, he went through one ear and came out the other,” Rodriguez said ironically in English. “It simply came to my notice then. I didn’t know the man. “

On the field, Rodriguez is part of the influx of elite young talent to the great. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals promoted their best prospects for the first day – first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Bobby Whit Jr. – after short stays in the AAA class and strong spring training.

Each may be the result of a new incentive in the employment agreement between MLB and the players’ union: To reduce the service time manipulation described by Mather once, teams can win an additional draft pick after the first round, if at all possible. the best prospect in the major leagues throughout his new year and ends up either in the top three in rookie voting of the year or in the top five in the Most Valuable Player Vote or Cy Young Award each season before reaching payroll arbitration .

But Rodriguez differs from other top prospects, say others, by his magnetic personality. In a sport that is slowly losing its reputation for traditionalism and muted individualism, Rodriguez shines. He is laughing. He smiles. He does not hide his emotions on the field. His training bat is nicknamed: JROD. It has its own logo.

“I respect people who take this so seriously,” Rodriguez said of baseball. “I definitely think it’s serious. I work really hard to keep improving and all that, but at the end of the day you have to enjoy it. ”

Rodriguez is not ashamed to want to be an attraction. Growing up, he adored former Sailors star Alex Rodriguez. Julio Rodriguez admired that every time A-Rod beat, everyone stopped to watch. During an interview years ago, Rodriguez said that the interviewer had mentioned a nickname that affected his idol – the J-Rod Show – and it remained.

“Baseball needs Julios,” Dipoto said. “Having someone with that kind of talent who’s not afraid to go out and compete on the biggest stage – who attracts attention and doesn’t fade when he comes – is a great combination.”

Completing the rise of the Sailors lies not only on the shoulders of Rodriguez, but also on the other promising young players of Seattle. These include shortstop JP Crawford, outfielder Kyle Lewis (2020 American League rookie who is amused by knee injuries), pitchers Matt Brash and Logan Gilbert, hunter Cal Raleigh and outfielder Jared Kelenich (former potential player). The Mets, who scattered in his new season last year).

“For all these boys and all the talent they have, Julio brings with him brilliance and all the players feel it,” Dipoto said, adding later: “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

With an active winter, the Sailors complemented one of MLB’s youngest squads by signing or exchanging with the following former All-Stars: pitcher Robbie Ray (2021 AL Cy Young Award winner), outfielder Jesse Winker and infiltrators Adam Fraser. and Eugenio Suarez. Kelenic, 22, said they all share the same goal: reaching the playoffs.

However, Rodriguez is taking a few steps forward with his aspirations for the team – and himself.

Do you think it could be All-Star? Does he think he can be a daily central player? Does he think he can break 500 home runs before the end of his career? How about helping the Mariners overcome their land in the playoffs? Or win the first World Series in Seattle? And how about that playful challenge for season 30-30 of Dipoto?

Rodriguez’s answer to every question was exactly the same: “I have no doubt in my mind.”

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