PEORIA, Arizona – Challenge Julio Rodríguez at your own risk. During spring training here more than two weeks ago, Jerry Dipoto, president of Seattle Mariners baseball operations, did just that with a 21-year-old potential team player.
Sitting on a bench, Rodríguez, third in the sport, turned to Dipot and told him how much he was driven by what people say he can’t do. So Rodríguez, primarily an outfielder from a corner in the lower leagues, asked his boss if he thought Rodríguez could play center. Dipoto, a former first-division pitcher, said yes, and Rodríguez, smiling, assured him that he had already worked hard on it.
Then Dipoto is Rodriguez’s needle. “Do you know what I don’t think you can do?” I don’t think you can make 30/30 or win a triple crown, “he said, referring to two unique feats – hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases per season, and leading the league in average hits, home runs and runs hit.
“I thought it was 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 know.’ Then he took his baton and said, ‘It’s on.’ Since then, every time he is in first base, he runs. ”
When the Mariners start their 2022 season on Friday against the Minnesota Twins – a day later than expected due to the rain in Minneapolis – Rodríguez is expected to be in the center, which is the culmination of a lifelong dream for him and his parents. their native Dominican Republic to watch their son’s debut in Major League Baseball.
It will also serve as another reminder that Rodríguez – with his big dreams and big smile, self-assured self-assurance, English propensity and a footballer-like body – can achieve a lot when he decides to do so. This off-season, Rodríguez struggled to improve on a skill that had previously lagged behind others – his speed – so that he could cope with the center field. And now Rodríguez, who weighs 6 feet-3 and 228 pounds, is close to elite-level runners in baseball, according to Dipoto.
“He’s a five-tool player,” said Dipoto, “who somehow managed to improve all his tools.”
Rodríguez now faces a great challenge: to fulfill the promise of a new era of Mariners. After years of rebuilding, Seattle have won an astonishing 90 games last season and have been battling for a place in the playoffs until the last day of the regular season. Rodriguez, however, did not play any role, producing a stellar 2021 in which he scored 0.347 with 13 home runs on two lower league levels and helped the Dominican baseball team lead to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games.
Ever since Rodriguez was 17, a year after signing a contract with the Mariners for $ 1.75 million, he knew about the gloomy October history of the franchise. In 2001, the Mariners equaled the first league record by winning 116 games, but were eliminated in the second round of the postseason. They have not returned since, the longest active drought of the playoffs in North America’s major professional men’s sports. They are the only active team that did not reach the World Series.
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When Rodríguez and his father flew to Seattle last fall to be able to receive a lower league award than the Mariners before a game at T-Mobile Park, Rodríguez explained the franchise’s disgraceful past.
“He said, ‘Dad, look, I want to be part of a team that’s breaking this record,'” his father, 53, also named Julio Rodríguez, said in a telephone interview in Spanish. “We want to change Seattle’s history.”
That, of course, encouraged the younger Rodriguez. His father had always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but he couldn’t, so he passed that desire on to his son. He put a plastic stick in his son’s hands at birth, and while his son was walking, the older Rodriguez threw balls at him to hit them in the yard after work. By 12, he was catching bulpens and hitting a higher throwing speed.
So, like many Dominican boys, the younger Rodríguez ended up in a baseball academy as a teenager. But his parents did not allow this until they devised a way for their son to also finish high school, which is a less common achievement among young Dominican players who focus on baseball to support their families financially. Rodriguez’s parents realized the importance of education – his father is an agricultural engineer and his mother Yasmin Reyes is an odontologist.
“My parents always said, even if you’re good at baseball, that’s uncertain,” the younger Rodríguez said. “Anything can happen on the field. So my parents always thought that if something happened, I would have a future from it. ”
Rodriguez said from an early age that he wanted to learn English because it sounded cool. He listened to his mother’s CDs in English for beginners. Even while he was at the baseball academy, his parents still sent him to English classes on Saturdays. To help overcome colloquialisms, Rodríguez listened to Drake, following the rapper’s lyrics on his phone. And when he was near colleagues from the lower league from the United States, he asked for their help.
“My English at the time was awful,” he said. “So I’m not afraid to mess up and say to everyone around me, ‘Yeah, if you hear me say something that doesn’t sound or just isn’t good, tell me.’ I was lucky that not everyone around me started looking at me and laughing. They just opened the door. ”
Rodríguez is so persistent in his practice that, even in a recent interview with another native Spanish speaker for this article, he often answered in English, seamlessly switching between the two languages. His knowledge of English stood in stark contrast to Kevin Mather, a former Mariners president who resigned last year after controversial remarks about manipulating the lineup and English abilities of Japanese players Hisashi Iwakuma and Rodríguez.
“When he said that, it came through one ear and came out the other,” Rodriguez said, ironically, in English. “It simply came to my notice then. I didn’t know that guy. “
On the field, Rodriguez is part of the influx of elite young talent into the main players. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals promoted their best odds for the first day – first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Bobby Witt Jr. – after short stays in the AAA class and strong spring training.
Each could be the result of a new boost in the employment contract between MLB and the players’ union: to reduce the manipulation of service time that Mather once described, teams can earn an extra draft after the first round if the best potential major league player is his entire beginner’s year and finish in the top three in voting for beginner of the year or among the top five in voting for Most Valuable Player or Cy Young Award in any season before wage arbitration occurs.
But Rodríguez stands out from other top prospects, say those around him, with his magnetic personality. In a sport that is slowly losing its reputation of traditionalism and muted individualism, Rodríguez shines. He laughs. He smiles. He does not hide his emotions on the field. His batting stick has a nickname: 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’m really working hard to continue to be better and all that, but at the end of the day, you have to enjoy this. “
Rodríguez is not ashamed to want to be an attraction. Growing up, he adored former Mariners star Alex Rodriguez. Julio Rodríguez admired that whenever A-Rod hit, everyone stopped to watch. During an interview a few years ago, Rodríguez said that the interlocutor mentioned the nickname that played his idol – the J-Rod Show – and that he stayed.
“Baseballs need Julios,” Dipoto said. “Having someone with that kind of talent who’s not afraid to go out and compete on the biggest stage – who gets attention and doesn’t give up when it comes – is a great combination.”
The end of the rise of the Mariners is not only on the shoulders of Rodríguez, but also on other promising young Seattle players. These include shortliner JP Crawford, outfielder Kyle Lewis (rookie of the year in the 2020 American League, slowed due to knee injuries), pitchers Matt Brash and Logan Gilbert, catcher Cal Raleigh and outfielder Jarred Kelenic (former Mets best potential player) which exploded in his inaugural season last year).
“For all those guys and all the talent they have, Julio brings with him shine and all the players feel it,” Dipoto said, adding later: “I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”
With an active winter, the Mariners have supplemented one of the youngest MLB lists by signing or trading for the following former All-Stars: pitcher Robbie Ray (AL Cy Young Award winner 2021), outfielder Jesse Winker and infielder Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez. Kelenic, 22, said everyone shares the same goal: reaching the playoffs.
Rodriguez, however, goes a few steps further with his aspirations towards the team – and himself.
Does he think he could be All-Star? Does he think he can be an everyday center player? Does he think he can knock down 500 home wounds before the end of his career? How about helping the Mariners overcome the drought in the playoffs? Or winning the first World Series in Seattle? And what about that playful challenge of the 30-30 season from Dipot?
Rodriguez’s answer to each question was exactly the same: “I don’t doubt my thoughts.”