"I was trying to be somebody I wasn't," the Mariners center fielder said.
The young, athletic, and yes, sometimes mistake-prone rookie was so worried about impressing people, most notably new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, that he says he lost track of who he was. Then, as spring training came to a close, McClendon approached his leadoff hitter with a simple message: be yourself.
"He's really smart," Almonte said. "He started to see that I was trying to be something, do something that I'm not. He came to me and said, 'Hey, just be you, don't be afraid. We're going to be here for you, and if you do something wrong, we'll tell you and we'll do it better. Be you.'"
Being himself has produced some good moments for Almonte, as well as some head-scratching ones. One day Almonte's speed and aggression will create a run for the Mariners, and the next, he'll run into an unnecessary out.
When asked why he's comfortable letting Almonte have the freedom to make mistakes, McClendon joked, "I never said I was comfortable. But it's a necessary evil.
"The only way he's going to be an instinctive player is to rely on his own talents … Sometimes we become too instructive as coaches, and we actually get in the players' way. I'm just trying to stay out of their way; let them play, let them figure it out, and if he's good, he'll figure it out."
Almonte might or might not develop into the player the Mariners are hoping he can be, but perhaps more telling than the rookie's early ups and downs is McClendon's approach to the young player. The Mariners are one of baseball's biggest surprises early on, racing out to a fast start despite currently having three of their top starting pitchers on the disabled list, and while players ultimately decide games, the way McClendon is handling his new team early has also made an impact.
When McClendon was hired, one of his first messages to the public was that the Mariners would respect their opponents, but fear no one. Two weeks into the season, his players are echoing that same message, and more importantly, playing like they believe it.
A big part of that, Mariners players say, has been the way McClendon has had his players' backs, both on the field and off, from Day 1. Most notably, McClendon had strong words for Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long after Long was critical of Robinson Cano for a lack of hustle when running out ground balls. Once the games started, McClendon showed he'll stand up to umpires if he thinks one of his pitchers is getting squeezed, or if an ump is having words with a player.
None of that directly produces or prevents runs, but players say it makes a difference when they feel like their manager will go to battle for them.
"We're not going to take flack from anybody, we're not going to take a back seat to anybody," said infielder Willie Bloomquist, "That's something he's preached from day one, that we don't need to take a back seat to anybody. We're as good as anybody out there if we play our game, and don't expect anything less. If somebody's treating any different, then you stand up for yourself and you handle it. He's right there behind us, so that's been good."
And then there's the way McClendon has handled Almonte. Given the center fielder's penchant for dramatic peaks and valleys, has been the most obvious and discussed example of letting a player be himself, but it's hardly an isolated approach to one player.
McClendon acknowledges that every player is different and can't be managed the same way, but in broad terms, he isn't going to be one to micromanage his players.
"He's very clear with us," shortstop Brad Miller said. "He says, 'Hey, don't change. Be the type of player you are. Go out there and leave it all out there, and yeah, you might make some mistakes along the way, but we're going to get better, we're going to learn form them, and I want you to play the right way.' That's a good message for us; we don't have to worry about anything but playing hard and trying to get after it. It definitely makes it easy on you if you're not trying to do too much."
Yet don't confuse McClendon's willingness to let his players be themselves with a lack of authority. If a player is doing things wrong, if he thinks an umpire is showing up his player, or if another team's hitting coach is criticizing one of his players, McClendon has no problem showing his fiery side.
"He has the right mix, he's pretty laid back and lets us do our thing, but he has an edge to him where he's definitely not afraid to get in someone's face a little bit," Bloomquist said.
McClendon admits that earlier in his career he might not have had the patience to let a young player like Almonte work through mistakes. When McClendon was a first-time manager in Pittsburgh, he wasn't that far removed from his playing career — he was 42 when he became the Pirates manager — and didn't have the same understanding of the job he has now after spending eight seasons working under Jim Leyland in Detroit.
"I think it's evolved over time," McClendon said of his approach to the job. "I was a young manager in Pittsburgh, and one of the things I probably didn't realize is it's a players' game. My days of playing the game were over. I was fairly young and probably still thought I could play — I wasn't worth a damn to start with — but I probably still thought I could play. I probably got in their way a little bit."
McClendon won't get in the way of Almonte, or anyone else, as the Mariners try to reverse a decade of losing. Maybe Almonte will pan out, maybe he won't, but what could perhaps have the more lasting impact is the way McClendon has handled his team early on, letting players be themselves, while also letting them know he has their back.
"Number one, he's pretty direct with this message," Miller said. "He wants to win and he wants to do things the right way. We know what to expect and what he expects out of us. And number two, he's got our back. That's pretty important. That's probably the cardinal rule for a manager, how he treats players, and we feel like he has our back, so it's easy to play for him. You know he's fighting for you, so you want to go out there and fight for him."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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