By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — With a mixture of pride and sheepishness, Brad Miller stuck out his hands for inspection.
“They are gross,” the Mariners shortstop prospect said grinning.
Gross to some people, perhaps, but to others there is a blue-collar beauty in the craggy collection of old calluses, new blisters and the scars left behind on his palms.
They are the hands of a farmer. They are the hands of carpenter. They are the hands of labor and toil. They are a working man’s hands.
But Miller’s mangled mitts didn’t come from slinging shovel or operating heavy equipment.
Nope they came from hours upon hours of hitting baseballs without batters’ gloves.
In this day of garish and gaudy batting gloves of every color and style, Miller goes without — just bare hands and a smile.
“I really like the feel of it,” he said. “I’ve never really used them. Everybody told me once you get into pro ball you are going to have to start using them, but I like the feel. I just feel more connected with the bat.”
Really, the no gloves look seems fitting for Miller. From the bare hands on the bat to the lack of wrist bands or jewelry to the high socks he wears, Miller is old school. There is no pretension to the way he plays the game.
“I admire it,” said Chris Gwynn, Mariners director of minor league operations. “It doesn’t make the player. But when you look at the complete package and then you kind of get to all of it — he’s a throwback guy”
The term “throwback” gets thrown around a lot, probably more than deserved. But watch Miller attack the game with energy and joy — it’s fitting. It’s not tough to envision him playing in the early 1960s with a dust-covered, baggy wool uniform and his hardened hands around an old ash bat.
In all his years of baseball, Miller wore batting gloves just once — a 15-game stretch during his freshman year at Clemson in 2009.
“We had these cool batting gloves,” he said. “They were these sweet white and purple gloves. So I was going to wear them.”
But it just didn’t feel the same.
“After 15 games, I was batting like .200,” he said. “I was like alright, I’m going to go back.”
And he’s stayed that way ever since. It didn’t matter that he switched to the skin-searing friction against his skin that comes from hitting with wood bats after he was drafted by the Mariners in the second round of the 2011 draft. Pain be damned, he wasn’t changing.
“No gloves, nope,” he said.
Without gloves, he put together monster first season. In 136 games between, Class A High Desert and Class AA Jackson, Miller hit .334 (186-for-557) with 40 doubles, seven triples, 15 homers and 68 RBI. He posted a .410 on-base percentage and a .510 slugging percentage, while stealing 23 bases.
Not bad a first year.
“I think the coolest part for me was getting to play so many games,” he said. “I got to play in close to 140 games. That was awesome. Just being able to get on the field and learn through all of it. That’s a lot of innings at shortstop, a lot of at-bats and a lot of time on the field.”
The first full professional season can seem like a marathon for young players. Many will wilt in the heat of August.
Not Miller. He just kept playing, succeeding and soaking up experience.
“That was the best thing for me was just learning how to play every day, learning how to control everything and get out there no matter how you were doing and get your work in,” he said.
If there was one knock against Miller, it was in the field. He committed 36 errors at shortstop.
But Gwynn believes there are reasons for the struggle.
“A lot of it was the field,” Gwynn said. “A lot of them were fielding, the High Desert infield was not a great place to field and then you can lose your confidence. The guys there worked with him and got him to relax and just play.”
Otherwise, Gwynn was quite pleased with Miller’s first full season.
“He plays hard,” Gwynn said. “He plays every day. He has leadership skills. He’s hungry. He’s an athletic kid. He loves to play, He’s smart.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Miller will be in Seattle this season. He’s far from a finished work.
“He still has a lot to learn,” Gwynn said.
As with most middle infielders in the Mariners organization, Miller knows he will also have to play some second and third base this season — most likely with Double A Jackson.
“You need the ability to play everywhere,” Miller said. “We are all shortstops but the ability for us to play second or play third is huge. I think it makes you a better shortstop, you understand where a second baseman wants the ball you appreciate what he’s doing over there. You get a feel for the whole field.”
It’s that attitude that impresses Gwynn and the rest of the Mariners organization.
“Knowing Brad for a year now, I’m confident in him,” Gwynn said. “He’s a good a player and he’s going to contribute, sooner than some people think.”
After his first year of success and invitation to big league spring training, don’t expect Miller to change. He will still play the same way. There won’t be any wrists bands or accessories. There certainly won’t be any batting gloves. There will just be an effort and joy on the field harkening back to the days of old.
“They’ll see a player that’s going all out,” he said. “They’ll see a guy can do whatever you need, an all-around player who will do anything to get the job done. Hopefully, they will see a guy, who you can tell enjoys what he’s doing and he’s leaving it all on the field.”