By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE _ The circus came to town Monday.
Fans of the Seattle Mariners can find some solace in knowing that it was contained to the visiting dugout.
When the Boston Red Sox brought their traveling road show to Safeco Field, it provided a chance to think about what could have been for a Mariners team that somewhat thankfully flew under the radar this season.
On paper, this team could have been built for drama.
It began the season with an aging superstar (Ichiro Suzuki) who had very little in common with his younger teammates, an underachieving veteran (Chone Figgins) who had been demoted so many times that he was left without a role and a Cy Young contender (Felix Hernandez) whose candidacy has been hampered by his teammates’ inability to score runs. Add in the decision to trade a young, budding superstar and popular teammate in Michael Pineda, and the Mariners could have easily turned into Major League 4.
The team subsequently dropped out of contention by May, putting on a full-bore youth movement while leaving veterans like Figgins and Miguel Olivo on the bench. By mid-June, Suzuki had been traded to the Yankees. A few hours later, popular young first baseman Justin Smoak had been demoted to Tacoma, while veteran reliever and clubhouse favorite Brandon League got shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers eight days after that.
How did the M’s respond? By playing some of their best baseball in years. Without batting an eye at the daily cycle of clubhouse news, the Mariners rattled off win streaks of seven and eight games in July and August, briefly putting themselves among the long list of teams in striking distance of a wild-card spot.
How have the Mariners been able to stay relatively drama-free, despite their slow start, quiet bats and clubhouse land mines?
“It helps that we’re young,” closer Tom Wilhelmsen said. “We don’t have a bunch of guys with 15 years in the bigs; most of us have two, or three at the most. We get along, and we’re happy to be here, and that eliminates the drama.”
Players and general manager Jack Zduriencik give most of the credit to a coaching staff that’s led by manager Eric Wedge, who has a history of bringing along a young nucleus of Cleveland Indians prospects and turning them into a World Series contender. Wedge has known when to nip a problem in the bud, and he hasn’t been afraid to put a veteran or two in his place along the way.
“If he feels like he needs to address something, he’ll do it,” veteran shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “And he does it the right way. So I think that filters down.”
The most recent example, Ryan said, came after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox last week. That ended an eight-game winning streak, with the Mariners losing each of the three games in Chicago by a single run.
Rather than rant and rave, Wedge went into the clubhouse and gave the Mariners a speech of encouragement, telling them he was still proud of his team.
“He just told us: ‘Understand what happened here. We played well. Let’s just come back and get them tomorrow,’” Ryan said two days ago. “That was a good point to make. There are plenty of times to be upset, but when we’re playing good baseball, let’s focus on that.”
Zduriencik said the players bought in to what Wedge is selling, regardless of the early results this season.
“These kids are really anxious to learn,” the Mariners’ GM said. “They’re just cutting their teeth. So they’re really looking to their coaches for a lot of leadership.”
Wedge has also found a way to keep players like Figgins and Olivo from being distractions, despite their diminishing roles on a youth-movement team. He said the key to keeping everyone happy is communication.
“You have to be honest, communicate and be respectful of everyone’s situation,” Wedge said before Monday’s game against the Red Sox.
But perhaps the biggest ego to keep happy belonged to Suzuki, who had very little in common with most of the young Mariners players and was known to mostly keep to himself in the Seattle clubhouse. Suzuki has reportedly been a distraction to past Mariners teams, and yet this year his presence seemed to be only a footnote.
It was telling that the Mariners won nine of 11 games after Suzuki was dealt, and yet Zduriencik maintains that the aging superstar was never a distraction on this team.
“Ichiro played hard every day, and he prepared himself,” Zduriencik said over the weekend. “So I never viewed that as any kind of issue at all; in fact, there was a lot of positive in what he brought us.”
Ryan said that the trade left the Mariners with a new identity, which helped rally the troops.
“You lose Ichiro, and that’s a mainstay in right field for so long, that’s kind of shocking,” he said. “But it’s kind of shocking together. So that was a crazy day. … We were looking around like: here we are, a bunch of up-and-comers, a bunch of nobodies from the Northwest, and let’s show what we can do.
“I don’t know. I guess that’s kind of what happened a little bit. The team got a little bit tighter. I don’t mean anything bad about Ich, of course, but it just provided another opportunity to get a little bit tighter, to be more of a unit.”
With all of that behind them, the Mariners remain close and drama-free. While the Red Sox seem to have a new controversy bubbling up every couple of days, Seattle has stayed off the talk-radio radar so far. The early losses may have frustrated the players and their fan base, but they haven’t turned on each other.
“(Losing has) been hard, but you just have to continue to play hard every day and try to win every day,” catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero said. “We come to the stadium to play hard and try to win.”
Sometimes that might not be enough to satisfy the fan base, but at least this year’s Mariners haven’t turned into a circus.
“No good comes from drama,” Ryan said. “What it does is be a distraction. It can kind of manifest and become cancer and all that stuff.”
Just ask the Red Sox, who have become the talk of baseball — even when they’d prefer to stay out of the limelight.
“Fly under the radar, be the underdog — that’s better,” the Mariners’ Ryan said. “They can get all the attention and expectations, and let us continue to surprise people.”