Mariners’ rookie Miller has a passion for the game

SEATTLE — When Brad Miller first took the field at Clemson University, Tigers coach Jack Leggett knew he had a special talent on his hands.

While the shortstop who is now the Mariners leadoff hitter arrived at Clemson with talent and athleticism, Leggett was struck by more than that.

“What I saw from the very beginning was that he has a great passion for playing,” Leggett said in a phone interview. “He has a high energy level. He loves baseball.”

What Leggett liked about Miller five years ago is a big part of what has made Miller into an instant fan favorite since he was called up last month. Plenty of professional athletes love what they do, but few look like they’re enjoying themselves the way Miller does as he’s running around the bases or taking a big hack at the first pitch of a game.

“He plays the game with a lot of passion and a lot of energy, and that’s very refreshing to see when you turn on the TV, because you don’t always see that out of major leaguers,” Leggett said. “He’s still got a little bit of that college flair in him, and I hope he never loses it.”

It’s early still, but it’s hard to imagine Miller ever losing that. Then when you add the way Miller looks on the field to his passion for the game, you’ve really got a recipe for star in the making.

Baseball fans always like gritty. It’s a well-known scientific fact that a player who wears his pant legs high with stirrups showing is at least 15 percent grittier than your average ballplayer, and a player who hits without batting gloves is 20 percent grittier. So when Miller does both, that’s some off-the-charts grittiness.

Because of the hustle, the stirrups and the no-glove approach, Miller is often referred to as old-school, a description he’s won’t contest.

“I like playing hard. I like going out there every day and playing hard,” he said. “If that’s old school, then sure. I have a lot of fun out there. I like running around and getting dirty.”

Of course grit and hustle only get you so far. This is the Major Leagues we’re talking about, and you don’t get the call after just a month in Triple-A and two years of professional ball if the talent isn’t there. And you sure as heck don’t become the first Mariners rookie since some guy named Griffey to earn American League Player of the Week honors, which Miller did following last week’s big series in Houston, if you don’t have athleticism to go along with that hustle.

Since being called up, Miller was quickly thrown into the leadoff spot of the lineup, where he and fellow rookie Nick Franklin have formed a one-two punch that has helped produce runs as well as hope for the franchise’s future, and he also has become the every-day starter at one of baseball’s most demanding positions. Yet none of that has seemed to faze the 23-year-old who was a second-round pick in 2011.

“It’s just rolling with the punching,” Miller said. “Just having fun and learning through the good and the bad, at any level. Last year, my first full pro year, just learning, getting a lot of experience, a lot of at bats, and just trying to get better.”

Well then, it’s as simple as that, huh?

And sure, Miller will struggle at some point this year. It won’t be all extra-base hits, rally-starting walks and off-the-charts grit. But Miller’s attitude and maturity have people in the organization excited for his future.

“He’s done a heck of job since he’s been up here,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s been very consistent, he provides energy, has some sock in his bat, moves around well both defensively on the base paths. Just the person that he is and the maturity he has for such a young man, that sticks out as much as anything.”

Over and over we’ve heard Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik, when discussing young players, talk about the importance of not rushing guys up too soon, about letting them experience failure in the minors before they can be ready for the major leagues. Yet after Miller had spent just 26 games in Tacoma, tearing up the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .356 batting average and .596 slugging percentage, the Mariners believed he could handle being in Seattle.

“His makeup is so good,” said Chris Gwynn, the Mariners’ director of player development. “You’ve got leadership skills, he plays hard every game, he’s a great teammate, so when you have all that stuff together — and he has ability, too — it was just a matter of him being confident in what he could do, then actually doing it.”

Miller has been doing it so far, helping lead, from the leadoff spot, an offensive resurgence that has Mariners fans finally believing better times are ahead, and has players refusing to believe those better times have to wait until 2014.

“I think more than anything, our mindset is that it’s not over,” Franklin said. “Nothing’s over until we lay down, that’s when it’s over. In our mind, we’ve still got a chance at it.”

Miller is far from being the only reason for the Mariners’ recent success — as Wedge likes to say, it’s been a one-through-nine effort — but there’s no denying that Miller has enjoyed an impressive debut thus far.

“He just has a makeup that doesn’t come around often,” Leggett said. “He’s just a baseball junkie. That’s what makes him so special.”

Well, that and the stirrups. And no batting gloves.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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