By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Any serious evaluations won’t start, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon keeps saying, until the Cactus League games start. And even that pales in comparison to what happens in the regular season.
That probably holds true for McClendon, too, as he begins his tour at the front of the bench. The Mariners, after all, ripped off a 22-11 record last spring … and then finished 20 games under .500.
But McClendon stepped into his first managerial role since getting fired by Pittsburgh after the 2005 season, with a clear goal for spring training.
“I’m not here to say the culture was bad,” he declared in a pre-spring news conference. “But I will say I’m here, so changes obviously had to be made. Now, it’s time for me to do things my way.
“I want my players to take on my personality. Part of that (mindset) is when you step between the lines, you have to believe that, on this given day, that I’m the best person out there. That’s the type of attitude I want my players to have. That’s what we’re going to try to achieve in spring training.”
McClendon took part in a similar tone-changing camp in 2006 as a coach on Jim Leyland’s staff in Detroit.
“We had some bumps and bruises,” he recalled. “But in the end, the players saw the light … I would say it took about 10-12 days.”
The Mariners are 12 days into camp.
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McClendon had a long time to plan for this second managerial opportunity, and he put out some early sound bites that caught the attention of all in camp — and likely carried back to Seattle. Such as: “We’re not in a developing stage. We’re here to win. We’ll develop in the minor leagues. At this level, we want to win.”
“Listen,” he said, “part of the message is, ‘I love you, but if you can’t get it done, I’ll get somebody who can.’”
Contrast that with his predecessor, Eric Wedge, who often pleaded for patience in developing a youthful roster over the previous three years. It was a change quickly noted.
“You definitely know what (McClendon) expects from you,” third baseman Kyle Seager said, “but at the same time, he gives you the freedom to do what you need to get done.
“As long as you’re putting in your work and doing what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be good.”
The Mariners learned something else: Youth is not an excuse.
“That’s part of the message we’re sending here,” McClendon said. “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be good. That’s not an excuse for not being good.”
Rather than hold a group meeting at the start of spring training, McClendon chose to meet individually with position groups — catchers, infielders, outfielders and pitchers. The move was based on his own experience as a player from 1987-94 with three clubs.
“When you get a big group together,” he said, “(heck), half of them are not even listening to you. And the other half is trying to figure out where they’re playing golf. I want to be able to look them in the eye and send my message.”
That message is hard to miss.
“He’s definitely a little different,” said outfielder Corey Hart, a nine-year veteran, “but it’s a good different. He’s extremely passionate. His team is his family. He’s one of those guys who is always going to take up for his team.”
That passion went viral last week on a national stage after Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long chided the Mariners’ new second baseman, Robinson Cano, for a tendency not to run hard on routine grounders when Cano was in New York.
Cano shrugged it off when asked about Long’s comments after his first workout in a Mariners uniform. Not so McClendon, who worked himself into a rage as he machine-gunned his words through a long answer.
“I didn’t know (Long) was the spokesman for the New York Yankees,” he said. “My concern is Robinson Cano in a Seattle Mariners’ uniform and what he does moving forward. I don’t give a (darn) what he did for Yankees.
“One of the messages I’m trying to send to my players is we don’t have to take a back seat to anybody. That includes the New York Yankees or anybody else.
“We’re the Seattle Mariners. My concern is my players, and the family atmosphere we build here. Anytime anybody attacks one of my players, I’m going to defend him. And if you don’t like it, tough (stuff).”
That defense has its limits.
“Don’t embarrass him,” Hart said. “He wants his team to be held accountable. Work hard and play hard. He doesn’t want to have to defend anything he shouldn’t have to defend.”
McClendon doesn’t have a Twitter account.
“Heck, I have to learn how to use the computer,” he said. “The one thing I told my guys, ‘If I’ve got to deal with it, then it’s a problem. Do what you want to do, but be responsible. Understand that you represent the Seattle Mariners.
“If it gets back to me, we’ve got a problem.”
Another McClendon postulate: The Mariners’ workouts, to date anyway, have been remarkably brisk, which is also by design.
“You don’t see us out there doing bunt plays for an hour,” veteran utility man Willie Bloomquist said. “It’s a quality 20 minutes. You do it right. And if you do it right, we’re done. Go on to the next thing.”
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Next up is a 33-game Cactus League schedule, which begins Thursday when the Mariners play San Diego in the annual charity game at Peoria Stadium.
Evaluations will ramp up on all fronts. Can Franklin supplant Miller at shortstop? Can Hart play regularly in right field after missing all of last season while recovering from surgeries on both knees? Can a healthy-again Scott Baker win a job in the rotation? And much more.
For now, though, McClendon is satisfied.
“It couldn’t have gone better,” he said. “I’ve been very pleased with camp and the message that has been sent. The coaches are showing tremendous energy. The players are responding. We have their ear.
“They know it’s a good camp, and it’s a good camp because of the effort they’re putting forth. Hopefully, we can continue this for the next five weeks.”
And six months after that. Or more.