McClendon sees potential, ‘golden time’ for Mariners

SEATTLE — When Lloyd McClendon was a kid playing Little League baseball in Gary, Ind., his team would sometimes practice with The Jackson 5 rehearsing in a garage across the street.

True story.

McClendon, who on Thursday was introduced as the Seattle Mariners’ new manager, grew up in Gary as the famous music group was coming into its own, and Jackson family house happened to be right by the field where McClendon’s Midtown Little League team played.

More recently, McClendon has served under legendary manager Jim Leyland on a Detroit coaching staff that helped lead the Tigers to four postseason appearances and two World Series berths since 2006.

If those two life bookends tell us anything, it’s that McClendon, 54, knows a success story blossoming when he sees, or hears, one.

So you really want to believe McClendon when he tells you how excited he is about the Mariners, starting with what he said when asked what made this job enticing (“Felix, Felix and Felix”) and continuing on with his repeatedly calling this a golden time for the franchise.

You want to hear him tell you how this young team reminds him of the 2006 Tigers, a team that after going 71-91 the year before — same record as the 2013 Mariners, by the way — won 95 games and went to the World Series in their first season under Leyland. You listen and want to believe the Mariners’ new skipper is on to something.

“I think this is a golden opportunity for me and a golden time for the Seattle Mariners,” McClendon said. “I think there’s nothing but good things for this organization, and I certainly think we’re headed in the right direction. … It reminds me of the Detroit Tigers, and I mean that sincerely. This team reminds me so much of the 2006 Detroit Tigers and the potential that was with that team.”

But through zero fault of McClendon’s, you can’t hear those optimistic words and buy in, can you?

The Mariners’ fanbase, rightfully so, has become an extremely skeptical one. They see a new manager making a great first impression, a guy being praised as an intelligent, tough, no-nonsense baseball man, and remember being impressed by the last intelligent, tough, no-nonsense baseball man, or maybe the one before that.

General Manager Jack Zduriencik sounded as sincere as can be when he praised his new hire, and when he talked about the faith they both have in the direction the franchise is going. Problem is, we heard that same story in this same room in January, and it came across as just as believable then.

Hell, I bought it, and so did a lot of other people; then another losing season followed, ending with manager Eric Wedge’s awkward exit. Wedge announced his decision not to return — even if he were offered a five-year extension, he declared — in the final week of the season.

Many are assuming McClendon’s demise before the ink is dry on his contract, and that isn’t fair to him. But he understands what he’s getting into. He’s just the latest in a long line of managers to work under Zduriencik, and more significantly, the top boss tandem of Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln that has been the one constant through the past decade of losing Mariners baseball.

Yet with the odds seemingly stacked against him, McClendon remains optimistic while staying realistic.

“This is a result-oriented business,” McClendon said. “I understand the honeymoon process and all of that, but the bottom line is winning games. Developing young talent, making sure they continue to move forward, win games in the process, and hopefully when it’s all said and done, we’ll be popping champagne and having a good time.”

McClendon, who served as the manager in Pittsburgh from 2001-2005, interviewed for the Mariners job before they eventually hired Wedge. Despite the fact that Seattle went a different direction, Zduriencik noted that he and McClendon maintained a close relationship ever since. That relationship might have helped McClendon land the job this time around, but it also means he had to be keenly aware of what was going on in Seattle, with enough losses piling up for him to become the third manager in Zduriencik’s relatively short tenure.

Yet none of that dissuaded McClendon from taking this job, because, as he said, he sees it as a golden opportunity, or as a more cynical person might say, because there are only 30 of these jobs available. Asked if he had any trepidation about the Mariners job considering the messy exit of his predecessor, McClendon only offered a stern, “No.”

And asked about being Seattle’s eighth manager in the past 11 seasons, McClendon offered this:

“I’m glad to be the eighth manager. If I wasn’t the eighth manager, I wouldn’t be here. I’m happy I’m that guy; that doesn’t concern me at all. Look, when you don’t win, when you don’t succeed, changes are going to be made. That’s just the way it is, that’s the nature of this business, and I fully accept that, I fully understand that.

“I’m ready for the challenge, I’m excited about the challenge, I like the group we have here, and I love Jack’s plan. I think it’s a solid plan and I can see it working. Do we need to have a little patience, yeah, but at the same time, I think we have a chance to take a step forward.”

Uh-oh, that P word again. Every manager deserves some time to get his team on track, but the patience of Mariners fans has been tested for far too long. For McClendon’s sake, and for Zduriencik’s, they better hope that this is the year Jack Z’s plan finally leads to significant progress for the big league club, because he Mariners have used up their allotment of patience.

McClendon seemingly has so many things going for him. Zduriencik said people were coming out of the woodwork to offer their support during the interview process.

Leyland is on the record praising his former hitting coach as a successful manager in the making. He has spent a lifetime in professional baseball, and has what Zduriencik calls “an inner fire. He’s very confident but quiet. When he speaks you listen and you believe.”

Heck, the guy’s even got great comedic timing. Asked what he learned in eight years under Leyland, McClendon deadpanned, “Well, I’m a good smoker now.”

Basically, McClendon seems like a terrific hire. Then again, so did the last guy.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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