By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Informed his manager labeled him a prankster, Fernando Rodney giggles and squeals.
Rodney, who often refers to himself by his surname, finds the thought of his hilarity hilarious.
This is how the Seattle Mariners closer operates. It’s really a 99-1 plan. Rodney is relaxed, jovial and somewhat odd in almost all aspects of his life. Then, for one percent of the time, he’s the hard-throwing, heart-pounding closer who leads the American League in saves.
At 37, Rodney is making $7 million a year to pitch the ninth inning for major league baseball’s best bullpen. Seattle’s 2.39 earned run average leads the league.
He comes with quirks. There was the “magic” plantain Rodney toted around at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, then later with the Tampa Bay Rays.
He will change his voice — suddenly sounding like Kermit the Frog, if he was a lifetime smoker — to startle people. Rodney’s accent from the Dominican Republic is thick, and he talks so quietly, it can be a challenge to understand him. When he switches to the more gravel-based Kermit-voice, his words are clearer.
There is the position of his hat. It’s cranked to the side, he claims, for multiple reasons. One, his father, Ulise, who was a fisherman and died in 2002, would rotate his hat to block the sun while he worked. In large part, it’s a tribute to him.
Rodney also claims it makes a runner on first base think Rodney is looking at him when he’s not.
Also an important reason for the hat rotation: it’s fun. His sons are easily recognized in the clubhouse. They’re the ones with the angled ballcaps.
Then, there’s the arrow.
Typically reserved for the end of games, Rodney will reach to his upper back to pull out an imaginary arrow, then shoot it into the sky.
“The arrow? I don’t know,” Rodney said. “Just do something after the last out. Out 27. You know the game is over. I shoot the moon. I shoot the arrow, just let them know game over.
“That’s my game. Every time I go pitch, I do my arrow. That’s what the fans are waiting for. Rodney shoot the moon.”
Last week, Rodney’s celestial navigation was askew. The arrow took a decidedly different path after he got out of a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning in Anaheim against one of his former teams, the Angels.
Rodney pivoted and fired over the Anaheim dugout. He contends the non-existent object was launched toward the stands. Fans had booed his entrance. Others think it may have been aimed at Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who repeatedly removed Rodney from the closer’s role in 2010 and 2011. Only the Gods know.
Rodney lost the game in the ninth, suffering countershots of imaginary arrows from the Angels’ Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
His time in California resulted in down years for Rodney. His ERA was 4.24 and 4.50, respectively, which ended his stay in Anaheim. That set up one of the great years a reliever has had.
Rodney joined the Tampa Bay Rays, saved 48 games and had a 0.60 ERA in the 2012 season. He finally corralled his command, an adjustment that left him almost unhittable. Rodney gave up five earned runs in 742/3 innings.
He was solid the following year for the Rays, though his walk rate crept back up. The Mariners won out between three suitors, the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets were the others, to sign the free-agent Rodney in the offseason to a two-year, $14 million deal.
The money helped put Seattle over the top in the bidding. As did the fact Rodney thinks it’s too hot in Baltimore — remember, he’s from Samana, Dominican Republic, where it was 90 degrees with 70 percent humidity Monday — and too busy in New York.
General manager Jack Zduriencik feels Rodney has stacked and steadied the Mariners bullpen. His bullpen mates believe Rodney has soothed many of the pressures that come with relieving. At times, he’ll do this by barking.
“Barking like a dog,” rookie reliever Dominic Leone said. “You’ll look at him and it’s like, ‘What?’ And, he’s over there laughing.
“We’re all living in Rodney’s world out there. It’s awesome. It keeps everyone mellow. It’s awesome, because, at times, this game can get you so intense and so in the moment, but he’s always just like loafing around, then you can see him flip the switch when he goes in the game.”
His entrance, as it often is for closers, is a production. Techno romp “Animals” by Martin Garrix blares, Rodney finishes his warmup pitches then swigs from a cup of water before discarding it to the ground with disdain and jogs in.
“We just need some fire and fog machines at the bottom of the bullpen,” Leone said.
Rodney did not pick the song.
“They say Rodney, what you think about this song? I say, ‘Whatever you want.’”
Rodney has evolved into an eccentric closer with entrance music thanks to a changeup that moves like a loose-hipped dancer.
In 2002, the Detroit Tigers called him up for the first time. He pitched 18 innings, his ERA was 6.00.
The Tigers sent him back to the minor leagues to work on a second pitch. He had thrown a slight variation of the circle changeup back in 1999. The first time he threw it, he hit a batter in the foot. Though he was impressed with the movement — “How the ball move, I say, ‘Wow!’” — that was the end of the changeup. Throwing 98 mph would have to suffice.
Pushed back to the minor leagues, he began to practice throwing it against a wall. The ball sits well into the heel of his hand, then is released through his thick middle, ring and pinky fingers. As with any off-speed pitch, a key is arm motion. Rodney looks like he is throwing a 96-mph fastball when he is not.
By 2003, Rodney had begun to command the pitch. He became Detroit’s so-so closer in 2009, earning 37 saves behind a 4.40 ERA.
Much like Rodney, his outings are rarely straight ahead. There inevitably seems to be a walk, hit the other way or some kind of turmoil before the preferred conclusion. Rodney is unconcerned.
“I no feel pressure,” Rodney said. “When I go there in that situation, that’s what I want. I want to be the best in that situation — 2-1 game, I want to show my teammates, the fans I can pitch in that situation.”
If it holds, Rodney’s 2.16 ERA will be the second-best of his career, trailing his dominant first season in Tampa. His 28 saves put him in position to eclipse his career-best of 48.
The Fernando Rodney Experience continues, with the Mariners in a race for a playoff spot. Arrows will fly, water will be tossed, changeups will dart, oddities will flow.
Look out moon.