PEORIA, Ariz. — On his way to a 32-game hitting streak and a 2010 season when he led every player in minor league baseball with 192 hits, Kyle Seager didn’t think much about the etiquette lessons or the public speaking advice he got last February.
At the time, what mattered most was to maintain a consistent hitting stroke and help the Class A High Desert Mavericks reach the postseason playoffs.
Monday, on the first day of the Seattle Mariners’ 2011 mini-camp for a select group of minor leaguers, Seager definitely remembered how important that camp was for him last year.
Besides a healthy amount of hitting, throwing and close on-field coaching, the Mariners put their mini-camp players through considerable off-field instruction. There are English lessons for players who don’t speak it, nutrition tips and etiquette advice for those who don’t know how to eat healthy or which fork to use, media training to prepare them for interviews and tips on handling their finances.
“It’s nice having people help you with things like what to say and how to eat,” said Seager, a third-round draft pick in 2009 whose .345 batting average ranked third in all of minor league ball last year.” If that’s the difference between making it to the big leagues or not making it, that’s huge. All of this has been a real positive experience for me.”
The Mariners have conducted a winter program for their minor leaguers for years, but this is the second year for such a tightly structured mini-camp and the 31 highly regarded prospects they have invited. The 31/2-week program ends just before the minor league spring training camp begins.
On the first day Monday, players watched videos featuring Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who described the expectations, rules and standards expected of them.
The players were put through an extensive performance test to determine their strength and fitness. Also, each of them met with a panel of coaches — pitchers with pitching coaches and infielders, outfielders and catchers with position and hitting coaches — and together they will assemble a performance plan that the players will follow in 2011.
With a staff of 18 minor league coaches, there will be constant one-on-one instruction.
“It’s really about building relationships and a trust with these kids so we can maximize the talent that we have,” said Rafael Colon, the Mariners’ minor league mental training coach. “The goal is to create big-league impact players who can help the Mariners win a World Series.”
The Mariners put the players through a career development program that helps them with the mental side of the game, especially in what they call “eliminating interference.”
“Let’s say it’s an international kid trying to wire money back home, we try to educate the kid on the best ways to do that,” Colon said. “If he comes over here and has limited English proficiency, we give them the Rosetta Stone program and that helps them to maybe order food and to deal better with their teammates. It reduces the chances of making mistakes off the field that hinder his performance on the field.”
Dustin Ackley, the Mariners’ first-round draft pick in 2009 who is considered a cornerstone of the franchise’s future, isn’t part of this mini-camp but he has gone through the program in great detail.
“We’ve got to eliminate interferences, whether it’s Ackley going 0-for-3 in his debut wondering what he’s going to tell the media or if he’s 3-for-3,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league director. “Whether there’s something going on back home that can be a distraction, or if it’s something like walking into the major league clubhouse for the first time, we want to help them.
“Players think about all these things, especially these young kids. We’ve got to try and emulate that as much as we can before they get there so they can revert back to it and know how to handle it.”
On the field, the mini-camp instruction helped a player like Seager produce one of the best offensive seasons of anyone in minor league baseball.
“Every single day you’re here, the coaches have their eyes on you,” he said. “You didn’t take a bad swing with anybody not around watching you. Getting down here in front of all the coaches and having them see what I was doing opposed to me feeling everything, it was big. I made a couple of adjustment before the year started and it helped everything click.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and follow his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.