PEORIA, Ariz. – Who was that man sitting behind Bob Melvin’s desk the last six weeks?
He was funny.
He was candid.
He was comfortable.
He was … Bob Melvin?
Of all the changes made by the Seattle Mariners since this time last year, one of the most noticeable is the manager himself.
Last year at spring training, Melvin was an uptight and unrevealing rookie skipper who had replaced a legend and assumed the high expectations of an organization that envisions a championship. Today, the pressure to win is just as great, but Melvin carried through his second spring training with an at-ease feeling that has allowed his true personality to come out.
“It’s really night and day,” he said.
Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln noticed the change from the beginning of spring training when Melvin spoke to the team before the first workout.
“It was obvious that this is his team,” Lincoln said. “You can see it in his body language. Last year, it was clear to me that at the beginning he was not completely comfortable. This wasn’t really his team.
“But you can see in the way he conducts himself on the field now that he’s clearly in charge. He’s a lot looser with everybody.”
How much looser?
Last year, the writers who covered the Mariners wondered if Melvin was born without a funny bone. This year, those same writers were careful not to lean on Melvin too often for “quote of the day” material, because he filled a lot of notebooks.
Last year, every move Melvin made and every decision he pondered were met with, “What would Lou do?” from media and fans. This year, the shadow of former manager Lou Piniella is long gone.
Last year, Melvin walked into a clubhouse filled with veteran players who’d won 300 games the previous three seasons, and he wasn’t about to rock that boat. This year, after 93 victories but no postseason berth because of a late-season swan dive, he vows to be more assertive when players need a day off.
“I think anybody in their second year, in any position, you’ll feel much more comfortable,” Melvin said.
There’s more to Melvin’s transformation than comfort. He says he purposely tried to blend with the Mariners’ furniture last year, not wanting to disrupt what had been such a good thing under Piniella.
“I wanted the focus to be on the team,” he said. “Granted, I was the new guy in the position I was in, but I still wanted the focus to be on the team. Now, I’m just going about my job the way I’m comfortable doing my job.”
He needles his players and laughs with them around the batting cage; he doesn’t hesitate to criticize a young player’s soft work ethic; he shows his disgust when big leaguers flub the fundamentals; and he doesn’t hide his agony at shattering a prospect’s dream by sending him to the minor leagues.
“The players like him, the players like playing for him,” second baseman Bret Boone said. “He inherited a great team in his first job, and there was a lot of pressure that came with that. You can look at all the positives of your first managerial job when you get a very good team, but the side effect to that is, ‘Yeah, but you’d better win.’ “
Melvin obviously won, posting a 93-victory season that ranked 15th in major league history for rookie managers. There were plenty of challenges along the way, most of them centering around his knowledge of his players.
“You have to know which guys to kick in the rear a little bit, which guys to pat on the butt a little bit and which guys you have to challenge at times,” Melvin said. “That’s a learning process. I feel like I know them better this year and I feel like I know what makes each one of them tick a little bit more. Therefore, there will be some things I’ll probably do differently.”
Time off will be one of the most important issues.
Melvin knows designated hitter Edgar Martinez will need rest. So will Boone, although a lot of people would love to sit in on that meeting between him and Melvin.
“He knows when I need a day off. Never!” said Boone, who played 159 of 162 games last year. “I’m not going to say anything. Ever.”
That’s where Melvin must read his players’ body language and give them the time off they need, even when they say they don’t. Melvin’s critics said he rode the horses on this team too long – Ichiro Suzuki, like Boone, played 159 games, Olerud 151 and Martinez 145.
“I learned that certain guys won’t be 100 percent truthful because they always want to play,” Melvin said. “You really have to figure out what makes different guys tick.”
The Piniella factor also has faded, and that should enable Melvin to manage with more comfort.
“When you’re in the clubhouse and guys are telling Lou stories or coming up with the T-shirt with all the Lou-isms, it probably would have made me a little uncomfortable,” pitching coach Bryan Price said. “Lou was so well respected and so well liked and so fondly remembered. What a difficult situation to be in when the aura of Lou still filled the clubhouse.
“I don’t think you could have put anybody in the situation who could have handled it any better than Bob did last year. But not only did Bob win, I thought he was able to find a comfort zone for himself very early in the season that allowed him to identify with the players and feel a part of the team.”
One year later, Price said there’s no question who’s in charge now.
“This is not a segue between Lou and Bob,” Price said. “He has created an environment that he’s comfortable in every day, and I think that makes a huge difference.
“You really realize this is the Bob Melvin era.”