PEORIA, Ariz. — Chris Woodward fielded the ball at shortstop with near-perfect precision and fired a strike to first base, just like he had done so many times in his 12-year major league career.
But unlike in years past, Woodward didn’t take another grounder. They weren’t meant for him. They were for the players, who stood watching. Instead, he removed his glove and began to talk about what he’d just done and why he did it that way. Just another day in his new life in baseball.
It was just a few years ago that Woodward was in a Seattle Mariners uniform as a player at spring training. Now he’s teaching
them as a first-year coach in the organization.
“I’ve been kind of preparing for this back to when I was (first) with the Mariners in 2009,” said Woodward, who played 20 games for Seattle in 2009 and eight more in 2010 after a short stint in Boston. “I was talking with a lot of front office people. I talked with Jack (Zduriencik). I asked about how the transition would be, what they saw me doing, what I would be good at. I asked a lot of questions.”
Woodward would go on to play three more seasons, mostly in the minor leagues, but knew it was time to start thinking about a life after playing.
“At that point of my career, it took a long time to get a job in 2009,” Woodward said. “It took a long time for Seattle to call me. And that was because Jack was familiar with me from playing in Milwaukee. Fortunately, I got four more years out of it.”
But over those four years, Woodward started making plans. He started taking classes online to get his business administration degree, and began to research a future in coaching.
“We had a couple of conversations about it,” said Tacoma Rainiers manager Daren Brown, who managed Woodward in 2009 and 2010. “It was obvious it was something he was thinking about. It was obvious it was something he would be good at.”
Woodward played his final season last year with the Triple A Las Vegas 51s. He had a productive season, hitting .285 (88-for-309) with 25 doubles and 34 RBI in 89 games. But he achieved an even bigger milestone that season – a college degree from the University of Phoenix.
It came from a lot of hard work. He would spend free moments before the game in the clubhouse on his laptop doing assignments and homework, while his teammates played video games and watched movies.
“That was probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” he said of attaining his degree.
When he submitted his final required assignment last season, his 51s teammates decorated the team bus with streamers, balloons and “Congratulations Graduate!” signs.
“It was very cool,” he said. “They knew it was a big deal to me. I’d worked very hard on it. It meant so much to me, not just for what I learned, but it helps to show younger guys that you can do it, that there’s no reason why you can’t educate yourself while you are playing.”
And it also provided the perfect way to end his playing career.
“I decided before last year that it would be my last season,” he said. “And it worked out for the best. Luckily, it worked out so I could end on my terms.”
It’s not that he couldn’t keep playing. He’s still in outstanding shape, and could still be a utility player at Triple-A or in the big leagues with the right organization.
“I felt great physically,” he said. “I knew I could still play. I could probably play now. But it comes to a point where you realize: I got a family, three kids and I can’t chase my dream anymore.
“If I was single with no kids I would just keep playing until I couldn’t. Even if it meant being in Mexico or whatever, I wouldn’t care. But you have to look in the mirror and tell yourself there is more to this than just me.”
The recent offseasons spent waiting to hear from a team offering him a minor league contract were excruciating. Two years ago, spring training had started and Woodward was without a team. It took an injury for the Toronto Blue Jays to sign him a few weeks into spring training.
“The instability of it was wearing on my family,” he said. “It was wearing on everybody. It wasn’t fair to my wife. It wasn’t fair to my kids to be gone for another eight months. I’d already played enough. I’d played in the big leagues.”
Woodward talked with the Mariners and Blue Jays about a coaching position. He chose the Mariners.
“It’s been a nice transition,” he said.
Woodward looks like a coach. He carries a fungo bat with an infielder’s glove attached to it over his shoulder. He hits grounders, throws batting practice, offers tips and advice, and listens to players’ concerns.
“You knew he was going to show up somewhere down the road as a coach,” Brown said. “It’s good that he is with us.”
Even with all of his time in professional baseball, Woodward didn’t know exactly what being a coach entailed.
“The time commitment is more than I expected,” he said. “When you played, you’d look at coaches and they’d always seem like they had a lot time on their hands. I feel like I don’t have any time, which is good. That’s why we are here.”
Woodward puts in long hours. For a while he was doing two sessions a day, working with former teammates Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Nick Franklin in the morning sessions and then doing minor league minicamp in the afternoon.
“We are always on the go,” he said. “There’s always some place to be or some player to work with.”
Woodward is in a unique position of being so fresh from a playing career and also being familiar with some of the players he’s coaching.
“I think I can give a different perspective because I was playing so recently,” he said. “I understand what these guys are going through because I was in the same position a year ago.”
Ultimately, Woodward’s goal is to be a manager. He has played for a wide range of them, and taken little bits from each to help shape his own philosophy.
“I think that’s helped me more than anything – having that diversity of opinions and ideas from a managerial perspective,” he said.
One of those managers stood out.
“I played for a guy like (Atlanta’s) Bobby Cox (in 2007),” he said. “To me, he was the best. He was the ultimate professional. If you ask anyone who’s ever played for him, he’s the best.”
For now, this job suits Woodward best.
“This is a perfect first year,” he said. “This gets me integrated into the organization. I really like what I’m doing.”
SPRING TRAINING RECAP
DODGERS 3, MARINERS 2 (at Camelback Ranch)
The facts: Another streak for the Mariners came to an end when they were held without a homer in the one-run loss. It was the first time that had happened this spring. Seattle had 11 hits but could never capitalize. Seattle had a 2-1 lead going into the seventh inning, but the Dodgers’ Alex Castellanos ripped a two-run homer to left field for the winning hit.
Play of the game: Franklin Gutierrez continues to swing the bat well, delivering a bases-loaded single to left-center field off Los Angeles starter Aaron Harang. Two runs scored on the play.
Who was hot: Jon Garland continues to make his bid for a spot in the starting rotation. The veteran right-hander pitched three innings, allowing one run and two hits while walking one. The one hit was a leadoff double to Andre Ethier in the second inning. Ethier later scored on a ground ball to first. “I think today was his best day,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge of Garland’s outing. “It’s obvious he knows how to pitch. He knows how to execute pitches.”
Who was not: Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales – two of the more productive hitters for the Mariners this spring – combined to go 0-for-8 with three strikeouts.
Quotable: “We still knocked the ball around, but we didn’t do a particularly good job with runners in scoring position. But we still had a lot of good at-bats today.” – manager Eric Wedge on the team’s hitting.
On tap: The Mariners will play host to the Chicago White Sox at Peoria Stadium today. Right-hander Andrew Carraway will start for Seattle. Also scheduled to pitch are Taijuan Walker, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge, Carter Capps and Carson Smith. The White Sox will start right-hander Dylan Axelrod. First pitch is set for 1:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast locally on 710-AM.Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish firstname.lastname@example.org