Jerry Dipoto’s first season as Mariners general manager can be summed up like this: He got the most important decision right.
“Right” is an understatement best translated into baseball terms. In his search for a successor to Lloyd McClendon, Dipoto squared up and hit it on the screws.
Scott Servais is AL Manager of the Year material. He won’t win the award — Cleveland’s Terry Francona and Baltimore’s Buck Showalter, established tacticians who steered their injury-riddled teams into the playoffs, are the co-favorites — but if Servais had any kind of familiarity factor, he’d be in the middle of the conversation.
Last October, when Dipoto presided over the Mariners’ ninth managerial hire since 2002, Servais struck a lot of us as a candidate to become the team’s ninth former manager since 2002. He was genial and poised during the introductory press conference, but that résumé — never a full-time skipper at any level — meant he had zero credibility in a clubhouse populated with veterans.
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At 48, with the sturdy build of a former big-league catcher, Servais appeared fit for the job. But when he spoke, he sounded like somebody destined for six months of uh-oh.
“I look at myself as a football coach in a baseball uniform,” Servais told reporters. Eyes rolled. Seriously?
“I’ve used that line before and gotten some weird looks,” Servais continued. “What I mean by that is, I think football coaches are the most prepared and detailed of any of the coaches, because they practice so much. They have to.”
Only the Mariners. A few weeks removed from a desultory 76-86 season, Dipoto had turned over the task of making them competitive again to a wanna-be football coach who equated the strike zone with the line of scrimmage.
The football coach in a baseball uniform, absent any managerial experience beyond the occasional substitute-teacher-for-a-few-days gig in the minor leagues, proved to be a natural.
He found ways to make the tiresome season fun for his players. A roster is in constant flux — a team-record 32 pitchers made at least one appearance this season — and Servais stressed the importance of call-ups from the farm getting to know their more proven teammates.
Servais negotiated the inevitable ups and downs with the balance of a gymnast. The beloved Lou Piniella could be counted on for one or two postgame stews a month. Upon a tough loss in extra innings, the clubhouse doors would open and ... where’s Lou?
Lou wasn’t talking.
Piniella’s edgy competitiveness worked to the point that he recently was put on the veterans committee ballot for Hall-of-Fame consideration, but the edge sometimes backfired. The 1998 Mariners were stocked with a surplus of talent — Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner — but the convergence of all those stars was more tense than harmonic. They stumbled to a 76-85 record.
Servais never allowed any defeat, however heartbreaking, to detour his outlook on the big picture. It’s a subtle skill, maintaining calm when your impulse is to grip a bat and swing at the closest plumbing fixture, and Servais is a master.
Winning 86 times, staying alive until the penultimate date on a 162-game schedule, can be seen as breakthrough season for a playoff-starved franchise. Servais’ ambitions go well beyond staying alive through September.
He understands scoring a solid “B” on a test is not the same as acing the darn thing, and he realizes which buttons to push to make up the difference. Servais minced no words last weekend in his evaluation of starting-rotation anchor Felix Hernandez, who at age 30 is no longer capable of rolling out of bed, greeting the day with a long, casual yawn, and then showing up at the ballpark with the idea of reducing the best hitters in the world to helpless bystanders.
“You get out of this game what you put into it,” said Servais, who has challenged Hernandez to show up for spring training next February in shape, emboldened by a sense of urgency.
A year ago, Servais did not have the stripes to goad an All-Star pitcher into working out over the winter. Then again, a year ago, Servais was just another guy on the long, essentially faceless list of Mariners managers who’ve followed Piniella.
Servais, we know now, is quite more than that. The football coach in a baseball uniform has earned unconditional respect. He was born to manage, and 2016 was merely a sneak preview.
The best is yet to come.