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Ackley's big-league debut

Dustin Ackley will play in his first big-league game tonight. It had to happen. It was Dustiny.

If the second baseman is equal to the hype that has preceded his debut – or is it his royal coronation? – Safeco Field fans would be advised to buy a scorecard to commemorate the milestone occasion for their grandchildren.

For several weeks, the Mariners’ marketing department had touted this weekend’s series at Safeco Field as an infrequent chance to see the Phillies, a perennial National League pennant contender. That perspective changed late Wednesday night with the announcement Ackley had finally gotten the call to The Show.

If you get the sense more is being made of Ackley’s midseason promotion from the Tacoma Rainiers than anybody in recent memory, it’s not your imagination. The second overall choice from the 2009 draft is a rare and precious commodity: selected by the Mariners, signed by the Mariners, groomed through the minor leagues by the Mariners, and targeted to play every day for the Mariners.

The last position player to follow that path – and to actually play every day in a Seattle uniform, for several seasons – was a teenaged shortstop named Alex Rodriguez. Initially overmatched by the transition from the minors to the majors, Rodriguez hit .204 over 17 big-league games in 1994, and .232 over another 48 games in 1995, before enjoying his MVP-caliber breakout year of 1996.

Since then, a recitation of first-round prospects who progressed through the Mariners’ farm system is steeped in frustration. Catcher Jeff Clement was brought up from Tacoma as a September call-up in 2007, then sent to the Pirates in a 2009 trade-deadline deal. In between, hampered by knee injuries and a difficulty in grasping the mechanics of a complex position, he played in 75 games, hitting .237.

Center fielder Adam Jones made a ballyhooed debut on July 14, 2006. Jones appeared in 73 games, during parts of two seasons, before he was traded to the Orioles as part of a package for pitcher Erik Bedard.

Jose Cruz Jr., blessed with regal bloodlines and a charisma that turned him into an instant fan favorite, needed less than two years to make the jump from Rice University to the big leagues. Promoted from Tacoma in the middle of a 1997 division race, Cruz hit 12 homers in 49 games, then was traded to the Blue Jays on the same night another No. 1 draft choice, catcher Jason Varitek, was dealt to the Red Sox.

In each of these cases, as with such non-drafted prospects as outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, the Mariners were quick to render judgment on kids with intriguing potential. And even though those judgments sometimes proved correct – Clement was never going to be the catcher of the future, or an impact hitter of the present – a baseball organization that pulls the trigger too soon on potential stars is a baseball organization doomed to stagnate.

Which brings us to the Mariners’ latest prospect. With a maturity that belies his age – he’s 23 – Ackley brings consistent discipline to the plate. Unlike those Tacoma teammates who beat him to the big leagues and remain there (Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman), and those Tacoma teammates who beat him to the big leagues but have since been demoted (Mike Wilson, Michael Saunders), Ackley lays off pitches he knows he can’t hit.

An ability to discern a ball from a strike is a simple but profound skill. It’s the difference between a hitter who can only hope to be ordinary and a hitter with an unlimited ceiling. Ackley’s shrewd recognition of the strike zone figures to make him immune to the sort of baptismal slump that could find us asking: “Is that all there is?”

But the adjustment to major-league pitchers, the best of whom are capable of throwing any kind of pitch, on any kind of count, is an adjustment that has flummoxed the best of the best.

On May 25, 1951, the New York Giants summoned Willie Mays from Triple-A Minneapolis, where he hit .477 through 35 games. Mays promptly went 0-for-22, and was in a 1-for-26 funk when he approached manager Leo Durocher.

“Send me back,” said Mays, with tears in his eyes. “I told you I couldn’t hit this pitching.”

Durocher’s refusal to consider that request helped shape baseball history. In so many words, he told the disillusioned rookie: You’re my center fielder, kid, today and tomorrow and all the days after that, and I don’t care how long you struggle.

Ackley never will be compared with Mays – no matter how glowing the scouting reports have been about Ackley’s poised at-bats and steadily improving defense at second base in Tacoma, let’s just get that out of the way – but the patience Durocher once exercised remains pertinent 60 years later.

There’s a chance that Ackley will go 0-for-4 tonight. There’s a chance he’ll be hitless for the series, perhaps even hitless for the rest of the week. There’s a chance Ackley’s futile attempt to adjust to major-league pitching will reduce him to tears.

And in that case?

Mariners manager Eric Wedge would be wise to follow Leo Durocher’s cue for dealing with rookies who have lost their confidence, and say:

“You’re our second baseman, kid, today and tomorrow and all the days after that.”

In the meantime, a fan’s trip to Safeco Field tonight should include the purchase of a scorecard. You never know.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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