John McGrath: Tighten or lighten up, Mariners need to get the balance right

The baseball season is more than a month old. For teams that haven’t fulfilled expectations — the Seattle Mariners come to mind — one full month means a transition from “it’s way too early for us to worry” to “it won’t remain early forever, so we might want to start figuring this thing out.”

There’s no manual on how to go about figuring things out. A baseball hitter’s swing, like that of a golfer’s, is at its optimum when the player achieves a state of relaxed focus. Trying too hard is an occupational hazard endemic to both sports. So is thinking too much.

On the other hand, it’s possible for a team to be so relaxed that cardinal sins of inattention are committed, such as forgetting how many outs there are, or, ahem, which bases are occupied.

The other day, after the Mariners returned from a road trip with the second-worst record in the American League and fourth-worst record overall, general manager Jack Zduriencik sounded like the assistant football coach he once was at Austin Peay State.

“It’s a nice club, I don’t think anybody disagrees,” Zduriencik said. “But there have been parts of it that have let us down. It’s time to tighten the belt and let’s get rolling.

“Guys aren’t on scholarship.”

Although college football scholarships sometimes are revoked at the whim of a petty head coach (see Willingham, Tyrone) and baseball contracts are unconditionally guaranteed (see Rodriguez, Alex), Zduriencik’s point was clear: Some of those players who fail to produce in Seattle could deal with ramifications that include a demotion to the minors or an outright release.

As Zdurienik was talking about tightening the belt on the Mariners, Chicago White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams proposed an opposite tactic for his fourth-place team.

“They just need to get back to lightening it up a little,” Williams said of the White Sox, who began the weekend with a 10-15 record. “When you start out slow with great expectations, you put a little too much heat on yourself. They just need to take a deep breath and get it going.”

So what’s the answer? Lightening the mood with the idea of taking a deep breath? Or a belt-tightening that, it seems to me, discourages a deep breath?

First-year Arizona manager Chip Hale took yet another approach last week when he met with the Diamondbacks position players for a meeting typically called to review the strengths and weakness of an opponents’ pitching staff before a series opener — nuts and bolts stuff. There is no crying in baseball, and there aren’t many Win One For the Gipper, rah-rah pep talks, either.

But rather than dwell on the technical aspects of reviving their dormant bats, Hale turned the meeting over to hitting coaches Turner Ward and Mark Grace for what amounted to, well, a pep talk.

Grace paraphrased the message delivered to the hitters.

“Knowing that every time they get in a big situation, remember: You are one of the best baseball players in the world. There’s not a higher level than the Major Leagues, and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. Trust it. Trust it and know it and know the guy on the mound, his job is much more difficult. He’s got to throw you strikes and when he does, make him pay dearly.”

The Diamondbacks, who’d just been shut out twice by the Dodgers in a three-game sweep, scored 18 runs in a Wednesday doubleheader at Colorado, then scored 11 more runs on Thursday. They were held to five runs Friday in a 6-5 loss to the Padres, but hit four homers.

Other factors contributed to the immediate resurgence of the Diamondbacks hitters — it’s always a mile high in Denver — but I’m tempted to believe the simple detail of reminding big-league players that they are big-league players paid off.

As for the benefits of tightening up versus those of lightening up, there is little evidence supporting either philosophy, and yet lots of evidence supporting both.

Confusing? Sort of, but it helps explain why Billy Martin — the ultimate proponent of tightening it up — was fired by the Yankees midway through a 1978 season in which they’d go on to win the World Series under low-key manager Al Rosen, and why Rosen was replaced by Martin in 1979.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner considered nothing in life more sacred than winning baseball games, but he was torn to determine whether the best chance to win was by starting a fire with Martin or by dousing the fire with Rosen.

Steinbrenner finally achieved some version of front-office consistency — worth four World Series championships in five years — with his 1996 hiring of Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, a journeyman skipper whose success had been limited to a 1982 division title with the Atlanta Braves.

That team was plodding through a 2-19 August slump when starting pitcher Pascual Perez failed to show up for his Braves debut at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Failing three times to heed the exit sign on the interstate highway loop that encircles Atlanta, Perez was low of fuel and had to talk a gas-station attendant into lending him $10.

“I forgot my wallet,” he explained.

Crazy as it sounds, the incident liberated the Braves from the pressure of a pennant race unaccustomed to them. They went on to win 13 of their next 15.

There is something to be said for lightening things up, and yet there is something to be said for tightening things up. The trick for the Mariners is to find a light-tight balance while it’s still early, but not that early.