Sitting a few feet from the 500 megavolt transformer that is Eric Wedge, I am reminded of the moment in "Casablanca" when Rick is asked: "What kind of man is Captain Renault?"
“Oh, he’s just like any other man,” Rick answered. “Only more so.”
When Wedge was introduced at Safeco Field as the Mariners’ new manager Oct. 18, he struck me as driven, edgy, simmering with energy.
Upon his return Thursday to Safeco Field, where the Mariners held their annual pre-spring training media luncheon, Wedge struck me as the same impassioned guy we met a few months ago.
Only more so.
“I’m more excited today than I was the day I got this job,” said Wedge, who spent the next 30 minutes talking in a tone that swept across the room with the urgency of a balled fist aimed at a punching bag.
“I don’t take myself that seriously,” Wedge said. “Baseball is what I do, it’s not who I am, and I say the same thing to the players. But my job as a big-league manager for the Seattle Mariners I take very seriously. This is not a hobby, and it’s not a hobby for the players.
“They represent the city of Seattle, as Mariners, and we’ve already shown trust in them. It’s time to go out there and show what they can do.”
Actually, it won’t be time for the players to show what they can do until the first full-squad workout in Arizona, on Feb. 19. But the more important date on the spring-training calendar is Feb. 18, when Wedge holds the team meeting that will confirm what should be a suspicion among the Mariners: When Jack Zduriencik was contemplating candidates to succeed Don Wakamatsu, the general manager apparently noted all the traits he saw in the ex-skipper before embarking on a frantic search to identify Wak’s complete opposite.
Wakamatsu’s communication style in public was easy listening, consistently middle of the road. Wedge talks in rapid-fire sequences that, when strung together, form a theme: Play hard. Play smart. Prepare.
“You have to have a routine,” Wedge said. “And part of it that’s underestimated is the mental portion of it: Your thought process driving to the ballpark, when you get out of the car, opening the door to the parking lot, opening the door to the clubhouse ... taking your shirt off and putting your uniform on. Whatever it may be, I want to see that routine. I don’t care if all the routines are different – I hope they are – but there has to be something there, because otherwise, we’re flipping a coin.
“We’re not looking to flip a coin here, people.”
One aspect of spring training figures to be tangibly different for the Mariners in 2011: Jobs will be open. A year after the starting lineup and the brunt of the pitching staff was essentially set in February – a year after the most surprising development at spring training became the roster spot eventually awarded to veteran Mike Sweeney as a right-handed designated hitter and backup first baseman – competition will be open at first base, second base, shortstop, left field and DH, as well as four of the starting rotation slots behind defending AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez.
Put another way: If your name is not Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez, Chone Figgins, Miguel Olivo or Hernandez, your ticket to ride out of spring camp with the big-league club is on standby.
At least that’s Wedge’s idea. He cedes the last word in roster building to Zduriencik, but if the GM is on board, as it appears, the team’s commitment to winning will begin by winning a job in spring training.
“One thing that hasn’t been good for the game – because of the money, and because it is wide open information-wise – is that people tend to pigeon hole and be afraid to open it up to competition,” Wedge said.
“Because when you do that, you open yourself to criticism. It’s easy to say, ‘I have to do this because of this.’ Well, we are not doing that. If you are afraid of competition, then you sure as hell are not going to be a championship player anyway, so we don’t want you around.”
While such recently acquired veterans as Brendan Ryan, Adam Kennedy, Luis Rodriguez, Jody Gerut and Jack Cust compete for jobs with the likes of Dustin Ackley, Greg Halman, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak – each of whom spent either all or part of last season in Tacoma – Wedge also will be searching for a few good men capable of emerging as team leaders.
For all the problems the Mariners had on the field last year, they had just as many off of it. To call their clubhouse fractured might be too strong a term, but there were obvious rifts between the players and Wakamatsu, and those rifts could’ve been eased by the presence of somebody whose strength isn’t necessarily defined by impressive forearms.
Wedge admitted Thursday that he isn’t sure if the team he’s inherited has a leader in the clubhouse. All he knows is that the Mariners need somebody to step up and impersonate the 25-year-old version of Eric Wedge, who during his playing days as an injury-plagued catcher revealed himself as an uncommonly natural clubhouse pillar.
“Leadership is tough to come by,” Wedge said. “Young people just aren’t real comfortable being in that role, for the most part. But we will develop leaders here. We will have leaders on this ballclub, whether it’s by the young people we have now, or maybe the veterans, or the people we go out and grab. Maybe it’s somebody in the minor leagues who just isn’t here yet.
“We will have leadership on this ballclub. You have to have leaders to be a good team.”
Perhaps that first team meeting in Arizona will produce a volunteer or two willing, and able, to stand up during those inevitable times of imminent unrest. More likely, it’ll take several weeks, which is sort of the purpose of spring training anyway.
Before Wedge finds leaders, of course, he must meet the team. He’s had conversations with maybe half of the players on the 40-man roster. (The manager hasn’t contacted the others, he explained, because he’d rather sit down with them in person.)
In any case, those players used to tuning out Don Wakamatsu soon will learn that business won’t resume as usual with Eric Wedge.
“I know exactly what I’m gonna say to these guys,” promised Wedge.
“I’m not a notes guy. I work off bullet points.”
If the 2011 Mariners can withstand the bullets, they just might appreciate the beauty of the points.