PEORIA, Ariz – Challenge Julio Rodríguez at your own risk. During a spring training session here more than two weeks ago, Jerry Dipoto, the Seattle Mariners president of baseball operations, did just that on the team’s 21-year-old outfield prospect.
Sitting on the bench, Rodríguez, the third -ranked future in the game, turned to Dipoto and told him how he was driven by what people said he couldn’t. That’s why Rodríguez, primarily a corner outfielder in the minor leagues, asked his boss if he thought Rodríguez could play center. Dipoto, a former major pitcher in the league, said yes and Rodríguez, smiling, assured him he was already working hard to do it.
Dipoto then entered Rodríguez. “Do you know what I think you can’t do? I don’t think you can do 30/30 or win a triple crown, ”he said, referring to two remarkable accomplishments-hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in a season, and leading a league in batting average, home runs and runs. bathed in.
“I was joking just to see where he was going,” Dipoto later recalled. “And he said, ‘You don’t think so?’ I said, ‘No, no.’ Then he took his bat and said, ‘There it is.’ From then on, every time he was on first base, he would run.
If the Mariners begin their 2022 season on Friday against the Minnesota Twins – a day later than expected due to rain in Minneapolis – Rodríguez is expected to be in center field, the culmination of a lifelong dream for him and his parents, who are set to fly from their native Dominican Republic to watch their son’s Major League Baseball debut.
It will also serve as another reminder of Rodríguez – with his big dreams and a big smile, a self -confidence that denies his years, an English proficiency and a body reminiscent of a football player – a lot can be achieved if he focuses his mind. of it. This off -season, Rodríguez pushed himself to develop a skill that was once behind his peers – his speed – so he could manage center field. And now, Rodríguez, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, is close to an elite-level runner in baseball, according to Dipoto.
“He’s a five -tool player,” Dipoto said, “who has somehow been able to make all of his tools better.”
A big challenge now awaits Rodríguez: fulfilling the hopeful promise of a new season for the Mariners. After years of rebuilding, Seattle won a staggering 90 games last season and competed for the playoff spot until the last day of the regular season. Rodríguez, however, played no part, making a stellar 2021 in which he hit .347 with 13 home runs in two minor league levels and helped lead the Dominican baseball team to one bronze medal at the Tokyo Games.
Ever since Rodríguez turned 17, the year after he signed with the Mariners for $ 1.75 million, he has known part of the franchise’s bad October history. In 2001, the Mariners tied a major league record by winning 116 games but burning in the second half of the postseason. They haven’t been back since, the longest active playoff drought in North America’s major professional men’s games. They are the only active team that has not reached the World Series.
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When Rodríguez and his father flew to Seattle last fall so he could receive a minor-league award from the Mariners before the game at T-Mobile Park, Rodríguez explained the franchise’s embarrassing history.
“He said,‘ Dad, look, I want to be part of the team that broke this record, ’” his father, 53, named Julio Rodríguez, said in a Spanish phone interview. “‘We want to change the history of Seattle.'”
This, of course, inspired young Rodríguez. His father always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player but couldn’t, so he passed that desire on to his son. She put a plastic bat in her son’s hands when he was born, and, while his son was walking, older Rodríguez threw him balls to hit the back of the house after work. By age 12, he was already getting bullpen and hitting higher pitching speeds.
So, like many Dominican boys, younger Rodríguez ended up in a baseball academy in his teens. But this was not allowed by his parents until they figured out a way for their son to also finish his high school education, a less common achievement among young Dominican players who focus on baseball to be financially supported. their families. Rodríguez’s parents understood the importance of education – his father was an agricultural engineer and his mother, Yasmin Reyes, was an odontologist.
“My parents always said, even if you’re good at baseball, it’s not sure,” younger Rodríguez said. “Whatever happens on the field. So my parents always thought that if something happened, I would have a future out of it.
From a young age, Rodríguez said he wanted to learn English because it was so cool. She listens to her mother’s English-for-beginners CDs. Even while he was not at a baseball academy, his parents still sent him to English classes on Saturdays. To help master colloquialism, Rodríguez listened to Drake, following the rapper’s lyrics on his phone. And when he was with fellow minor leagues from the United States, he asked for their help.
“My English was bad at the time,” he said. “That’s why I’m not afraid to get involved, and tell everyone around me, ‘Yeah, if you hear me say something bad or not very good, tell me.’ I was lucky that not everyone around me started looking at me and laughing. They just opened the door. ”
Rodríguez was so compelled to practice that, even in a recent interview with another native Spanish speaker for this article, he would always respond in English, with unbroken interplay between the two languages. His English proficiency is in contrast to Kevin Mather, the former Mariners president who resigned last year after making controversial statements about roster manipulation and the English abilities of Japanese player Hisashi Iwakuma and Rodríguez.
“When he said that, it came out of one ear and came out the other,” Rodríguez said, with a laugh, in English. “It wasn’t really something that bothered me. I don’t know the man. ”
On the field, Rodriguez is part of the influx of elite young talent into mayors. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals have each highlighted their top prospects for opening day – first baseman Spencer Torkelson and shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. – after brief Class AAA stints and intense spring training shows.
Each could be the result of a new incentive labor agreement between MLB and the players ’union: To reduce the manipulation of service time described by Mather, teams could get an additional draft pick after the first round if a top prospect is in the major leagues his entire rookie year and finishes in the top three in the Rookie of the Year voting or the top five in the Most Valuable Player or Cy Young Award voting in any season before he reaches salary arbitration.
But Rodríguez distinguished himself from other leading prospects, according to those around him, with his magnetic personality. In a game that is slowly erasing the reputation of traditionalism and silenced individualism, Rodríguez shines. He laughed. He didn’t even smile. He did not hide his emotions on the field. His batting practice bat is branded with the nickname: JROD. He has his own logo.
“I respect people who take it very seriously,” Rodríguez said of baseball. “I think it’s serious. I work hard to keep getting better and that’s all, but at the end of the day, you have to enjoy it.
Rodríguez is not shy about wanting to be an attraction. Growing up, he idolized former Mariners star Alex Rodriguez. Julio Rodríguez was impressed that every time A-Rod hit, everyone would stop watching. During an interview years ago, Rodríguez said the interviewer mentioned a nickname that played on his idol – J -Rod Show – and it remained.
“Baseball needs Julios,” Dipoto said. “To have someone with that kind of talent who isn’t afraid to come out and compete on the biggest stage – that invites attention and isn’t discouraged when it comes – it’s a strange combination.”
The completion of the Mariners ’rise rests not only on Rodríguez’s shoulders, but on other promising young Seattle players. They include shortstop JP Crawford, outfielder Kyle Lewis (the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year, who is slowly recovering from knee injuries), pitchers Matt Brash and Logan Gilbert, catcher Cal Raleigh and outfielder Jarred Kelenic (the former Mets top prospect who sputtered. in his rookie season last year).
“For all the guys and all the talent they have, Julio brought him a light and all the players felt it,” Dipoto said, adding later, “I can’t wait to see what the future for him. ”
In an active winter, the Mariners added one of the youngest MLB rosters by signing or trading for the following former All-Stars: pitcher Robbie Ray (the 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner), outfielder Jesse Winker, and infielders Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez. Kelenic, 22, said everyone has the same goal: to reach the playoffs.
Rodríguez, however, continues to make many strides in his aspirations for the team – and himself.
Does he think he can be an All-Star? Does he think he can be a day-to-day promoter at the center? Does he think he can ruin 500 home runs before the end of his career? What about helping the Mariners cut their playoff drought? Or won the first World Series in Seattle? And what about the 30-30 time challenge game from Dipoto?
Rodríguez’s answer to each question was: “I have no doubt in my mind.”