Lloyd McClendon wears a baseball cap as if it’s a responsibility, not an accessory. He tips the hat forward, barely on his head, shielding his eyes. You could knock it off just by walking briskly past him.
The look mirrors McClendon’s casual charisma. Everything about the new Mariners manager seems comfortable, unforced, genuine, even if it’s a little different. He’s a leader without trying to be a leader. He has a strong voice without raising it. The Mariners have had a bushel of managers since their 1977 inception, but if you think this frightens McClendon, then you’re unaware of the audacity residing within this quiet man.
McClendon often talks as if words are an endangered species, but he’s the one who said the Mariners are about to enter a “golden time” during his introductory news conference four months ago.
He’s not one for bluster and breathless comments. He’s as real as the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought. And as he begins both his Mariners tenure and a second chance at managing when the regular season opens Monday, he has one bit of advice.
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“If you want to be able to cross the ocean, you’ve got to take your eye off the shore,” McClendon says. “If you keep looking back, you’re never going to cross that ocean. We’ve been beaten down, but we’ve got to get up off the mat and start fighting back.”
When it comes to the Mariners, cynicism is our vice. But there’s something about McClendon that’s endearing even to the unabashedly negative.
It’s not the funny way he wears his hat. It’s the trustworthy manner in which he does this job, daunting as it may be.
“You’re going to be excited about Lloyd,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He understands what it’s all about. He’s a perfect fit.”
Benny Dorsey was the first to give McClendon a leadership role in baseball. He’s the well-respected former baseball coach of Roosevelt High School in Gary, Ind. When McClendon was a freshman, Dorsey named him the team captain. There McClendon was, as a 15-year-old, charged with leading some players who were three years older.
The young captain’s message to the team was direct and succinct.
“If you’re not interested in playing hard, in giving 100 percent, you can quit,” McClendon said. “I’m going to demand this.”
Dorsey knew McClendon had it in him. He grew up as Legendary Lloyd, the kid who hit five home runs in five at-bats during the Little League World Series 42 years ago. And before high school baseball, Dorsey had coached McClendon’s summer basketball team and recognized his leadership qualities.
“I noticed how guys gravitated to whatever he said,” said Dorsey, who is now 77 and retired. “It was, ‘When I speak, you listen.’
“He was not a loud person. He was a nice, soft-spoken individual. But what he said, he said with sincerity and firmness. Whatever he said, they took it as gospel.”
McClendon grew up in a family with 13 children. He was the ninth and final boy in that group. When his father left for work, he would tell McClendon, “You’re in charge of the house. Take care of your mom until I get back.”
Ask McClendon why the youngest boy had such a responsibility, and he says that the others were old enough to work.
“I had to take care of the girls and take care of mom,” McClendon said. “I took that job seriously.”
The fundamentals of McClendon’s leadership style haven’t changed much. He leads the Mariners in the same way that he substituted for his father daily. To him, it’s all about creating a family atmosphere and protecting the house.
That’s why he stood up for Robinson Cano at the start of spring training after New York Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long criticized Cano for not always hustling down the first-base line. It’s the loudest McClendon has been all spring, and it was intentional. The message had been sent: If you’re a Mariner, McClendon will support you.
“He doesn’t say a whole lot,” veteran infielder Willie Bloomquist said. “He doesn’t even spend a lot of time in the clubhouse. But he knows how to command respect, and we already respect him.”
McClendon can now admit that, when Dorsey named him team captain, he was scared.
“I was really, really terrified with it, being around so many seniors and older guys,” McClendon said. “I really didn’t think it was right. I didn’t think I was up for the task. He probably saw something more in me than I saw in myself at the time.”
McClendon, who was a catcher then, managed to lead because of his passion for baseball and his flair for the game. His love for baseball began at age 8. One of his brothers came home wearing a “shiny new uniform,” and McClendon declared that he wanted one. Back then, he was ineligible to start playing until he was 9.
Once he started playing, he was a natural, as the Legendary Lloyd nickname suggests. And he continued to get better. Dorsey remembers two of McClendon’s high-school highlights.
One came in the Indiana state regionals. Roosevelt High was down three runs, and McClendon came up with the bases loaded.
“And kind of like Babe Ruth, Lloyd pointed to center field,” Dorsey said.
And then he hit a grand slam.
Roosevelt took a one-run lead but wound up losing a heartbreaker. But Dorsey’s lasting memory is of how hard McClendon hit that grand slam, and how quickly it cleared the fence.
Dorsey also remembers coaching against McClendon in a summer-ball game. He told his pitchers beforehand not to throw McClendon any fastballs. One of the pitchers didn’t listen. McClendon hit the pitch more than 400 feet, over the wall, past the parking lot and onto a church roof.
“Hitting was my forte,” McClendon said, laughing.
He was a good high-school running back, and he was athletic enough to play other sports. But everyone knew that McClendon was a baseball player.
The game took him to college, to Valparaiso, where he met his wife and where his two children later attended. Then McClendon turned pro, and that’s when baseball got hard.
He didn’t get through the minors quickly because of injuries. He didn’t make it to the big leagues until age 28. And when he arrived, he joined a loaded Cincinnati Reds team. Pete Rose was the manager. The roster was full of stars young and old: Dave Parker, Dave Concepcion, Buddy Bell, Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill. McClendon says he was “awe-struck.” He struggled, had to return to the minors and then finally figured it out. He went on to play eight seasons as a role player for three teams — Cincinnati, the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh.
He absorbed many lessons about the game from his managers. Rose taught him to play with fearlessness and swagger. Don Zimmer, the former Cubs manager, taught him that managers can be fiery competitors, too. And then there was Jim Leyland, then the Pittsburgh manager, who taught McClendon about preparation, attention to detail and the proper way to get through to players.
Leyland remains a key figure in McClendon’s life. The new Mariners manager spent the past eight years as a coach on Leyland’s staff in Detroit. Though Leyland is retired now, he still calls McClendon often.
Leyland refers to McClendon’s impact in Detroit by saying, “He was not a loud voice in the clubhouse, but a respected voice in the clubhouse. There’s a big difference.”
In many ways, McClendon is a quieter version of Eric Wedge, who left the Mariners in a huff at the end of last season. While Wedge did good things in Seattle — good enough for the franchise to want to keep him, but Wedge wanted out — his more boisterous approach and tough love grated on some players.
McClendon is no less passionate, but he’s 55 years old, and he had to wait nearly nine years to get his second job after Pittsburgh fired him. McClendon learned much as he applied for job after job but was forced to endure an excruciating wait for a second chance.
“As the years pass, and you interview for positions that you know you’re qualified to get, and it doesn’t come to fruition, it gets a little disturbing,” McClendon said. “And quite frankly, nine years went fast. You look up, and you’re still waiting for an opportunity. And you’ve been with a winning team, a winning manager and a winning organization, and you’re wondering what the heck’s going on.
“I was never frustrated. More like disappointed.”
At last, he has his second chance. It’s with a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2001, but he’s undaunted. And though he’s still fiery, he won’t be a bundle of emotion this time. Consider him a refined leader.
“Listen, if I don’t get better at what I’m doing with all these years, then I haven’t paid close attention to what’s going on,” McClendon said. “I should be better. I should be calm and more experienced.”
He’s out in the ocean, having forgotten about the shore long ago. Who’s with him?
Considering how much he has grown, McClendon is certainly worthy of a following.
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Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer