Here’s a quality you might not expect from Lloyd McClendon, the stern-faced manager of the Mariners.
“He’s hilarious,’’ said Seattle third-base coach Rich Donnelly, whose association with McClendon goes back to his playing days with the Pirates. “Off the field, we spend almost every hour doing something, and most of it is laughing. Some days, we’ll be in the car, and we almost have to pull off the road, we’re laughing so hard.”
McClendon has described himself as a man fully at peace with himself as he embraces his second crack at managing, nine years in the waiting. And as this Mariners season unfolds, far exceeding the success many of us predicted, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mariners are a team in his image.
The Mariners on Wednesday, in an 8-1 loss to Minnesota, rolled out their 82nd different lineup in 91 games. But the McClendon stamp goes well beyond the nearly miraculous manipulation he has done to coax so many wins from such an offensively challenged squad.
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He has earned the affection, and trust, of his clubhouse, which I’ve become convinced is a more vital aspect of managing than any strategic brainstorms. It doesn’t trump talent — McClendon would be the first to tell you that — but it’s big.
“He truly cares about us – not only as players, but as men,’’ said outfielder Michael Saunders.
McClendon understands the rhythms of a baseball season. He knows that an eight-game losing streak early in the season is not fatal. He knows that there will be junctures of struggle, as the Mariners are going through now, that don’t call for panic, or even overreaction.
And he knows that even a series of such seeming importance as the upcoming one with Oakland, which caused McClendon to juggle his rotation for maximum impact, is not do-or-die.
“I learned a long time ago, you don’t put importance on one series,’’ he said before Wednesday’s game. “What happens if we get swept? The season’s over? That’s why you don’t do that.”
Donnelly sees shades of Jim Leyland in all aspects of McClendon’s demeanor, from his interactions with players to his big-picture outlook. That’s not surprising, since Leyland first put the managing bug in McClendon when he was a reserve with the Pirates, then nurtured him through seven seasons on the Tigers’ coaching staff. They still talk frequently.
Virtually every day in batting practice, McClendon will saunter from player to player, chatting briefly before moving on to the next guy. That’s a Leyland tactic, building rapport as well as allowing the manager to constantly take the temperature of his team.
“He reminds me so much of Jim the way he does stuff,’’ Donnelly said. “He communicates with everybody. He doesn’t miss a thing.”
Reliever Joe Beimel, who played for McClendon during his first managerial stint with Pittsburgh in 2001-05, notes that he is much calmer than he used to be. Donnelly believes he’s more patient, too. But even if he no longer uproots bases, McClendon’s passion is far from dormant.
“He still has that fire, and he can kick you in the butt when you need it,’’ Donnelly said. “But with this team being young, he’s very calming, and he’s able to pull guys aside and kind of teach them. Maybe in the past, he really didn’t have the patience for that.”
McClendon showed early, in his vehement defense of Robinson Cano against the criticisms of Yankees coach Kevin Long, that he had his players’ backs. He has also shown that team trumps all, the latest example being the departure of backup catcher John Buck, designated for assignment after Monday’s game.
“When he has to send a guy down, it bothers him,’’ Donnelly said. “But he’s managing this team to try to get better. Anything we have to do to get better…if that was his son, he would have sent him down. I know him. That’s just him. And he got a lot of that from Leyland.”
Donnelly had a great phrase to describe McClendon.
“He can be passionate in an aggressive way, and he can be passionate in an emotional way,’’ Donnelly said, tearing up as he related a poignant anecdote.
“I always tell people this story when they ask about him. We went to play Texas, and the ballpark is on East Randol Mill Road. There’s a cemetery on East Randol Mill Road, three blocks from the ballpark. That’s where my daughter is buried (Amy Donnelly died of a brain tumor in 1993, at age 18).
“When we went down there last time, it was her birthday, ironically. I drive all the time, and I dropped off Mac and the coaches. I said, ‘I’m going to run down the street.’ He knew where I was going. He reached over and said, ‘Do you want me to go with you?’
“That tells you all you want to know about Mac right there.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry