PEORIA, Ariz. – Ask Lloyd McClendon what life was like with the early 1990s Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the more memorable teams of the era, and the first-year Mariners manager responds with a question of his own.
“Ever see ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’ ’’ he asks of the 1975 movie set in a psychiatric hospital. “That was our locker room. It was an adventure every day.’’
Andy Van Slyke, who along with Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla formed the outfield of a team that advanced to three straight National League Championship Series, offers a different showbiz analogy.
“It was more of a Seinfeld environment than it was a major-league clubhouse,’’ he said. “You had a lot of strong, different personalities.’’
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Reunited two decades later in Seattle, McClendon has now entrusted Van Slyke with bringing stability to the Mariners’ outfield defense, which was something of a fun house of its own in 2013.
Among the more significant factors in the Mariners’ 71-91 record a year ago was an outfield defense that was considered one of the worst in the majors — to cite one metric, Seattle ranked last in MLB in runs saved by its defense.
Exchanging Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse for younger and more athletic players in the outfield should help.
Van Slyke, though, also comes to Seattle with a lot ideas for improving the Mariners’ outfield.
Van Slyke won five Gold Gloves as a center fielder with the Pirates, highlighting a 13-year career. Since retiring after the 1995 season, he has spent time with his family and worked in the media, save for a four-year stint as a coach with the Tigers from 2006-09 when he served under Jim Leyland — his manager with the Pirates — and alongside McClendon.
When McClendon was hired by the Mariners in November, Van Slyke called immediately to say he would like to come aboard and help his former Pirates teammate. The two played together in Pittsburgh from 1990-94.
“I wanted to work for Lloyd because he is smart, competitive and I know that he frees up his coaches to do their job and doesn’t want to micromanage everybody, which is great for an employee,’’ said Van Slyke, 53.
Van Slyke is also the team’s first-base coach and will help with baserunning.
But shoring up the leaky outfield is task one this spring. Van Slyke, though, said he didn’t bother much looking at what the team did a year ago.
“I don’t care if it was the best team in baseball or the worst team,’’ he said. “That’s irrelevant to my job. My job is to make each individual player do things they don’t think was possible.’’
So that’s why Van Slyke has the Mariners outfielders alternately diving to the turf or looking far into the sky for baseballs during workouts.
Practicing diving, Van Slyke says, is something not every team embraces.
But he says it has to be practiced as often as possible so that when a player has to dive after a ball in a game it is second nature.
“I want the hard play to become ordinary and the extraordinary to become routine and the impossible possible,’’ he said. “You try to make the conditions of practice harder, faster, and almost impossible to accomplish whatever drill you are doing so when the game starts, every other play becomes possible.’’
And if players don’t want to dive after balls in practice?
“It’s irrelevant what they think,’’ he said. “It’s what I think, and whether they buy into it is up to them.’’
Another Van Slyke drill has him turning the team’s pitching machines to top speed and then blasting baseballs straight into the air. He estimates the balls travel far above the 275 feet that is the tallest point of the roof at Safeco Field.
“If you can catch a fly ball that has left the vicinity vertically, then you’ve got a pretty good chance at getting anything under the roof,’’ he said.
Van Slyke is also preaching pregame preparation.
“Every ballpark you go into, the speed of the field is going to be different,’’ he said. “The grass in California is different than the grass in the Northeast. So you have to be in with your surroundings on a series-by-series basis. You’d be surprised that a lot of major-leaguers never put that into the equation, so they are not cutting balls off the right way, or they get beat on a ball.’’
Stefen Romero, hoping to make a major-league roster for the first time, says working with Van Slyke “has really opened up my eyes how to get after it in the outfield.”
Romero said Van Slyke’s drills, such as catching the balls straight up in the air, “brings a sense of fun back into practice. It’s just making practice more enjoyable.’’
It has been only a few weeks, and spring training is the time for eternal optimism. But McClendon insists the outfield defense is improving daily.
“I think we all agree our outfield is playing better,’’ he said.
Van Slyke, though, says he understands that ultimately there’s only so much coaching can do.
“It’s not my responsibility to get them better,’’ he said. “It’s my responsibility to give them the tools to get them better. Let them take it and run with it and let them be responsible for getting better.’’
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.