The organization's top power-hitting prospect showed he's more than just strength and intensity, showcasing his piano-playing skills to teammates.
PEORIA, Ariz. — When you think of Mariners’ prospect Tyler O’Neill, the first mental images are of towering home runs, laser line drives, a chiseled frame of a body builder much like his father, Terry, a one-time Mr. Canada winner, and nonstop intensity in every action on the baseball field.
But after Sunday, his teammates and the Mariners’ coaching staff will also think of him having the gentle touch and finger dexterity of a trained pianist.
Yes, a pianist.
As part of manager Scott Servais’ now traditional morning meetings where players get to know each other and open about their life and personal side, O’Neill performed a mini-recital of one song — the theme to “Lord of the Rings” — on a keyboard for his teammates. He was joined by flame-throwing reliever Thyago Vieira, who beat-boxed along with O’Neill’s playing, in a sort of duet.
With rain forcing the Mariners to bump their game up to by an hour on Monday, there was no time for a morning meeting. But the players and coaches were still buzzing from Sunday.
“I don’t think anything will top yesterday morning’s meeting,” Servais said. “We are going to give it a couple days. It was a good as I’ve seen in a while. Tyler O’Neill was outstanding. He played on the keyboard, the theme from ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Vieira was right there doing the beat box with him. There was dancing.”
O’Neill and Vieira received a standing ovation from their teammates.
“Actually, it was really good,” said outfielder Kyle Waldrop, who has locker next to O’Neill. “I was impressed.”
How did this happen? Well it started about a week ago when it was O’Neill’s turn to stand up in front of the team and answer questions about himself — something every player must do in camp. Questions about toughest adversity overcome, proudest moment in baseball are standard fare. but it also gets personal.
“They asked me about a hidden talent or one of my hobbies, or something like that, and I said piano, just because I wanted to be different, I guess,” O’Neill said. “It kind of blew up a little bit and there I was, a week later.”
Once Servais heard that from O’Neill, a challenge/directive was made for him to perform in front of the team. He gave the youngster a week to prepare and a Yamaha keyboard was brought into the clubhouse. O’Neill practiced on it in the afternoons after workouts with headphones silencing the sound of him playing to people passing by. Vieira’s role was more improvisational.
“I sent him a video of a guy playing the piano on YouTube just to give him an idea of what was going to happen,” O’Neill said. “About an hour before we did the presentation, I played it for him in the headphones and he pretty much just freestyled it, which is very skillful.”
O’Neill first started playing between age 7-8 and continued throughout his childhood and into his teenage years.
“It felt like a burden and a chore when I was younger, but now I’m very thankful,” he said. “It’s great that I can read some sheet music off the Internet. I can pull pretty much anything and learn it in a week and play it in front of the guys.”
Why the Lord of the Rings theme?
“I knew that one in high school,” he said. “That was my favorite. I just sat down and my fingers started to come back to me. I just went with it from there.”
The song showcases his ability and training in more classical music, but there is one song that he needs no sheet music for anymore and will always play first if given the opportunity.
“O Canada,” he said of country’s national anthem. “I learned that in about two hours and that’s my passion. If I’m going to learn something like that, I’m going to get right to work.”
O’Neill’s self-confidence on the field or at the plate has never been in question. But sitting at a keyboard in front of his peers gave him butterflies.
“Oh yeah, a little bit,” he said. “My fingers had a little sweat going. It kind of reminded me of my recital days back when I was 10 years old. But it was fun. The standing ovation at the end — it was all worth it.”
He hasn’t had much time for piano because of his intense commitment to baseball, admitting he hadn’t played with any regularity in three years.
But there are similarities in piano and baseball in the day-to-day work of refining technique and results through repetition.
“Practice makes perfect,” he said. “If I had another week, I wouldn’t have messed up at the end. I was a couple of keys away. But the more effort and time you put into it, the better you are going to be.”
There has never been a question about O’Neill’s effort in baseball. If anything the Mariners wanted to back him off a little on some of his offseason lifting in past years so he wouldn’t get too bulky. He’s committed to maintaining his strength and is beyond intense in day-to-day pregame work.
“You never have to worry about him playing hard,” said Daren Brown, O’Neill’s manager at Class AA Jackson last season.
After striking out twice in the first Cactus League game this season, O’Neill came back with a crisp double in Game 2.
“I knew I had to make an adjustment after that first game,” he said. “It was nice to put the bat on the ball.”
That wasn’t a problem for him last season. At age 21, he was named the Southern League’s most valuable player, hitting .293 with 26 doubles, four triples, 24 homers and 102 RBI in 130 game for Class AA Jackson.
“He’s a special player,” said Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said. “The numbers speak for themselves. But there’s so many things about Tyler that are more exciting than the numbers. He bought into what we asked as much as anybody. He handled a lot this past year and stood up. I’m a big fan. There’s a lot of substance behind those numbers.”
That showing has him ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Mariners organization by Baseball America and No. 38 in their top 100 prospects.
He’s ticketed for Class AAA Tacoma where he’ll see an assortment of former big league pitchers and a ton of offspeed pitches in hitters’ counts. If he can continue to put up results, it’s not impossible to believe he’ll be in a Mariners’ uniform by the end of 2017.
He’s already impressed Servais in the two weeks he’s been in camp — and not just on the piano.
“More than anything is how he handles himself in the clubhouse,” Servais said. “Tyler is very confident young man, sometimes it can come off the wrong way,” Servais said. “He’s been great. He’s handled everything that we’ve thrown at him in the morning meetings. He’s obviously a very good and talented player. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to impact us in Seattle. It could be sooner rather than later. The future is certainly bright for him.”