MINNEAPOLIS — When he boarded the Mariners team plane in Phoenix on Wednesday, heading off to start the season in Minnesota, it became real to Julio Rodriguez.
“That’s when I realized, ‘OK, I’m here now,'” he said Thursday, sitting in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field along with the entire Mariners team that turned out for an optional workout.
Truth is, it’s been hard to not know, in intimate detail, everything about Rodriguez’s meteoric rise to Seattle’s opening-day roster and his expected spot in center field when the Mariners face the Twins on Friday.
The Julio hype train took off on the first day of spring training and has been hurtling across the internet ever since, fueled by a magnetic Cactus League performance from the 21-year-old wunderkind.
It peaked on Monday when manager Scott Servais called Rodriguez into his office to deliver the momentous news that he had made the club — an interaction captured on video by the Mariners’ social-media crew to warm the hearts of hundreds of thousands who watched. That poignancy went into warp speed when Rodriguez called his parents to break the news to them, a moment also captured for posterity.
Anticipation for Julio’s debut is at a fever pitch. Expectations for his rookie season are through the roof. The Mariners haven’t had a phenom like this who captured the baseball world’s attention, and prompted such passion at home, since Felix Hernandez. For a position player, you have to go back to Alex Rodriguez in the mid-’90s, or Ken Griffey Jr. before him.
It’s to the point that I’m starting to wonder, is it all a little too much, too soon? Rodriguez is, after all, just 21 years old. He has a mere 46 games above A ball, and none above Double-A. Is it realistic to expect him to be the savior of the Mariners, a duty that many seem to be foisting on him?
Let me interject here with some self-awareness. I fully acknowledge that I have been spewing as much Julio hype as anyone, dating back to when he was a teenager and I was fully taken by his charisma and potential. It would be hypocritical not to acknowledge whatever role I might have had in building the Rodriguez mystique. Julio himself has done most of the heavy lifting simply by virtue of a brilliant minor league portfolio, a lights-out spring and a persona that is about as personable and likable as is possible.
There is a fine line between reckless mythmaking and keen, healthy anticipation borne of realistic assessment of a player’s skillset and potential. I believe it’s possible to keep Julio on the right side of that dynamic, particularly because he seems to have a personality conducive to handling anything thrown his way. When I asked him Thursday if he worried that too much was being thrust upon him too soon, he answered quickly and forcefully.
“I’m just chilling. I’ll be myself. I will say that I’m not going to fill anybody shoes,” he said. “I’m going to have my own shoes and walk my own path. I know there have been a lot of great players like, let’s say Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, guys like that came before me.
“I’m not going to fill any of their shoes. I’m pretty sure that whenever they were in this spot, they were thinking the same thing — kind of like, build their own legacy. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. Do Julio Rodriguez’s name, not anyone else’s. I’m trying to build my own legacy.”
That’s the kind of outlook that has Servais convinced that Rodriguez can handle whatever is thrown at him. He doesn’t want to do anything to squelch the passion for the game, and for the spotlight, that defines Rodriguez.
“He’s a fun guy,” Servais said. “And I think he’s easy to gravitate toward. Our fan base is going to love him. And there’s a lot of players they’re going to like on this team. But he has to be who he is. That’s what makes him a really good player. And I don’t want to change that. I don’t want to damper it at all. He’s an emotional guy. And I love it. I’ve often talked about our guys, and how it’s OK to show your emotions on your sleeve. Do it in a professional way. But we like it. I’ve always been a big fan and Julio fit right in here.
“The thing is, we have a good team around him. So it’s not like he has to come in and carry the load. He’s going to play his first major league game tomorrow. Have fun with it. I mean, I hope he gets a knock. I know he hopes he gets a knock, like any young player the first time you’re out there in a big league ballpark. It’s a pretty exciting feeling. He’ll be pumped up.”
I asked Rodriguez one last question, 24 hours before he officially started a major league career for which he has the stated goal of leading the Mariners to their first championship and being one of the faces of baseball:
Was he ready for all this?
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”