GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s a fine line between playing aggressively and playing recklessly — and in the case of outfielder Julio Rodriguez, that line could be the demarcation between a season of triumph and one of regret for the Mariners.
On Monday, early in a meaningless Cactus League game against the White Sox, the Mariners had the sort of scare that causes ulcers, nightmares and outright weeping. Running full speed in pursuit of a drive by Elvis Andrus, Rodriguez crashed into the left-center-field wall in an unsuccessful attempt to make a highlight-reel catch.
J-Rod was clearly dazed and appeared shaken up. He hunched over as, no doubt, the season passed in front of manager Scott Servais’ eyes. On the list of irreplaceable Mariners players, Rodriguez is No. 1 with a bullet. And his right arm bore the brunt of the contact with the wall. The range of potential bad to disastrous outcomes was vast.
You may now relax and take a cleansing breath. Julio escaped without injury, and was smiling and upbeat in the clubhouse after exiting in the fifth inning. He said that as he neared the wall, he made sure to “tighten up” his exposed arm to reduce the impact.
“I was running basically full speed over there and just jumping to the wall,” he said. “So I’m definitely going to feel it. But it’s all good. It just took a little air out of me. I’m fine.”
That’s a huge relief for the Mariners. But it also opens a debate about how a player of Rodriguez’s caliber — and intensity — can balance the inherent desire to make every play with the need to stay available for a team that is relying heavily on him.
It’s not always a tightrope Rodriguez, still just 22, has walked successfully. At the summer camp at T-Mobile Park during the 2020 COVID season, he fractured his left wrist diving for a sinking line drive. Last year, en route to winning Rookie of the Year, he wound up on the injured list twice, once for a wrist contusion and once for a lower-back strain.
That’s not to say reckless play by Rodriguez was responsible for those injuries. It certainly had no part of the fractured left hand he dealt with in 2019 when hit by a pitch. Sometimes, baseball injuries are simply unavoidable. On the other hand, you could question the wisdom of Rodriguez taking about 200 full-tilt swings in the Home Run Derby last year after jamming his left wrist on a slide right before the All-Star break. He missed the first four games of the second half — including a three-game sweep by the Astros that brought Seattle’s 14-game winning streak to a screeching halt.
For a player with Rodriguez’s ability and “go for it” mentality who is always going to be in the middle of the action, it’s a constant monitoring of risk and reward.
Servais said he has confidence that Rodriguez knows how to navigate that balance. The manager certainly doesn’t want to stifle the “joie de vivre,” a French phrase meaning enjoyment of life, that Rodriguez exudes on the field — one of the qualities that makes him special.
“Let him play,” Servais said. “That’s what makes Julio Julio. He’s a really good kid, great player. Let him do his thing. … He has a good sense of where he is in the field. Your first reaction when you see a ball off the bat like that, Julio thinks he can catch anything in the air. You’re going to go after it.”
When Rodriguez got to the dugout after the inning, Servais said to him playfully, “I’m surprised you didn’t catch it.”
“I’ll catch it in Seattle,” Rodriguez replied.
The player to whom Rodriguez is most often compared, Ken Griffey Jr., had a penchant for running into walls to make otherworldly catches — not always without consequence. One of his most memorable plays, a spectacular grab at the Kingdome of a Kevin Bass drive in 1995, landed Griffey on the injured list for several months because of a fractured left wrist.
Rodriguez has the same sort of mentality as Griffey, that it’s his obligation to play full tilt. He also believes he can do so without undue risk of injury. Rodriguez played 132 games last year; they’d love to add 20 or more to that total.
“I feel like I totally use my abilities whenever I have the opportunity of doing so,” Rodriguez said. “I feel I’m not always going out there reckless; I just feel like if a play comes to me I’m ready for it, instead of always going out of control, kind of reckless in a way.
“I prepare myself so that every time I ask my body to do something, it’s going to go out there and do it. That’s what I manage. Be smart. But at the same time, knowing that whenever the play is going to come like that, I’m ready to go.”
Asked about the difference between playing recklessly and playing smart, Rodriguez replied, “I feel like there’s a lot of guys who kind of misunderstand that. They kind of run out of steam. I feel like that’s something I have learned how to manage, to be ready to play and not just waste my energy.
“I know I’m going to go run into the wall. I’m know I’m going to dive for plays. I know I’m going to go out there and run the bases hard and do what I can. But I feel like that’s whenever the situation calls for it.”
One could make the case that spring training is not such a situation, but Rodriguez doesn’t necessarily make that distinction. This is a little bit of a different spring for Rodriguez, who leaves Mariners camp next week for Florida to join the Dominican Republic team in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.
“I mean, I feel like you’ve got to hold yourself to a high standard no matter what game you’re playing,” he said. “I don’t want to go take a bad at-bat because it’s spring training, or I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to save it for the season.’ I feel like every time I step on the field, I want to win. I know it’s a spring-training game, but there’s a score, so I feel like I’m trying to win. … It doesn’t matter if it’s spring training, middle of the season, the back field, whatever, I’m just trying to win.”
Pulling back a home run is one of the few feats Rodriguez didn’t accomplish last year in his season of breakout stardom. It remains high on his bucket list.
“It’s something I’m definitely looking forward to,’’ he said. “I’m excited. I feel it will be really cool. I did it twice in the minor leagues. I remember them very well, I can’t lie.”
The inevitable dynamic of such a play is that it invariably involves a sprint toward the wall, with all the inherent danger. But Rodriguez is more than willing to take on that challenge — with prudence, of course.
“I’m never going to slow that down,” he said. “I feel as far as my body allows me to do, I’m going to be running out there and doing all the things I’m capable of.”
In other words, prepare for a lot of breath-holding.
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