What’s most fascinating at spring training is the tug of war between giddy proclamations of big things to come and the manager’s stern restraint.
PEORIA, Ariz. – Mariners camp was alive Thursday with the mundane yet ever-thrilling routines of spring training.
Rickie Weeks tracked fly ball after fly ball as he threw himself into learning the nuances of the outfield. Robinson Cano swept up ground balls with easy grace, transferring to his throwing hand with uncanny speed. Felix Hernandez breezed through his first bullpen session, doing a little skip of delight after his final pitch crackled into Mike Zunino’s glove.
There’s a good, positive vibe coming from this team, but I haven’t seen a ballclub yet that didn’t overflow with optimism in the first week of spring training. Well, maybe the 2002 Red Sox, who fired beleaguered manager Joe Kerrigan on March 6 of that year, but that’s a whole different story.
What’s most fascinating here in Peoria is the constant tug-of-war between giddy proclamations of big things to come, and the stern restraint of manager Lloyd McClendon, which has infiltrated the mind-set of his players.
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Reliever Danny Farquhar summed it up aptly: “Lloyd’s humbling us a lot.”
Go around the Mariners’ clubhouse, and you’ll hear Charlie Furbush say, “You talk to anyone in this room, we’re ready to make some noise this year.”
But then, perhaps hearing his manager echoing in his mind, Furbush hastened to add, “Like Lloyd is always telling us, you’ve got to worry about Game 1. Get down here, do your work in spring training, and get prepared mentally and physically. It’s a long journey, so you have to start with Game 1.”
McClendon insists he’s not being a killjoy when he deflects all the playoff and World Series talk being attached to this team, and instead says things like: “In the end, when we get ready to leave here, we’ll have expectations, and they’ll be dictated by me. Not by you guys.”
Mind you, McClendon doesn’t mind people thinking lofty thoughts about his ballclub. He doesn’t even mind his players thinking those same thoughts. He’s just laser-focused on heading off any sense whatsoever that such success is inevitable.
“I don’t want to squash the expectations,’’ he said. “The expectations are high, and they should be. Because we’re a talented club. But if we start focusing on expectations and put the cart before the horse, we’re going to get our (butt) kicked. It’s just that simple.”
His message to fans seems to be to dream as big as you want (although the most recent time the Mariners urged people to “believe big” they lost 101 games in 2010). But he wants his players to temper their dreams, at least for now, and throw all they’ve got into the mundane activities mentioned earlier.
“I’m so happy for Seattle fans,’’ he said. “I think it’s wonderful. The excitement is tremendous. It pumps us up. It makes us work harder. But in the end, we have to stay focused. Then they can really be happy.”
And you know what will help with that? The keen frustration of not only falling one game shy of Oakland for the second wild-card spot, but watching two wild-card teams – San Francisco and Kansas City – make it to the World Series. The sense that it could, and should, have been them is deep. And deeply motivational.
“It should be. It better be,’’ said Willie Bloomquist. “It’s a big if, obviously, but I think if we had won one more game last year and were able to get in postseason play, with our rotation and our bullpen, we’d have stacked up against anybody.”
The Royals, in particular, are viewed as a team in Seattle’s image.
“I think our teams are very similar,’’ Bloomquist said. “And you saw what they did. They obviously made a great run and took it down to the last out. It lets you know it can be done. We played them pretty tough during the season. We’re not far. We’re excited to go out and get it done.”
Farquhar said he was so dismayed about finishing one game behind the A’s that he didn’t watch the divisional round of the playoffs. He didn’t even turn on the wild-card game when his sister called to tell him the A’s and Royals were heading into extra innings and the game was insane.
“I was still so bitter that we could have been playing Oakland the next day and could have been in the wild-card game; I didn’t start watching until the ALCS,’’ he said.
The lessons rang through loud and clear.
“That easily could have been us,’’ Furbush said. “One game. To bring it down to one game, you realize even if you play 162, they all count. We know being in the position we were in last year, we have to do better.”
Added Farquhar: “We were set up and ready to go. But you can’t dwell on it. I like to look forward; you can’t change the past. We have to do everything we can so we’re not in that position scrambling and having to win games at the end. We need to have that cushion Anaheim had and just be in there.”
A noble goal, in the big picture. But these early days of spring training are time for the minuscule picture. And McClendon will be there at every turn to make sure that for now, the Mariners embrace the mundane. Do so, and the thrills will come in due time.