PEORIA, Ariz. — An impish and bemused smirk appeared on Julio Rodriguez’s face at the joke.
“You have to talk loud in your ‘not tremendous’ English, OK?”
“OK, you will hear me pretty good,” he replied as the smirk grew into the megawatt smile that makes the Mariners’ marketing department drool in anticipation. There hasn’t been a smile like that since kid named George Kenneth Griffey Jr. appeared on the Mariners’ scene with his cap on backward in 1989.
That smirk was all that Rodriguez needed to say about the comments made by former CEO and president Kevin Mather. The statement that his English is “not tremendous” irritated him because he’s spent so many hours learning the language at the Mariners’ urging, taking classes at their academy in his native Dominican Republic and doing all his interviews in English once he came to the United States.
But after the indignation upon hearing Mather’s comments, Rodriguez, like the rest of the organization, wants to move forward. He doesn’t want any more time spent on a man that clearly didn’t know him or how well he speaks a nonnative language.
“I’m not even thinking about it,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking about it to be honest. I’m focused on my progress. I’m focused on baseball, being on the field with my friends and enjoying the time here, because it was a long time without baseball. And I’m really excited to have it now.”
Rodriguez’s 2020 season was interrupted first by baseball’s shutdown due to COVID-19 and with a fractured left wrist, which he suffered about a week into July’s summer camp while diving for a ball in a drill.
He spent his time at the alternate training site working out and letting the wrist heal. He won’t be diving like that again unless it’s a game.
Rodriguez did get some game action this season. He participated in the Arizona Instructional Fall League at the Peoria Complex in September and October.
The Mariners also allowed him to participate in winter ball, playing in the Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana (LIDOM) for Leones Del Escogido.
He played in only 18 games, opting for workouts in Tampa in preparation for 2021 spring training.
“It actually taught me how competitive baseball works,” he said of the experience. “Because in the DR, as in MLB, they work for a title. That’s what they’re playing for. You get paid and everything, but (a championship) is the main goal. Being around the veteran guys, it was just the best experience I’ve ever had of competitive baseball.”
He posted a .196 batting average with a double, a triple, seven RBI, three stolen bases, six walks and 16 strikeouts in 64 plate appearances.
“No matter what the numbers say, he wasn’t overmatched,” said third-base coach Manny Acta, who is GM of Estrellas Orientales in LIDOM. “He was fine.”
It was eye-opening for Rodriguez, who saw a steady diet of off-speed pitches.
“I played in just 18 games, but playing 18 games in the DR is different than playing a season in the minor leagues because you are playing against big leaguers, players that have played in Japan, players that have played in winter ball,” he said.
Now he’s facing the “fastballs” from a future Hall of Fame … outfielder.
Rodriguez’s hitting group has had Ichiro as its batting-practice pitcher all week. One of the most iconic players in Mariners history tossing pitches and working with a player who has the potential to someday leave a similar legacy — it’s a sight.
Rodriguez gets giddy talking about the day he first met Ichiro.
“I was blown away, man,” he said. “I used play with Ichiro all the time (on video games). When I was 7 or 8, I used to pick the team he was on all the time. You know how he hits (imitates Ichiro’s swing). It was like an automatic hit every time. When I first saw him in person, I was like, ‘Man, this is actually Ichiro Suzuki; the guy that I was talking about with my friend when we played. And now he’s with me here in practice.’”
They are an odd pair to watch interact. Rodriguez is a physical specimen with an outgoing and enthusiastic personality. He radiates energy with his smile and actions. Meanwhile, the always reserved Ichiro still treats every drill on the field with drill sergeant’s discipline and surgeon’s precision.
Now in his 40s and his playing days behind him, Ichiro will break the ultraserious facade for some fun.
“It’s great to be honest,” Rodriguez said. “If you think of a legend like that in your sport, you wouldn’t think that he’s so nice. In my head before I met him, he was not gonna be that friendly. I would have thought that he’d be in his own world. But he’s chilling with us, talking with us, having fun with us as you can see. It’s amazing facing him, somebody that I look up to. He’s been great.”
During Thursday afternoon’s batting-practice session, Rodriguez walloped a towering homer that not only easily cleared the fence in left-center, but sailed over a 30-foot open space and landed midway on the outfield of the adjacent field. Players gasped and Rodriguez admired it and smiled at Ichiro. Good-natured talk was delivered from both men.
Ichiro, who throws with more velocity than typical coaches for batting practice, threw a biting curveball on the next pitch and two more nasty pitches that Rodriguez couldn’t pummel.
But on the final pitch of his session, Rodriguez smashed another homer. This time there was no trash talk. He nodded toward the mound. Ichiro responded with a point of his finger and a nod at the work accomplished.
“He loves it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s great competition.”