Michael Marjama's winding baseball path has taken him from substitute teaching in the offseason to the Mariners' opening day roster as a back-up catcher to Mike Zunino
PEORIA, Ariz. — For most of March, Mike Marjama didn’t let himself think it would happen.
A spot on the opening day roster? Don’t allow yourself to get excited too soon.
Even when the Mariners optioned David Freitas — logically, the only competition he had as the backup catcher to Mike Zunino — Marjama refused to celebrate for even an instant.
“Nope, nope, nope, I will not,’’ Marjama said earlier this week in the Seattle clubhouse when asked if he understood that he had essentially won the job when the Mariners optioned Freitas to Triple-A.
Not even a little bit?
“Nope,’’ he said then. “Not until I’m on that flight or until I’m called into the office and they say ‘hey, you made the Opening Day roster.’’’
That moment finally came in a somewhat unlikely place — the visitor’s clubhouse at Camelback Ranch at Glendale, a few minutes before the Mariners played the White Sox in a spring training game in a meeting with manager Scott Servais.
There, something the 28-year-old Marjama thought might never happen actually did.
“Skip said, ‘You’ve had a great camp. You’ve made the team,’’’ Marjama said.
And with that, a player who has been in just five major league games to this point of his career, having spent three years in college and another seven in the minors, could finally envision himself running in from the outfield to the dugout to the cheers of 40,000-plus on Opening Day.
While in one breath Marjama says the moment was a dream come true, in another he admits he often barely even dreamed it could happen.
“To be honest I didn’t think it was really realistic,’’ he said. “We work for it. But it’s such a small percentage of guys that have that happen to them. So for it now to happen, it’s rewarding. It’s been long road, but it’s all worth it right now.’’
That road includes not only the almost 10 years of playing in college and the minors before getting to this point, but also a bout with anorexia when he was in high school in Granite Bay, Calif.
It’s a battle Marjama talks about freely, volunteering details even when he’s not asked about it, feeling it’s an important topic to talk about to show others that it’s a battle that can be won.
Marjama fell into anorexia as a junior in high school trying to cut weight for wrestling. While at first he just wanted to make weight, he eventually began to feel guilty eating at all. At his lowest point he entered a “lock-down’’ in-care facility. There, he finally kicked the habit after having fallen to roughly 130 pounds.
He rebounded to hit .417 as a senior and go on to play at Sacramento City College, where his head coach was current Mariners director of player development Andy McKay, and then another year at Long Beach State.
After being taken in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft, Marjama faced another challenge — switching from third base to catcher, a move rooted in the thought that his athleticism and baseball savvy made him a natural to make such a change.
The position is intricate enough that even though Majarma has now been playing it for basically seven years at the pro level, he still feels like a rookie.
“It’s a work in progress,’’ Servais said. “Marj is a converted guy who didn’t catch a lot until he got into pro ball. So some of the nuances, some of the things you pick up just doing it over the years, he’s a little behind the curve there, certainly at this level.
“And when you’re catching veteran pitchers, these guys they want particular things — how the target is, how you set up, the pace that you are calling the game at. All those things. They are very peculiar and they want it their way. He is learning that.’’
Marjama, though, has no fear of learning — he spends much of his off-season as a substitute teacher and his father is a science teacher at Rocklin (Calif.) High.
“I love working with kids,’’ said Majarma, who even volunteered to help coach a junior high wrestling team when he was in high school.
This spring, he’s been taking a crash course in catching from maybe the best in Mariners’ history — Dan Wilson — who is officially the team’s special assistant of player development.
In games when he isn’t catching, Marjama says he tries to sit next to Wilson and think along with him about what pitches should be called.
“Dan is a great guy tutelage-wise and to really calling the game knowing what is going on in the game,’’ Marjama said. “So when the game is going on and he’s here I’m going to be in his back pocket asking questions and bouncing stuff of him. Game-calling is something I am really starting to learn more from him on.’’
Marjama also had to show he could hit just enough and he’s done that, averaging .289 with two home runs in the spring through Sunday. Enough to convince Servais he can be a valuable player for the Mariners this season.
“He can do a lot of things on the field,’’ said Servais, who was a catcher in the Major leagues for 10 seasons. “We have seen him swing the bat well, he runs the bases well, he’s certainly got plenty of arm strength. There’s lot that’s interesting and exciting as far as working with a guy like that. He’s not a finished product. But we are going to need him. Mike Zuninno cannot play 162 games and more importantly the games that he is not in there you want to leave your catcher in the game and let him finish the game. Ou hate to just be like ‘okay, the game is tied, let’s get Zunino in there to catch (Edwin) Diaz) or (Juan) Nicasio. That really doesn’t give Mike a day off and Mike needs a day off mentally as well as physically once in a while.’’
Days on Marjama will gladly take.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said “Really, what can you say? It’s awesome.”