PEORIA, Ariz. — Let’s play a quick game.

This isn’t quite word association, more like player association.

When a baseball team is mentioned, name the first current player that comes to mind.

Call it the “Face of the Franchise” game. We’ll start with a few easy ones:

  • Los Angeles Angels? Mike Trout.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers? Clayton Kershaw. Though in a few years, it will be Mookie Betts.
  • New York Yankees? Aaron Judge.

OK, let’s move on …

And finally … the Seattle Mariners? 

Hmm, that’s not so simple, is it?

When general manager Jerry Dipoto convinced Kevin Mather and chairman John Stanton to start a rebuild after the 2018 season, most of the more recognizable Mariners names were traded (Robinson Cano, James Paxton and Mike Zunino) — or not re-signed (Nelson Cruz). If Kyle Seager’s contract didn’t include a poison-pill clause that tacks on an extra year of at least $15 million if he were traded, he would likely be gone as well.

Even with those notables gone, the Mariners still had Felix Hernandez. Yes, he was declining and rarely resembled the King Felix who dominated hitters for so many seasons, but he was still the face of the franchise. 

When you thought of the Mariners from about 2013-19, you thought of King Felix. Even when Seager emerged from non-prospect to potential All-Star at third base, when Cano was signed to a ballyhooed $240 million contract and Cruz was belting homers, Hernandez was still the preeminent player.  

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It was cemented during a tearful news conference before the 2013 season, when he signed a $175 million contract extension.

“To the people in Seattle that trust me and believe in me, I’ll say this: I’m not going to disappoint anybody,” an emotional Hernandez said. “I’m going to do my best. This Seattle Mariners team is going to be on top. Believe me.”

Though the team never reached the postseason, his role as the guy remained.

(Rich Boudet / The Seattle Times)
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It was underscored in his final Mariners start on Sept. 26, 2019, when he ventured out to the left-field line of T-Mobile Park to thank the fans who comprised the final King’s Court.

“The background on my phone is Felix with the fans on that final game,” said Kevin Martinez, senior vice president of marketing and communications. “When he went out to be with them, I had never seen that kind of relationship, and he’s out there with them. I think it’s one of my favorite sports photos of all time. Everybody that was out there in the King’s Court that night with Felix. It was a beautiful relationship.”

But with Hernandez gone, the role of “Face of the Franchise” is noticeably vacant.

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Who will fill that spot?

The role

Let’s be clear: You don’t need a face of the franchise to be successful or even relevant. It takes more than one star player to push the franchise into the playoffs — just ask Hernandez, who never got to experience the postseason, or Trout, who has played in one playoff series during his illustrious career.

The Oakland A’s have operated in faceless anonymity for many years and still found consistent success. Though in the early 2000s, Jason Giambi certainly reached that status, and Matt Chapman has the potential to be that guy.

It doesn’t have to be just one guy. The 1990s Atlanta Braves trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz served as the face of the franchise’s success.

And even though Major League Baseball does an abysmal job of marketing its superstars nationally, stars are important for teams and their fan bases to build a connection. Wins bring fans to the park. Stars bring fans to the park when you aren’t winning. Hernandez’s starts still mattered to fans even when the team didn’t. Why? Because he had the ability to lift them into something more. Every at-bat from Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Ichiro mattered. You might not want to watch the entire game, but you’d stop flipping the channels when they were in the batter’s box. 

But as the face of the franchise, you are more than just the best player. It extends beyond the field. You are asked to do more and be more. You represent the team more than your teammates in everything you do.

“I’m not sure if I was ever the face of this franchise,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner. “But I do take things seriously when I wear the Seattle Mariners uniform; I want to be professional and act the way that the Mariners expect. Even off the field, I felt like I was even wearing a Seattle Mariners logo on my chest. And that’s how I wanted to carry myself with that logo on my chest. Of course, there is an added responsibility.”

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You have to embrace the role and not view it as a burden.

“There’s always something you can do without taking too much time out of your preparation,” Edgar Martinez said.

Even Ichiro, ever fixed to his routine, understood he had to do a little more than everyone else.

“We’re able to play this game because of the fans,” he said. “If the fans weren’t there, we would have no game.”

The lineage

The start to the franchise brought less-than-stellar teams with forgettable players with few accomplishments. In 1984, Alvin Davis was called up to replace an injured Ken Phelps. He became a stalwart, being named to the All-Star Game and winning the American League Rookie of the Year.

“From a player’s perspective, it means you are getting it done on the field,” Davis said. “You need to look at it as just stay focused on being who I am, and doing whatever it was that caused people to look at you in that light. You just kind of realize that you are the guy.”

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Eventually dubbed “Mr. Mariner,” Davis was the face of the franchise until the arrival of George Kenneth Griffey Jr. in 1989.

With his megawatt smile and cap turned backward, Griffey became a baseball phenomenon. He made baseball cool with everything he did on the field. His popularity skyrocketed. And Kevin Martinez soon realized the Mariners would have to share Griffey because he wasn’t just the Face of the Mariners. He was quickly becoming the Face of Major League Baseball.

“What we went through with Ken Griffey Jr. was exactly that, he was first and foremost beloved here in our region,” he said. “But then I’d say, as early as that ’90-91 season, he quickly emerged as the game’s most beloved player. In ’92, he wins the MVP at the All-Star Game that just launched him into the stratosphere. He was charismatic and equally dynamic.”

When Griffey asked to be traded after the 1999 season, the unassuming Edgar Martinez was put into the role as the new face of the franchise despite Alex Rodriguez’s prodigious talent, eye-popping production and obvious desire to be that guy. A-Rod had everything that should’ve made him ideal for that role except for the determining factor — the fans’ approval.

“Edgar was absolutely beloved,” Kevin Martinez said. “Ken Griffey Jr. might have been the face of baseball and the Mariners for a time. But Edgar was the Mariners.”

And when Rodriguez infamously left in free agency for the Texas Rangers and Martinez was nearing retirement, the Mariners signed an outfielder from Japan who captured the imagination of baseball fans.

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“Everybody talked about Ichiro being the Michael Jordan of Japan, and while there was unbelievable international interest, I think it took about only a week of him playing in then Safeco Field for him to capture the imagination of Major League Baseball and fans across this country,” Kevin Martinez said. “As soon as he was on that field, they saw things they have never seen before take place on a major-league diamond. There was so much intrigue around him.”

Already the face of professional baseball in Japan, Ichiro understood the responsibilities.

“You do think about it,” he said. “And then it becomes part of your nature, and that’s how you are.”

And then Hernandez assumed the mantle. As teammates with both, Seager watched that transition.

“Being the face of the franchise, I think they both went about it in different ways,” he said. “They had different personalities and went about their business differently. There wasn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do it. It can be a burden to carry. Everything they did, everything people expected from them. But they never complained.”

The future

So who is the next face of the franchise? Who will lead this collection of young talent out of a rebuild and into a place the organization hasn’t been since 2001 — the postseason. There are plenty of candidates in the organization. But it’s something that can’t be dictated by the players or Kevin Martinez’s marketing department. No, it’s an organic process.

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“The fans tell you who that player is,” he said. “When you can see that connection start to happen between a player and the fans and the way they react to the player when he steps out on the field, or comes to the plate, or takes the mound. That’s when it crystallizes for you.”

In what he expects to be his final season with the team, Seager knows it can’t be him, but he thinks it could be Marco Gonzales or Mitch Haniger — two proven players.

Gonzales should be the leading candidate despite being incorrectly characterized by Mather as “very boring.” He has been the Mariners’ best pitcher the past three seasons and has assumed a leadership role on the team. He’s a Gonzaga graduate who lives in West Seattle year round and has signed a contract extension that will keep him on the team through 2024. He’s the type of person you want to be your kid’s best friend. But is that enough to capture the wonder of fans?

Haniger is talented, but the time away because of injuries and a potential exit via trade or free agency is limiting. 

There is also outfielder Kyle Lewis, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year.

“I mean he did win a pretty big award,” Seager deadpanned. “That probably should mean something.”

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Lewis has the intangibles that could thrust him into that role. But he loathes talking about himself or his accomplishments. He wants his play on the field to speak for itself.

“It’s all part of the process,” he said. “I try to take things in stride. I just try to be myself.”

Lewis has operated somewhat unnoticed this spring with top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez drawing the attention of fans with their seemingly limitless potential.

“Everybody loves the prospects,” said Seager, who admittedly was never one himself. “What is a prospect? A prospect is hope.”

Kelenic has an intense swagger and confidence that says, “I’m good, and I will show you,” while Rodriguez has an ebullient personality and comfort level in public.

“Julio could definitely handle it,” Evan White said. “Heck, he’d jump to the front of the line.”

But to Ichiro, consistent production means more than hype and hope. You have to prove it on the field.

“There are a lot of great players with great skill and a lot of potential, but when you’re talking about replacing somebody, like a Felix or the next guy up, that comes with results,” he said. “You’ve got to have results in order to be in that spot. I think it’s going to take some time. I feel like if you can put up the numbers for three years, if you can prove that you’re that guy, then I think you can take on that role.”