It’s right there within his grasp — the one moment missing from a major league career far longer and more successful than he could’ve imagined as a kid growing up in Concord, North Carolina.
The dream of playing in the postseason has been agonizingly close to being realized in the past for Kyle Seager.
He felt those hopes crushed in the fifth inning of the last game of the season in 2014, being eliminated in a game they were winning.
He consoled a heartbroken Felix Hernandez, sitting crestfallen on the ledge of the dugout, when the dream ended with a crazy loss to the A’s in the second to last game of the season in 2016.
He bristled with anger as their fade from an almost-certain wild-card spot in July sunk to its nadir in the final week of the 2018 season when Jean Segura pulled himself out of the lineup for must-sweep series in Oakland due to a bruised shin.
He’s endured 10 of the 19 consecutive seasons without a postseason berth for the Mariners and is trying to avoid the 11th.
“I always believed we could get there,” Seager said. “It’s why I wanted to be here. I wanted to be a part of the team that did it.”
And now in this final three-game series of the 2021 season, a weekend he had been mentally preparing for as possibly his last in a Mariners uniform, he will do anything to prolong saying goodbye to the only organization and fan base he’s ever called his own.
‘He’ll be a Mariners Hall of Famer when he’s done playing’
It was one of the few true and nonoffensive things said by former president Kevin Mather in his infamous Zoom call with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club in early February. The list of players he offended in the organization was lengthy. Mather also labeled Seager as overpaid based on the seven-year, $100 million contract extension that he approved as chief financial officer.
He also said bluntly, “This is probably his last season as a Mariner.”
With a club option that would require the Mariners to pay him $20 million in 2022, it’s long been expected that the Mariners would decline the option even before Mather logged onto his computer that day. Seattle would instead pay him a $2 million buyout, making him a free agent.
But Seager’s strong 2021 season that has featured 35 homers and 100 RBI in 155 games played, somewhat offsetting a .212 batting average and .286 on-base percentage, and the team’s overall success has led to a debate about bringing him back.
Regardless of what happens, his production over 10½ seasons (1,477 games) in a Mariners uniform is worthy of the team’s hall of fame.
He will leave as the fourth most productive hitter in franchise history behind Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro.
His nine 20-homer seasons are tied for most with Griffey. He ranks second with six 30-double seasons. He ranks in the top four or five in almost every statistical category.
With each milestone, he can’t avoid sentimentality.
“It’s pretty damn good company,” he said. “It’s hit me a few times this year. It’s something I’m proud of even if I don’t focus on it.”
Not bad for a player who wasn’t going to make the 2012 MLB opening day roster out of spring training. But a spring training injury to Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Carp’s injury in the opening series in Japan, forced Chone Figgins to play left field and allowed Seager to make the team and make the third base job his own.
He changed his body, his hitting approach and his thinking to keep it.
“I tell young guys you have to adapt to this game to survive and be successful,” he said. “Be true to yourself, but ultimately, it’s how can you help the team? And what do you have to do to help the team? And what do you have to do to help yourself? This is a business, and we all certainly find that out one way or another. Nobody wanted a third baseman that’s not going to hit for much power, that doesn’t steal a lot of bases and hits for a little bit of average, there wasn’t much value there.”
‘I was never a prospect’
If “Corey’s brother” was his own self-deprecating nickname for MLB players weekend a few years ago, he could have used “Ackley’s teammate” for his nickname as he came up through the amateur and college ranks and later in the Mariners farm system.
With the second pick of the 2009 draft, the Mariners spent weeks watching and evaluating right-hander Stephen Strasburg out of San Diego State and infielder Dustin Ackley out of North Carolina. Whoever the Nationals didn’t take with the first pick, Seattle would happily take the other as a consolation.
Elbow surgery forced Ackley to play first base in the 2009 college season while Seager moved from second base to third base to accommodate a prized recruit. Area scout Rob Mummau and then-Mariners director of amateur scouting Tom McNamara watched hours of Tarheels practices and games, making sure Ackley, labeled the greatest hitter in college baseball, was everything that people believed he would be.
Meanwhile, Seager just kept producing.
“We thought this guy’s a hit collector, he’s a doubles guy, he finds the barrel,” McNamara said. “He is short to the ball with the swing. We’d go in there, and Ackley would get his three hits and Seager would match him. And it was always like Seager was the underdog.”
McNamara remembers one of his first conversations with Seager after a game in Boston College.
“I told him, ‘Every time I watch you play, you get three hits,’” McNamara said. “And he said, ‘Well, then you better keep watching.’”
Seager wasn’t considered a top-100 pick. He hit for average but showed nothing more than gap-to-gap doubles power.
From the Baseball America predraft scouting report: “He has a patient approach but doesn’t project to hit for much home run power because of his modest bat speed and flat swing plane. Featuring an average arm and impressive agility, he’s an average defender at third, if not a tick above. Scouts who like him see a Bill Mueller type who doesn’t fit the profile but grinds out at-bats and outs in the field. His detractors see him as a safe pick with low upside and a future reserve or utility player.”
“That was fair,” Seager said. “That was exactly right. I wasn’t a big power guy. I hit for a high average.”
When Mummau made his presentation on Seager, McNamara became sold on the kid they projected as second baseman with some potential power, referencing Bill Mueller.
“I remember putting a star next to him,” McNamara said. “We actually jumped him on the board. It was kind of a gut feeling where I looked at the board and I said, ‘You know what fellas, we are taking Seager.’ It’s one of those moments where you just look at your board, and you’ve got a big leaguer staring back. You just take him and you don’t look back.”
Seattle selected him in the third round with 82nd overall pick.
In Baseball America’s 2010 Top 30 Mariners prospects list, Seager was ranked No. 30. High school shortstop Nick Franklin, who was taken two rounds earlier, was No. 9 on the list.
After Seager produced a .345/.419/.503 slash line with 192 hits, including 40 doubles, three triples, 14 homers, 74 RBI in 135 games at High-A High Desert, he moved up to No. 9 in the Mariners organization unable to surpass Marcus Littlewood at No. 8. That year, Baseball America did a Top 20 prospects in the Cal League and Seager was not in it.
“Everybody loves a prospect,” he said “I was never a prospect. I remember coming up here, and, there was a ton of prospects way ahead of me. You certainly would rather be a prospect than not a prospect. But at some point, it does change over to what have you done at the big-league level. That’s ultimately where you’re gonna find success or not find success.”
Seager forced his way past those prospects and to the big leagues.
He started 2011 in Class AA Jackson, posting a .312/.381/.458 slash line with 25 doubles, four homers and 37 RBI in 66 games. He moved up to Class AAA Tacoma and put up video game numbers, posting a .387/.444/.585 slash line with eight doubles, two triples, three homers and 17 RBI in just 24 games. He was called up to take the place of the slumping Figgins, who had a .183/.231/.244 line while infuriating teammates and coaches with his attitude.
When he stepped into an MLB batter’s box for the first time July 7, 2011, at Angel Stadium, Seager — with a full head of hair, OK fullish head of hair — looked like he’d been pranked into wearing a jersey two sizes too big.
A picture taken of him and his wife, Julie, before that game — which at times appears on the video board of games — shows two kids with a world of possibilities ahead of them.
“I look young,” he said. “And Julie still looks the same. I could’ve never imagined at that time it would turn out this way.”
How do you help me get better?
It’s Seager’s simple philosophy.
“Because ultimately, that’s how we are going to win, right?” Seager said. “I need you to make me better as a player. And I need to help make you better as a player.”
It’s a sunny afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum with the Mariners on the verge of completing a four-game sweep of the A’s in this magical run.
Sitting alone in the dugout before the afternoon finale, Seager is trying to be reflective and honest about his time with the organization while refusing to say anything that might seem like bragging. Besides how can you think about the past when so much is happening in the present.
“What do you want your legacy to be as a Mariner?”
The oft-asked question left Seager with a puzzled look on his face and searching his thoughts for an answer that wasn’t there. Like preparing for a situational lefty he’d face late in the game, Seager admittedly anticipated potential questions and have answers, usually vanilla, ready to drop. This question was like a pitch not on that lefty’s scouting report.
“I, uh, you know, that’s tough,” he said. “I haven’t thought about that.”
His teammates had answers.
When Seager signed that extension before the 2015 season, locking him in for at least seven years with the organization, leadership wasn’t part of the contract language, but it was a given. That’s how it works on baseball teams.
It’s not a clichéd leadership style. He doesn’t deliver inspirational speeches. He is never going to be the rah-rah guy in the clubhouse or the dugout. And he won’t settle for just leading by example.
“Kyle likes to stir it up,” his brother Corey, the Dodgers All-Star shortstop, said a year ago. “He’s very good at knowing what buttons to push.”
It’s a ton of trash-talk and “smartass” comments with no one spared mixed in with moments of unflinching honesty.
“I figured it out pretty early,” Mitch Haniger said. “My first spring, I was like, ‘OK, this guy is gonna talk (expletive) to me. He’s gonna test me. Don’t let him faze you.”
Marco Gonzales thought Seager was a “kind of a jerk” when he first came to the Mariners midseason of 2017.
“It definitely took me, like, my first full season here to understand,” he said. “He loves to talk smack. And it took me a minute to figure out that if you give it back to him, you actually get along better with him.”
But when Seager turns serious about baseball, discussing preparation and production, there is no back and forth.
“If you ask Seags what he thinks, you better be prepared to hear things that you might not want to hear,” J.P. Crawford said. “He has no problem telling you.”
Haniger, who calls Seager, “a mentor and a friend,” found the brutal honesty startling yet refreshing.
“He’s not going to tell you: ‘No, it’s OK. You’re doing good,'” Haniger said. “He’ll say you need to get better at this. You need to do this. He’ll always say, ‘I’m here to help you get better.’”
Rookie Jarred Kelenic found out during his early struggles this season. He would sit at Seager’s locker during a stretch of hitless games, wondering why he was struggling and asking for answers.
“This is the (expletive) big leagues, did you think this would be (expletive) easy?” Seager said bluntly to him. “You better make some changes because it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the minors, it’s not working up here.”
Then the conversation turned to what needed to be fixed.
As Crawford grew into a leadership role, he needed the established leader.
“He definitely keeps my sanity out there,” Crawford said. “I go to him because he knows I need to get stuff off my chest. I can go to him about anything at any time. You don’t get too many people like that.”
His leadership style and his approach to things haven’t always jibed with manager Scott Servais. They’ve had their disagreements, sometimes heated, on multiple occasions. But there is an understanding that Seager cares about doing everything he can to win each night and holding others to that standard.
“I take a lot of pride in trying to help these young guys in my own way,” he said. “I’ve done things a little bit different than maybe some people around here wanted me to, but that’s fine. This is my way. This is what I do. I genuinely believe that I’ve been trying to help people get the most out of themselves personally and for the Mariners. I’ve truly cared about the success of the Mariners over the years more than anything.”
That’s his legacy.
‘We’re runnin’ out of moonlight’
The title of the syrupy sweet country love song from Randy Houser, which served as Seager’s walk-up music for far too long, has been played at T-Mobile Park too many times to count. But as the end of the 2021 season nears, it feels a little fitting.
Early this season he switched things up with Julie and his kids picking his walk-up songs, he settled on Eric Church’s “Carolina,” with the refrain lyric: “Like the sound of a siren song, Oh Carolina, ya keep callin’ me home.” That didn’t go unnoticed by some fans as a sign of his thinking.
Just imagine if the request to use “When I’m Gone” by LuLu and the Lampshades at least once a night had been fulfilled.
The stark realization of his likely departure came two years ago at T-Mobile Park as tears welled up in his eyes when a sobbing Felix Hernandez hugged him as he exited the final start of his Mariners’ career. It was a genuine embrace of two teammates who weren’t ready for the future.
“One of my lowest moments of my career was how Felix went out,” Seager said. “It broke my heart to see an iconic Mariner and just how it ended there, it was truly sad.”
Depending when and where this improbable push for the postseason ends, there will be a final game in a Mariners uniform for Seager.
“It’s a reality and probably likely,” he said.
He hasn’t heard from general manager Jerry Dipoto if the organization plans to pick up the $20 million club option for 2022 or pay him a $2 million buyout.
He’s not expecting to be told. Their relationship is complicated or nonexistent.
“I haven’t heard anything,” Seager said. “We haven’t had a conversation in years, probably four years. We don’t communicate at all. Not even passing by in the hall. If he spoke to my agent or anything like that, I haven’t heard anything.”
The Mariners have until three days after the World Series to make that decision. But it would seem like they know what they are going to do by now.
“It’s a weird spot to be in,” he said. “You kind of want to know, but unfortunately it’s out of our control. He’s not obligated or anything to tell me one way or the other. You have to prepare like you’re not going to be here. The writing’s been on the wall for a while. There’s nobody left from when I first got here. That’s not uncommon with a regime change. You bring in your own guys. You do your own thing.”
Not all goodbyes must end with bitterness or bad terms. Maybe it’s a relationship that should end in the best interests of both sides.
“This organization and this city are all me and my family have ever known,” he said. “You always wish there was more you could’ve done. We wanted it for the fans. I hope they know I showed up every day with the mindset of trying to win every day.”
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