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Buck more than Zunino's mentor with Mariners

Veteran catcher shares 'tricks of the trade' entering 11th big league season

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Since reaching the Major Leagues in 2004, John Buck has been a starter in more games than not. That likely won't be the case this year.

As soon as the Mariners signed the catcher in January, the term "mentor" suddenly was attached to him.

"They did express to me that's why they were interested in me in the first place," Buck said Tuesday.

After starting 973 games over the past 10 seasons -- 957 of them behind the plate -- Buck is tasked with helping bring along the promising Mike Zunino, in addition to being a veteran presence and productive right-handed bat.

"I think he'll help him quite a bit, being a guy who's been through it," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I think J.B. has a nice persona about him, how he goes about his business. I think he'll help Mike quite a bit, because sometimes the game can speed up on you."

Buck, 33, and Zunino, who will turn 23 next month, dress side by side in the Mariners' spring clubhouse. Asked if that was a coincidence or by design, McClendon hesitated and then said, "It just worked out that way," before chuckling. "Being lockered next to a guy, talking about different situations, I think that can be very helpful."

Zunino, who played just 1 1/2 seasons in the Minors, doesn't buy the coincidence theory.

"Absolutely not," he said. "[Buck has] done everything right to be in the game for such a long time. That says a lot about him, and that's what I want to take from it, what I need to learn to play here for a while.

"I just want to be a sponge and learn everything I can. Even in a couple weeks, I've already learned a lot. He puts in the time, not only physically but mentally. That the biggest thing I've learned from him."

Buck wasn't signed to teach. Zunino knows how to frame pitches, block balls in the dirt and call a game. "He's a big boy; he's here for a reason," Buck said.

Rather, through his decade of big league experience with five organizations, Buck offers strategies to dealing with the many different personalities on a pitching staff, the best methods to stay healthy over a long season and compartmentalizing on-field and off-field issues. "The little things behind the scenes and tricks of the trade," Buck said.

"I'll be a soundboard for Mikey to bounce things off of and be an aide to him as he goes through the ups and downs of learning how to catch at the Major League level," Buck said. "It can feel overwhelming, and I'll be there to tell him that's exactly what you should be feeling. It's the little things that may seem small, minute, but make a huge difference in a 162-game season. ... Those were the things that really helped me when I was coming up."

Buck learned from Jason LaRue, Paul Bako, Benito Santiago and Tony Pena, among others, coming up through the Royals' system.

After six seasons with Kansas City, Buck signed with Toronto in December 2009 and was an All-Star in 2010. That offseason, he signed with the Marlins and was traded three times in a 10-month span starting in November 2012.

During all that movement, he ended up with the Mets to begin last season and offered tutelage to Travis d'Arnaud, New York's starting catcher this year.

"I still talk to Travis quite a bit, and to see him take the reins is a point of pride for me," Buck said. "I'm glad I was able to help him along."

Buck signed a one-year deal with Seattle for $1 million, and despite the mentorship aspect, he is not a coach in the clubhouse.

"I've prepared myself to start every day because this is baseball and we play a position where one swing of the bat could break a finger," Buck said. "But there will be some adjustments. My role is going to be changed a little bit, but it's still the same plan to prepare.

"If Mike needed extended rest for some reason ... or protect him because they know they have rushed him, that I can step in there without losing the offense. It was just a good fit. It's a little more playing time than just a backup. Whatever playing time I get, I'll be ready."

Chris Gabel is a contributor to

Seattle Mariners, John Buck, Mike Zunino