J-Rod takes Mariners fans into his world

March 27th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Julio Rodríguez had an entire afternoon to kill, so he opened up his phone and invited the world of Mariners fans into his. 

With Seattle’s first night game on the horizon on Friday, and with his name in the starting lineup, Rodríguez needed to be at the club’s facility early that morning for team meetings. But there was a sizable lull before first pitch, so Rodríguez entered the Twittersphere and launched an impromptu meetup with fans near the club’s Spring Training facility.

With some quick coordination between his representatives and the Mariners’ front office, Rodríguez put together gift packages comprising of hats, three $100 gift cards to the team store and three sets of tickets to games in Seattle this season. He wound up collaborating with about a half dozen groups, exclusively arranged in an organic, social-media-driven forum.

“We just started driving around and seeing who we could find,” said Rodríguez, so simplistically and enthusiastically.

Some, Rodríguez met walking around the Peoria Sports Complex, and others, he found via car. Not all those he connected with were Mariners supporters, either -- though he did sway one Yankees fan by getting him to swap a New York hat for a Seattle one. 

“We made a new fan,” Rodríguez said. “He was for the Yankees, but we traded him to the Mariners now.”

The passion behind Rodríguez’s fan engagement dates back to his childhood, when he remembers eagerly attending games for the Águilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Winter League. There, one of his favorite players, the late Jose Lima, was regularly accessible to Rodríguez when he was 8 years old.

“I grew up a big baseball fan and I always wanted to meet really good players, players that I would look up to,” Rodríguez explained. “I feel like now that I’m that player for a lot of kids that they look up to and they want to be like, it’s really important to me to give back to them, because that’s what I wanted when I was a kid. I wanted to be able to connect with those players and learn from them. And now that I’m in this spot, I just want to give back to them because I know there are a lot of kids out there and that’s their dream too.”

It only took a sliver of his afternoon, but Friday represented yet another gesture underscoring Rodríguez’s affection for the organization and its fans, his willingness to take the extra photo and sign the extra autograph and his cognizance for what it could mean for himself and the Mariners long term.

Despite his 21 years of age, Rodríguez has shown a keen acumen of leveraging social media to promote his personality, making him one of the more recognizable players in the Mariners’ organization despite not yet reaching the Majors. His prodigious power on the field certainly helps, too.

Rodríguez barely spoke English when Seattle signed him in 2017, but he now does so fluently after taking regular classes at the club’s facility in his homeland of the Dominican Republic. In ‘20, he collaborated with the team about creating a weekly segment on its YouTube channel called ‘Vibin’ with JROD,’ in which he interviewed fellow Mariners prospects in a lighthearted tone. Last fall, he took it another step and launched his own YouTube channel, giving subscribers an inward look into his life at and away from the ballpark.

Much of it was motivated by connecting with fans.

“Engaging with fans, that’s something I really like to do,” Rodríguez said. “I don't know, it just makes me feel good, the connection with people. And the Mariners fans, they always show me love. So, I feel like me just going out there and giving a few things back to them just makes me feel good.”

If Rodríguez lives up to his lofty hype as MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect, he would bridge an elite on-field skillset with an eccentric personality that could take his recognition mainstream beyond Seattle. Rodríguez has all the ingredients of a player that the league would love to promote -- especially with his passion for engaging with fans -- sans the actual experience and on-field results at the Major League level. But he’ll get the opportunity to prove himself sooner rather than later.

Rodríguez had his first hiccup this spring, with three strikeouts in Friday’s 3-0 win over the White Sox, but that won’t preclude him from continuing to get regular Cactus League playing time in center field. Despite just 158 games of Minor League experience in the U.S., including just 46 at Double-A, the Mariners have not quashed the notion of Rodríguez breaking camp on the Opening Day roster the way they did with Jarred Kelenic throughout camp last year.

Rodríguez will have to continue to wow, but the possibility of him being in Seattle -- and mingling with Mariners fans in a big league uniform instead of in a Spring Training parking lot -- continues to grow.