J-Rod sparking Mariners with competitive joy

October 15th, 2022

SEATTLE -- Julio Rodríguez has lived nearly his entire life -- 21 years of it -- with the Mariners sitting on a blank page between chapters of success.

Seattle’s superstar was just nine months old when the 2001 Mariners made this franchise’s last postseason appearance, tying an MLB record with 116 wins before falling to the Yankees in the ALCS. Ichiro was a rookie and MVP. Edgar Martinez was 38. Flip phones were cool.

Now, the Mariners have been reborn in a new image, and so much of their new identity is Rodríguez. A dream package of talent and charisma, Rodríguez embodies the youthful joy with which this entire team and fan base are entering a new competitive era.

“That's what everything's about,” Rodríguez said Friday, ahead of Saturday’s Game 3 in Seattle. “I feel like you see the genuine joy that the Mariners fans show for the love of the game. It's just amazing. I feel like that's what it's all about. That's what it's all about. Just playing for them. Because this is a really fun fan base to play for. It's a really fun fan base. I feel like that's why I feel like this is probably one of the best places to play, because of how genuine the love of the team is.”

Rodríguez’s energy is infectious, even as the Mariners have dropped Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, both heartbreakers to the Astros. Late in each game as the Mariners trailed, there was Rodríguez on the top steps of the dugout, slamming his hand on the padded railing and shouting to his teammates.

On the field, Rodríguez has become one of the game’s can’t-miss players. That’s hard to do in baseball, in which a star hitter’s action plays may only add up to a few minutes each night, but the combination of speed and power that Rodríguez possesses is rare. Entertainment value matters here, too. While hardcore fans appreciate a long at-bat for a walk, most fans in the building want to see something exciting happen. For those exciting moments, Rodríguez is a faucet that can’t be turned off.

Asked prior to the ALDS how these Mariners are different from the groups of years past, manager Scott Servais centered his praise on one object.

“In 2019 and 2020 and 2021 we didn't have Julio Rodríguez. I’ve got to be honest with you,” Servais said. “What he has meant to our team, not just on the field but the constant energy and joy to play baseball, is very unique in our game. And I don't know if there's too many players that have it. I say this, he's 21 years old. I hope to God I'm saying it when he's 31 years old. Because if that's the case, I mean, it's going to be some kind of special.”

Rodríguez has grown up too. In many ways, he’s still growing up on the fly. In the big leagues, you can’t stroll in each day and be the best player on the field. From Opening Day, Rodriguez’s off-field work has changed drastically.

“His routine right now is as solid as any guy that's got five or six years in the league has ever seen. He is locked in,” Servais said. “It took him a little while to figure it out, how much time to spend with the media, how much time to give friends and family when on the road, like teammates, and how to put it all together at 21 years old. I could never have, I wasn't ready to do that.”

That’s what lets the joy play.

It would be easy for this much energy to spiral out of control with a young player, making moments too big. But so far, Rodríguez has been up to the challenge. He is already 3-for-9 in the ALDS, with all three hits going for extra bases. He’s pushed the Mariners into a pair of close games, and in the first of what Mariners fans hope will be many, many postseason series, he’s risen to the moment.

“It just feels like everyone’s laying everything they’ve got on the line to win the game,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like there is nothing [else], there is no other goal, there are no numbers, there is no season, there is no anything. There is everybody just laying out everything they’ve got to get a win that night.”

Rodríguez will be at the forefront of that when the Mariners take the field for their first playoff game at home in over two decades on Saturday. For the star of this team and the conductor of the 45,000 fans packing T-Mobile Park, this is just the beginning.