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August 16, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Avoid crucifying young Mariners infielders, but don’t coddle ’em either

Mariners shortstop Brad Miller misses a pop-up by Sean Rodriguez in last night's fifth inning. Nick Franklin had initially called for the ball, then backed off when he saw Miller going for it. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners shortstop Brad Miller misses a pop-up by Sean Rodriguez in last night’s fifth inning. Nick Franklin had initially called for the ball, then backed off when he saw Miller going for it. Photo Credit: AP

Plenty of discussion about the missed pop-up by Nick Franklin and Brad Miller last night. Much of it taking place in the the Mariners’ own clubhouse, as is to be expected in situations like these. Look, this stuff is going to happen when you’re breaking in young players, espeically at the skill positions up the middle. It wasn’t always going to be sunshine and roses with Franklin and Miller, even though they could seemingly do no wrong back in June.

Now, the reality of their learning curve is setting in and that’s got some people upset. But it happens to every young guy, which is why you rarely see championship teams stocked full of home-growns in their mid-20s or younger.

So, let’s not crucify the pair. We won’t truly know how good — or bad — they will be until they get a few seasons under their belts and right now, the good has still outweighed the bad.

That’s said, it’s important not to coddle them either. By that, I’m not talking about fans. I mean the people around the two players in the clubhouse and in charge of them in the coaching ranks.

Last night’s one error may not seem like a big deal to some watching from a distance, but these things typically do not go over well at all with the professionals whose livelihoods are impacted by wins and losses. I thought manager Robby Thompson struck the right tone with his criticism through the media and — I’m sure — in private with the two players. Allowing a routine pop-up like that to drop in cannot happen in the big leagues. This isn’t high school, travel ball, or college ball. This isn’t even Class AA or AAA.

In the majors, every out is critical. The hitters are too good at this level to afford them extra outs. For those still not quite clear on the concept, set your video baseball game to the highest level possible and see how tough it can be to make outs and what happens when you give them away.

Thompson knows this because he played the game — very well — at the major league level for over a decade. He knows the chain reaction of events that can happen when a routine play is missed and how it can impact the rest of a team and cause lingering problems.

Mariners starter Joe Saunders wasn't happy after failing to prevent a Sam Fuld single before he dropped pop-up. Nor was he pleased with all that happened in the four-run inning that decided the game. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners starter Joe Saunders wasn’t happy after failing to prevent a Sam Fuld single before he dropped pop-up. Nor was he pleased with all that happened in the four-run inning that decided the game. Photo Credit: AP

Take pitcher Joe Saunders last night, for instance. Saunders may not have Felix Hernandez stuff, but he’s done enough to stay in big league rotations going on several years now and had battled through the first four innings last night with just one run allowed.

All of a sudden, a screaming comebacker deflects off Saunders’ glove and into center field for a hit. Next thing you know, a dropped pop-up and there are two on and none out instead of a runner on first with one out. Changes the entire complexion of the inning. And as we know, that inning rapidly went downhill. Should Saunders have pitched better? Sure, he probably could have, which is why he wasn’t happy with himself. But the giveaway out changes things. It puts a runner in scoring position, impacts the pitcher’s psyche and likely changes how he approaches a guy like Wil Myers.

A guy with Saunders’ limited strikeout ability can’t afford to have multiple runners on base with no outs very often, especially with bigger bats due up.

Saunders is on a one-year, $6.5 million deal (with incentives) with the Mariners and has an option that could, in theory, be picked up by the team. For those pitchers in his position — not guaranteed the nine figures of future money given to the Hernandezs of this world — every start matters. When Saunders signed, the Mariners had two Gold Glove finalists up the middle with shortstop Brendan Ryan and second baseman Dustin Ackley. Now, both of those guys have been replaced by Miller and Franklin and more balls are getting through the infield than before.

Will the subbing out of Ryan and Ackley be for the team’s long-term good? Probably.

Are the Mariners right to do it now that their hopes of a longshot playoff bid and .500 season have been dashed? Probably.

But that doesn’t help Saunders any. His livelihood is at stake.

It doesn’t help Thompson, either. Nor Jack Zduriencik or anyone else charged with running a team that now sits 10 games under .500.

Nor does it help any borderline players who may have hoped to stick with the Mariners had they finished .500, but who now might be pounding the pavement looking for a job next winter.

Once again, this isn’t high school. Players, coaches and front offices at the big league level are paid for production and results. They are paid for winning. And flubbing routine pop-ups does not lead to winning. It leads to young players getting thrown into walls and occasionally assaulted beyond that if the mistakes continue.

That’s what livelihoods and seven-figure contracts do to people. Tends to make them more upset about losing than the average fan drowning their sorrows in a bar.

As Thompson and regular manager Eric Wedge are fond of saying, this is a game for “men”. Everything at the big league level is magnified tenfold in front of thousands of fans live, millions on TV and a media trained not to play favorites between rookie and veteran players.

And that means leaving the coddling behind. The babying stuff of high school and college ball is long gone by the time players reach the majors. Men are still allowed to make mistakes, sure. Just not, as Thompson said last night, repeat mistakes.

We’ve all been there.

My dropped “pop-up” happened my second year on the baseball beat covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star in 1999 at Shea Stadium. It happened on the Bobby Valentine “Groucho Marx costume” night, when the then-Mets manager was tossed from that Blue Jays game and proceeded to don the Groucho glasses and fake nose and remain in the dugout corridor managing the game. Until, that is, he was spotted by TV cameras.

That day is memorable for me because our paper had sent our general sports columnist Dave Perkins to the game. Perkins had grown up in Canada, like me, but with a father who took him to Yankee Stadium in the 1960s for fun. A guy who lived and breathed baseball, did my beat writing job years before I had it, moved on to baseball column writing and then general column writing and soon became known as one of Canada’s best.

Perkins was a sweetheart with his family, but a gruff, cigar-chomping, horse-race following, take-no-prisoners “old school” style columnist ¬†you’d do best not to get in the way of. In spring training in the Tampa area, he’d shown me the best place to buy cigars in the Ybor City section. Introduced me to the dog-racing track (not my thing, really), some better restaurants — cheap and expensive — and yelled at me once when I’d mistakenly told him our condo had HBO and he had to go sprinting out in search of someplace else to watch an episode of some new show called The Sopranos.

But my biggest mistake with him came later that year, when we were in New York for the Mets game — my first ever at Shea — and I realized when we were on the No. 7 train (hello John Rocker) and halfway there from our Manhattan hotel that I’d forgotten the power cord to my laptop.

As a baseball beat writer, with all the things we have to look out for daily, forgetting your cord is the equivalent of allowing a routine pop-up to fall in.

Perkins was good about it. He loaned me his power cord for a time, then I’d give it back to him when his battery ran low (batteries back then did not have the lifespan of today’s).

But oh, did he ever let me know he was being good about it. He’d hand me the cord with a deep sigh, as if he was giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and putting him out big-time in the process. Then, when I finally got to writing, still getting used to all the East Coast deadline stuff, he’d make sure to ask whether I’d seen every little scratch of his mustache the pitcher that night was making.

Of course, I hadn’t seen a pitch and he knew it. By the late-innings, I was rattled beyond belief, with Perkins telling everybody within earshot how I’d forgotten my power cord. By the time Valentine popped up in the Groucho mask on TV, Perkins nudged me and said “Of course, you’re putting that in the story, right?” knowing I hadn’t seen it because the pressbox doesn’t face the dugout and I didn’t have time to watch TV replays.

“You done with my cord yet? I have to write my column,” he added.

That night might be the closest I’ve come to having a nervous breakdown at a game. When the ninth inning ended, I thought the Blue Jays had won by a run and was about to hit send before Perkins said “What are you doing?” because he knew the Mets had tied it and we were headed to extras. I’d lost track of the score and thought the run they’d scored in the ninth had cut Toronto’s lead to one instead of tying the game.

Bottom line? “Perky” was a great guy and a true pro. But he didn’t let me off the hook that night and nor should he have. My rookie mistake — and I was 30 with eight years in the daily news business at that point — with the cord was impacting his ability to work and produce the way he was being paid to do. High school was over. This was bush league stuff and he let me know it.

And after that day, 15 years into this baseball writing gig, I have only forgotten the cord one other time — in 2009, when I left it in Magnolia and had to drive over from Safeco Field. And believe me, I thought about Perkins all the way.

That’s why, it’s important for Thompson, Saunders, or whoever, not to just forgive and forget a rookie mistake by young infielders. This is something both Franklin and Miller will likely long remember. One thing I left out of my Miller feature earlier this week was how Kendrys Morales once told him “You’re young, but you have to be old in here (tapping his head for empasis).”

You can be an all-star at every level. But in the majors, competing with the best of the best and with teammates’ livelihoods at stake, you can’t afford to make a mistake and then repeat it. Life as a pro is different. But the rewards are ample for those who do it right. I’m betting neither infielder lets a routine pop-up drop in there anytime soon.





Comments | More in rookie mistakes | Topics: brad miller; nick franklin; joe saunders; pop-up


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