How rookie Julio Rodriguez became the Seattle Mariners’ $470 million man


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published on Aug. 31. Rodriguez is a nominee for AL Rookie of the Year, which will be announced Monday night.

JULIO RODRIGUEZ WAS barely 18, playing baseball in the United States for the first time, when he made his biggest impression on a Seattle Mariners franchise that now adores him.

It wasn’t how he hit or how he fielded or how he ran — it was how he watched.

Minor league spring training can be long and arduous, with early wake-up times and heavy conditioning before players even pick up a bat or a glove. Rodriguez got his first taste of it in 2019, less than two years after signing out of the Dominican Republic. But he quickly carved out a routine. After his day was finished, he’d walk to the main field of Peoria Sports Complex, stand against a brick wall on the walkway behind home plate and watch the major league spring training game with noticeable intent — backpack on his back, brim of his cap pulled down above his eyes, a budding superstar hiding in plain sight.

Many of those responsible for rewarding Rodriguez with a record contract have harkened back to those moments in recent weeks. To them, that time embodied three defining characteristics that are as pronounced as his five tools — a youthful obsession with baseball, an unconditional devotion to his teammates and a quiet, assertive confidence that is ever-present.

“He’s watching because he’s fascinated with what’s happening with the major league players and because he knows that that’s where he’s going to be,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said. “And he’s been sizing it up since he was 18 years old.”

With less than five weeks left in his rookie season, Rodriguez, now 21, is the best player on a team poised to snap a historic postseason drought, a favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year Award and, as of Friday, owner of a long-term deal that will pay him anywhere between $210 million and $470 million over the life of his career, an unprecedented — and highly complex — contract for someone with less than a full year of major league service time.

The Mariners’ principal decision-makers were initially captivated by Rodriguez’s ceiling, then awed by how he changed his body to become a dynamic center fielder. They marveled at how he handled torturous early struggles to somehow become an All-Star at midseason and were drawn by how his rise has helped propel the group that surrounds him. But they were also moved by his infectious joy and unwavering authenticity.

They saw it in how his eyes lit up when his name was listed among potential fill-ins at a major league spring training game for the first time and how he went around the room high-fiving everyone on the list with him. In how he traveled to West Virginia to boisterously cheer for teammates at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, even though an injury had kept him from participating. In how he became a beloved figure within a big league clubhouse full of accomplished veterans who would typically scoff at a young player who promotes himself so aggressively.

“As good a player as he is and as fun as he is to watch, he’s so much more than that,” Dipoto said. “He’s just such a genuine human being.”

THE “JROD SHOW,” a popular moniker for the palpable energy that seems to surround everything Julio Rodriguez does on a baseball field, finally received a national audience during the Home Run Derby. Julio Rodriguez Sr. took it all in from behind the first-base dugout, watching as his son stirred a sold-out crowd while surging past Corey Seager and two-time reigning champion Pete Alonso in the first and second rounds. Everyone seemed to wonder how a young rookie would handle a big stage stuffed with so many headliners and yet Rodriguez had taken the liberty of turning Dodger Stadium into his own personal playground. He advanced into a final-round showdown with Juan Soto, then called his father down to the edge of the railing, wrapped him in a long embrace and uttered two words that still give Julio Sr. chills.

“We’re here.”

Julio Sr. had spent the afternoon broadcasting each of Rodriguez’s swings on his Instagram page. His son’s performance, which ended in a runner-up finish, qualified as appointment television for the people in Rodriguez’s hometown of Loma de Cabrera, a small Dominican city of roughly 20,000 located near the Haitian border.

It made Julio Sr. think back to the way his son used to wow crowds during batting practice as a child. The most memorable of those performances came on a rainy summer afternoon in 2012, in a town called Tamboril, a municipality within the Santiago province. Rodriguez was 13, swinging a comically small, light-brown Axe Bat that a friend had lent him — and he pelted baseballs to places none of the bigger kids could reach.

“Everybody started coming up to me and asking me where he’s from right after he took that first swing,” Julio Sr. said in Spanish. “That’s where Julio’s story began.”

His exploits sent him to another showcase in Tamboril, at the site of a program run by a man named Juan Francisco Peña, known throughout the island as “Kiko.” Rodriguez showed up with another Axe Bat — this one black, in noticeably worse condition — and cracked its barrel with a double off an 18-year-old pitcher throwing into the mid-90s, cementing his place as one of the most tantalizing teenagers on the island.

Rodriguez is now a lean, muscular 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, but it wasn’t long ago that he was noticeably pudgy. His father began training him as a catcher when he was 12 because, Julio Sr. said, “He was a big kid who ate a lot.” His move to the outfield less than a year later was a reaction to a sudden growth spurt — immediately, and coincidentally, following a harrowing bout with the chikungunya virus — and a belief that his bat was too valuable for the rigors of squatting behind home plate. As he continued to develop in the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez began to profile as a power-hitting corner outfielder. Few saw a five-tool phenom.

“If you speak to any of the scouts that scouted him as a young kid, I could tell you 99.9 percent of them would say he was going to be a corner guy,” Brian Mejia, one of Rodriguez’s representatives at Octagon, said. “Big power, big kid, thickness to the lower half. And this guy just changed himself into who he is.”

Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development, began working with Rodriguez at the onset of his professional career and was always struck by his desire to embrace challenges.

Rodriguez was only 17 and had yet to play a single game in the U.S. during the summer of 2018, but he was hellbent on playing in the Arizona Fall League that year and asked what he needed to do to make it happen. McKay was shocked. “That’s not how it works,” he told him. As his development continued, McKay frequently noticed how badly Rodriguez wanted to face the opposing team’s best pitchers, often counting the number of baserunners required for him to square off against a lights-out closer. When Rodriguez told him he wanted to become a center fielder, McKay knew he’d work for it.

“He wanted to improve his game, he wanted to play faster and he wanted to play center field,” McKay said, “so he took it upon himself to do the things that he needed to do.”

Rodriguez wanted to play center field largely because of what it meant — that he was the leader of the outfield, a five-tool threat, up there with the greatest talents in the sport. His transformation played out gradually, subtly, most of it in the offseason months at a Tampa, Florida, facility run by his agents — and then it smacked his organization in the face.

The Mariners began to play Rodriguez in center field on a semi-regular basis near the tail end of the 2021 minor league season, then invited him to their monthlong high-performance camp, a holistic spin on baseball training that has replaced instructional league for the organization’s brightest prospects. Rodriguez had spent the previous few weeks talking about how he could beat fellow outfield prospect Victor Labrada, one of the fastest players in the minor leagues, in a footrace. Few believed him — until he made good on his promise, dusting Labrada in what amounted to a 30-yard sprint as fall approached.

Suddenly the expectations around him changed.

“It really did open our eyes to like, ‘Holy cow, this is a different kind of athlete than what we had originally signed and the work he has done has really changed how the whole thing works,'” Mariners assistant general manager Justin Hollander said. “We always had him as a future corner outfielder. Julio’s probably going to laugh when he sees this because he thrives, like most great players, when you tell him he can’t do something.”

FIVE MONTHS AGO, around midday in spring training, Julio Rodriguez sat next to Dipoto in the dugout holding one of his favorite Victus bats — black, with the sobriquet “JRod” graffitied in various teal-colored fonts around the barrel.

That,” Dipoto exclaimed, “is sweet.”

“Papi,” Rodriguez responded, “they made it especially for me.”

Rodriguez — with light, droopy eyes and a smile that often stretches out beyond the edges of them — seems to live in a state of perpetual wonder. His trademark joy stems largely from gratitude. The signature confidence, he’ll say, comes from “the work.” And the work is driven largely by a desire to prove others wrong.

Rodriguez approached Dipoto that day in search of motivation. He began to grind on his bat and asked Dipoto, seven years into his run as the Mariners’ head of baseball operations, whether he truly believed he could handle center field.

“I know a lot of people don’t think I can play center field,” Rodriguez said. “I thrive when people don’t think I can do stuff.”

“Well,” Dipoto recalled saying, “unfortunately for you I actually do think you can do it because I’ve been watching you, and I’ve learned not to bet against you.”

Silence followed.

“You know what I don’t think you can do?” Dipoto finally said, and Rodriguez suddenly perked up. “I don’t think you can do 30-30, or ever win a Triple Crown.”

Rodriguez looked at his bat again, then looked back at Dipoto.

“All right,” he said, “it’s on.”

The final month of the regular season is approaching, and Rodriguez still stands a decent chance at accomplishing the first of those challenges, while on pace for 27 home runs and 30 stolen bases. If not for the wrist injuries that forced him to miss 15 games earlier in the second half, his pursuit of 30-30 might be a forgone conclusion. He’s the third-youngest player in the majors this year and yet his slash line sits at .264/.324/.468, with 21 home runs and 23 stolen bases through his first 112 games. He’s also providing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field, where he has accumulated six outs above average.

It’s easy to forget, given the way it’s going, that Rodriguez entered 2022 as an unfinished product. He produced spectacular numbers at every level, but his brief development track was interrupted by fractures to his left hand and later to his left wrist, a Bronze-medal-winning Olympic stint with the Dominican Republic and a COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out an entire minor league season. Rodriguez arrived in spring training this year with less than 1,000 minor league plate appearances under his belt. But the Mariners made him their Opening Day center fielder regardless. McKay had known him long enough to believe he’d possess the appropriate mindset.

“Everybody has confidence that ebbs and flows and comes from different sources,” McKay said. “Julio’s, a big part of his is how much he loves to compete. It removes the fear of failure for him. Nothing is a challenge for him; it’s all an opportunity. But it all stems from this genuine love of competing and being on a baseball field. It’s just pure joy for him. He’s not threatened by the situation. It’s an opportunity for him.”

A defining opportunity arrived during his first month in the major leagues. It marked the first time Rodriguez had ever truly struggled on a baseball field. He went homerless through April, finishing with a .206/.284/.260 slash line and 30 strikeouts in 20 games.

Ten of those punchouts were called strikes on pitches outside of the zone, at least five more than any other player that month, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. Rodriguez was clearly getting the rookie treatment from the industry’s umpires, exasperating many of the people around him. But he hardly complained and never really wavered in his approach. His chase rate remained steady and his exit velocities remained high. He seemed to carry himself with a belief that the results were inevitable, as if no other outcome could possibly exist.

“He understood who he was, he understood this is what happens in this league, and I think he gained a lot of respect from us for doing that,” Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “I was frustrated for him. I think a lot of people were. But he never let that show.”

Julio Sr., who still makes his home in the Dominican Republic, flew to the United States with Rodriguez’s mother and two of his siblings for the start of the Mariners’ season and watched as his son went 1-for-21 with 12 strikeouts through the opening road trip. When the team got to Seattle, Julio Sr. thought about cutting his trip short. He was afraid his presence was causing a distraction. Regardless, the pain was too much to endure up close.

“You don’t believe in me?” Rodriguez asked.

Julio Sr. shook his head. It wasn’t that, he said. He told him young players get sent down when they struggle like that, and he didn’t want that for him. He knew how hard he worked, how badly he wanted it and he was afraid of what a demotion might do to his psyche. Rodriguez put his hand on his father’s shoulder and looked him dead in the eye.

“Nobody’s sending me down,” he said. “Bet on me.”

EARLY FAILURES CAN often ruin the careers of highly regarded young players. Cautionary tales are littered throughout baseball. But Rodriguez quickly recovered, in a way fellow Mariners prospects Evan White and Jarred Kelenic famously couldn’t.

“He has such a good way of slowing the game down,” Mariners first baseman Ty France said. “It takes some guys a long time to figure that out and he figured it out right away.”

Rodriguez was named AL Rookie of the Month in May, then again in June, then got invited to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, which evolved into something of a coming-out party. Media hounded him, the game’s legends flocked toward him, but one conversation with Mike Trout, lasting no longer than 10 minutes, qualified as his favorite moment. Rodriguez’s eyes seemed to glisten at every mention of it.

The end of the Derby’s first round had triggered a prolonged break, during which many of the All-Stars escaped the summer heat inside their respective clubhouses. Trout was within eyesight, playing with his young son, Beckham. Rodriguez found a rolling chair, pulled up uncomfortably close and asked the question that had been on his mind.

“How do I become you?”

Trout’s response was, essentially, “You already are.” He then proceeded to talk to him about why his confidence was his greatest gift.

“I just love the way he plays,” Trout said later. “A lot of guys with all that hype come up and struggle, and he’s had success right away.”

Rodriguez grew up idolizing Alex Rodriguez and has created a buzz in Seattle that has drawn comparisons to the initial excitement around Ken Griffey Jr., but many, inside and outside the organization, see him as a more boisterous, outgoing version of Trout — the tools he possesses, the joy he exudes, the wonder with which he plays.

“I hate making those comparisons because I think it’s really unfair; they’re two very different people in a lot of ways,” said Hollander, the current Mariners and former Angels executive who has witnessed the entire development path of both Trout and Rodriguez. “But the unshakeable confidence in their own abilities, combined with supernatural gifts that most other people don’t have, and their ability to quickly forget failure and focus on success — those characteristics and those qualities are similar.”

The major difference, however, is their approach to the public sphere. Trout is understated and private; Rodriguez wants the world to know him. He made it a point to learn English because he wanted to communicate with as many fans as possible, insisting on the language in his earliest interviews as a professional. He now shows it off through his YouTube channel, which is already populated with 18 videos.

Among the highlights: taking batting practice with pineapples; driving a rental car through Arizona to surprise unsuspecting Mariners fans with tickets; a breakfast in which he waxes poetic about hot chocolate; and a visit to a shoe store in which he talks about an emerald-green-colored pair of low-top Nikes as if they were sent down from heaven.

Rodriguez has gone out of his way to market “JRod Show,” designing the phrase as a bejeweled pendant on his diamond-encrusted chain and flaunting it on all of his designer bats. He has emblazoned the name on hoodies and T-shirts, one of which was worn by his traveling party during the All-Star Game’s red-carpet ceremony. His marketing team is working diligently to procure the original username on Twitter.

It has become clear to many that Rodriguez doesn’t just want to be great at baseball.

He wants to be a transcendent star.

“That’s my vision,” he said. “A lot of people close to me, they know that.”

But those closest to him will tell you there’s more to it, that his immersion into the limelight is the natural course of an outgoing, overly enthusiastic spirit, not a desire to create a persona for marketing purposes.

Rodriguez recently read the James Clear book “Atomic Habits” and recommended it to his agent, Ulises Cabrera, a Vanderbilt graduate with an MBA who has been speaking English a lot longer than his client. A video series in which Rodriguez teams with one of his financial partners to provide financial literacy to children is in the works. He’s also working to procure an ambulance and a fire truck for Loma de Cabrera, which currently doesn’t have either. It’s why Cabrera believes the label that typically follows a young, flashy, outgoing player like Rodriguez can be wholly incomplete.

“What happens a lot of times is young guys aspire to be big in the game; they aspire to what greatness brings,” Cabrera, an agent for 15 years, said. “Julio is aspiring for greatness for what it does to the team. He wants to be the best player so that it can help his team win. He wants to be the best person so that it can help his community be impacted better. It’s not for the individual benefits and accolades that can potentially come as a result of who he is and what he does.”

IT WAS A day game on July 27 and Rodriguez was having a rough go of it. He had been jammed badly in his first plate appearance, had swung through three sliders out of the strike zone in his second and had produced a weak grounder in his third. As he readied to bat in the bottom of the seventh, with the division-rival Texas Rangers leading by a run, Mariners manager Scott Servais noticed that Rodriguez had switched his black-colored bat for a maple one.

“I had to,” Rodriguez explained. “The other one is sleeping.”

Moments later, Rodriguez turned on a chest-high slider and launched the 416-foot three-run homer that ultimately won the Mariners a game. Rodriguez made it a point to find Servais as he made his way back into the dugout. “I told you it was sleeping,” he said. Servais howled.

“He’s a kid,” Servais said recently. “He’s an absolute kid playing the game.”

What follows, then, might not surprise you: Rodriguez draws a lot of his motivation from anime. As a child, he said, he’d leave school and “literally be running to my house” to watch episodes of Naruto, a popular Japanese manga series. Now Naruto Uzumaki, the young ninja who aspires to become the leader of his village, is depicted on the back of Rodriguez’s signature “44” chain. It reminds him, he said, to “always see the bright side of things” and “never give up.”

Rodriguez maintains a 2.57 win probability added through his first five months in the major leagues, a total surpassed by only 12 position players. His ascension has in many ways mirrored that of his team, which started off slowly before taking off and establishing itself as one of the best in the sport. The Mariners were 10 games below .500 as late as June 19 but have since won 42 of 61 games and find themselves in the thick of a heated wild-card race with three AL East teams. France has been a revelation, Eugenio Suarez has been a godsend and their starting pitching — further bolstered by the midseason addition of Luis Castillo — has been a major strength. But Rodriguez, who has accumulated a team-leading 4.4 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement, has been their catalyst.

The Mariners have been powered by his energy, which has electrified their city. The line at the team store next to T-Mobile Park extended out the front door on the morning of July 16, with fans clamoring for Rodriguez’s newly-released All-Star jersey. They sold out in less than an hour. Three sections near center field are now dedicated exclusively to him, with fans receiving giveaway Rodriguez T-shirts and holding up giant “X” placards in honor of how he crosses his arms after highlight-reel catches. Center field in Seattle has been deemed the “No Fly Zone.” Seattle has waited 20 years for a playoff team, which qualifies as the longest drought in North American professional sports, and just as long for a fresh new face to rally itself around.

A buzz like this hasn’t been experienced there since a certain teenager showed up with a backwards cap and a sweet swing and became a cultural icon of the 1990s.

“I don’t compare,” Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. said during the All-Star Game, noticeably trying to ease some of the pressure that surrounds Rodriguez. “You got to let Julio be Julio. It’s not fair to him to compare him with anybody. I didn’t like it when I got compared to Willie Mays when I was 20 years old and Willie was 25, so let Julio be Julio and enjoy what he’s doing.”

Rodriguez arrived in the Mariners’ clubhouse the way Griffey did — young, cocky and exuberant, though oftentimes, in a sign of how different the world works for the modern player, with a video crew documenting his every move.

Major league clubhouses don’t typically tolerate that type of self-promotion from rookies. Usually, at the very least, there will be a handful of veteran players who will absorb it with a crooked eye, and the Mariners clubhouse was no different. But Rodriguez is now genuinely beloved by teammates. They love him for his play as much as they love him for who he is. He has genuinely won them over, a nod to what many identify as his greatest tool.

“He doesn’t change who he is, regardless of what he’s doing or who he’s around,” Gonzales said. “When you see him smiling on the field, that’s who he is, and that’s who he is every single day. If that was all an act, then yeah, it would rub us the wrong way. But it’s not.

“He’s very genuine. And so I think that it restores a lot of our faith in the game, in the youth, of where baseball’s headed, with guys like him.”

Source link

Leave a Comment