PEORIA, Ariz. – When Brandon League walks through the parking lot toward the Seattle Mariners clubhouse, he looks more like a rock star than a relief pitcher.
Spiked hair. Shades. Tattoos down both arms and extending up around his neck.
“Brandon’s misunderstood. You see him, the hair, the tattoos, and you think ‘free spirit,’ ” pitching coach Rick Adair said. “He’s a great kid, a great competitor and he’s got unbelievable talent.
“And he’s a big family man.”
Adair knew League when both were in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system, when League was young – he’s 26 now – and threw nothing but fastballs and change-ups. He didn’t need more.
“I could always throw hard. As a kid, I was the outfielder who could get the ball to home plate, the first one they put on the mound,” League said. “When I was a sophomore in high school, scouts had me throwing 94 mph. I had no idea how hard I threw.”
He throws harder now, mixing in a slider and a nasty split-fingered fastball, and the Mariners wanted him in their bullpen badly enough to trade Brandon Morrow for him this winter.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s thrown 100 mph and who has a plus-plus split-finger fastball,” said Tony Blengino, one of general manager Jack Zduriencik’s assistants. “He’s special, he has tremendous upside, and he’s a good guy.”
“I really didn’t know him until this week,” David Aardsma said, “and then we started playing catch together, throwing in the same bullpen group. I know this – he throws the hell out of the ball.”
League is, at least to a degree, the man fans see walking across the parking lot. Born in California but raised in Hawaii, where he still makes his home, League surfed for years before he picked up a baseball.
And then there are the tattoos.
“I got my first tattoo when I was 18, the ‘League’ across my back. I never planned on having this many, but I’m covering my canvas,” League said. “I go in with ideas and work with the tattoo artist.
“The latest I’ve had done is the names of my daughters, Skyler and Lexi.”
Along with his wife, Skyler, 4, and Lexi, 2, are the loves of League’s life. Leaving them at home in Hawaii simply isn’t an option.
“I travel with my family whenever I can. If we’re staying in a nice hotel with a pool, I’ll bring them,” League said. “When we’re on the road, the kids live on my schedule. They’ll stay up late with me and then we’ll all sleep late the next day.
“I want to keep them with me as much as I can. They love flying, seeing different cities. In Toronto, it was a different culture for them.
“When your family comes with you, it’s never a question of how to pass the time. You just hang with them all day. They keep me busy.”
So will the Mariners.
League pitched in 67 games last season, striking out 76 batters in 742/3 innings. His overall numbers should improve in Seattle, if only because of the Safeco Field grass. A year ago, he had a 2.30 earned run average – holding opposing batters to a .194 average – on grass.
On artificial turf, his ERA was 6.23 and the batting average against him was .297.
League is something of a work in progress, a reliever whose fastball reaches the high 90 mph range.
“I was a starting pitcher until ’04, but it wasn’t the best fit. I’m a max-effort guy, and I couldn’t tone it down,” League said.
In Class AA, Adair said, League had a plus change-up that baffled hitters. Now, League prefers throwing a split-fingered fastball when ahead in the count.
“Last year I threw a ton of splits when I got ahead in the count, and it kind of became my out pitch,” he said.
The Mariners think they deepened an already good bullpen by adding League, who likely will work the eighth innings along with Mark Lowe. On nights when closer Aardsma isn’t available, League might get save opportunities.
“Every guy in the bullpen wants to close. It’s like every fifth starter wants to be the ace,” League said. “But you can’t worry about that, it’s something that just happens at some point. You don’t apply for it, you let your performance speak for you.
“I’m intense on the mound, although I try not to show it. You learn with experience to control your adrenaline. I used to snap all the time after a bad game. In Triple-A Syracuse, I broke a toe kicking something.
“I pitched the next night – but I learned to kick softer things.”
Position players report to camp for physicals today, then work out for the first time on Tuesday. … A handful of pitchers are trying out small wristbands that may – repeat, may – help reduce stress, and pitching coach Rick Adair asked right-hander Ian Snell for one. “When I pitch, you’d better wear four,” Snell said. … Milton Bradley hasn’t even reported yet and already Chicago writers have visited camp, looking for a reaction to former Cubs infielder Ron Santo’s criticism of him. If those questions greet Bradley on his first day here, it could get interesting. … Chone Figgins is such an avid fisherman he built a three-acre lake near Tampa, Fla. – then put his mother in a new house near it. Figgins stocks the lake with bass he catches elsewhere, but has one problem. “My mom eats all the fish,” he said, laughing. “I’m going to have to post a ‘no fishing’ sign.”