PEORIA, Ariz. – Early most mornings, the goofiest bullpen in baseball sits in the clubhouse and talks – baseball, food, travel, whatever.
In the past 10 days, the Seattle Mariners’ new-look infield has begun communicating more on the field, in part because they’ve gotten to know one another off. Three of them, Casey Kotchman, Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson, were with other clubs last April.
And two days ago after batting practice, Ken Griffey Jr. took new teammate Milton Bradley aside, and the two chatted for about 20 minutes.
“It’s about communication, getting to know one another as players and as people,” Griffey said. “Milton’s a good guy. Maybe he’s never had 24 guys who’ve got his back before, but he’s got them here.”
The process of building a team belongs to the general manager – in this case, Jack Zduriencik. And Zduriencik is the first to acknowledge the pieces he puts together don’t always mesh.
So when does a group of players – the Mariners began with 63 in camp – become a team?
Sometimes they never do. A year ago, Seattle brought in a manager and coaching staff that specialized in team-building, then added veterans such as Griffey and Mike Sweeney.
What came together was a team that shook off a 101-loss season in 2008 and won 85 games in 2009.
This spring, there are as many new faces as there were a year ago. Manager Don Wakamatsu and his coaches – and Griffey and Sweeney – are back. How are the 2010 Mariners coming together?
“Very early on here, I felt part of it. The daily antics in the clubhouse, the way guys work on the field, the support they give. I’m comfortable,” Bradley said. “Until you play with the guys as a team it’s hard, but once guys know their roles and accept them, you become a team.
“If the organization has continuity, you’ve built a relationship with the guys in camp who may be coming up later – so when they arrive, they’re already a part of it.”
Kotchman had heard about the Seattle clubhouse before he entered it. Once he did?
“The first day in camp I was comfortable, and that’s unique,” Kotchman said. “I credit that to No. 24 (Griffey). Then Ichiro and Sweeney, everyone having fun, talking. It makes coming in more enjoyable.”
Fun in the clubhouse is only one aspect.
“When you have 25 guys – and a few still fighting for jobs – you get close, you’re together. Until then, who even knows who’s going to be here,” Griffey said. “Until you get a team down to size, guys are individuals getting their work in.”
Ryan Rowland-Smith said even in mid-spring, it’s difficult to feel like a team.
“You’ll start one game with the regulars behind you. The next start, it might be a completely different group on the field,” he said. “It’s hard to feel like a team in that situation.”
Slowly, Kotchman said, small things begin to give a team its identity. He has seen some of those already.
“You look at Chone Figgins and Jose Lopez, their unselfishness in changing positions this spring,” Kotchman said. “Jose was pretty successful at second base, and Chone had a great year last year playing third. You see they’re willing to change positions for the team, that has an impact.”
So does something as simple as conditioning.
“As you get close to the end of camp, you get past the point of trying to get your body in shape to play nine innings every day,” Kotchman said. “Once that happens, you start working as a team.
Felix Hernandez said being a team is as much about getting serious about the game when it matters as anything else, and that the Mariners are moving toward that now.
“You can feel it. We’re getting close to the season,” he said. “Is it fun to see? It’s fun to win, and we can win. This team makes it easy to enjoy what you do.”
Rowland-Smith isn’t certain teams come together in spring.
“I don’t think it comes together until early in the year, when you take the first road trip, when you know who’s going to be there and you say ‘I can see I’m really going to enjoy the next six months,’ ” he said. “You look around right now, there are a lot of guys still pushing to make the team. Some of them won’t be here, some of them will.”