“Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne.
A small plaque with a picture of a stern-faced John Wayne and those words sits to the left of Eric Wedge’s desk at Safeco Field.
There are other prints and portraits of The Duke hanging on the walls of an office that is cluttered with unpacked boxes. A few children’s toys sit in the corner next to a small refrigerator that’s empty save for a couple of bottles of water.
Wedge has been on the job since Oct. 18, when Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik announced Wedge’s hiring as Seattle’s seventh manager in eight years.
There have been more important things to do than organize an office.
Wedge helped hire a coaching staff. He’s talked to key players. He’s met with Zduriencik and staff countless times. He found a house and moved his family to Seattle.
This isn’t a temporary move. With Wedge, nothing is half-hearted. He’s an “all-in” type of guy.
“This guy is legitimately a tough, driven guy that’s extremely high character,” said Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro, who hired Wedge to not only rebuild the Indians in 2003 but to help change the culture of an organization.
Wedge is consumed with the planning for his second chance to be a major league manager. He’s not worried about his desk as much as he’s worried about getting the Mariners back on track with a young, unproven and less talented team than the other three teams in the American League West.
It seems like an impossible task, or one for a John Wayne character like Rooster Cogburn.
Wedge, who said he’s been a fan of John Wayne “for as long as I can remember,” doesn’t think of himself as The Duke.
Would it be so bad if he did?
Most of Wayne’s characters stood for something. There was an aura about those men. They were leaders who exuded confidence without being cocky. They did what needed to be done.
There is a reverence in Wedge’s voice when he talks about the types of men The Duke portrayed.
“It’s what he stands for on screen for the most part and the way he handles himself,” Wedge said. “There is a great degree of toughness there that I like. The respect that he shows people, being able to stand up for what’s right. Not being afraid to learn from mistakes. Not backing down, just the level of consistency there along with that level of toughness, especially if you are leading people.”
Wedge’s wife, Kate, sees the parallel.
“I think he likes John Wayne so much because he believes in a lot of the same things the movies stood for,” she said.
Sit with Wedge long enough, and you half expect him to don a black Stetson to match his black cowboy boots.
Maybe he doesn’t think he’s John Wayne, but others do.
“I joked with Jack (Zduriencik) that he is John Wayne,” said Shapiro. “But it’s legit. There’s no bravado there. It’s not for show.”
Now Zduriencik wants Wedge to do in Seattle what he did in Cleveland.
Rebuilding the Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010, won’t be easy. It’s not a job for the weak-willed. There’s no quick fix. It can be an agonizing process – two steps forward, 10 losses back. Will the Mariners win the 2011 World Series? No. But progress needs to be made.
Wedge guaranteed it with a stern stare that would make Hondo Lane or Big John Elder proud.
“We are going to be a better team this year,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But we will be better.”
“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” – The Shootist (1976)
The man that Eric Michael Wedge has grown into at age 43 wasn’t formed by John Wayne and his 250-plus movies. Any life lessons found in “The Cowboys” or “Rio Bravo” or “North to Alaska” were nothing like the day-to-day lessons he learned growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“There were just certain absolutes in our household,” Wedge said. “It was a given in regard to the respect that we had to have for our parents, for adults, for authority. When we made mistakes, you got punished for them. They taught us the difference between right and wrong.”
Tim and Nina Wedge raised their two sons, Eric and Ryan, with a simple, no-nonsense style. Outsiders call it a Midwestern sensibility. To the Wedge family, it was the only way.
“His family has this tremendous work ethic,” Kate Wedge said. “Work has always been an everyday business to them.”
Tim drove trucks and worked for a trucking company for more than 50 years, right up until he was almost 70. Nina, a registered nurse, only gave up working a few years ago. They worked not solely for the money, but because it’s what you do. You work. And it isn’t just about going there and punching a clock and counting the seconds till you punch out. You went “all-in.”
“The work ethic in our household was second to none,” Wedge said.
But it wasn’t just the willingness to work that Tim and Nina instilled, it was the idea of attacking work with intensity.
“It was the passion for whatever we did,” Wedge said. “If you are working in the backyard, or cleaning out the garage or if you are playing baseball or basketball, whatever it may be, you better be 100 percent focused on it. That’s the way it was with everything.”
Such a mentality might seem unusual today. But it taught Wedge to embrace work, not avoid it.
So when he wanted to play baseball, he attacked it the only way he knew how – with some advice from his dad.
“As I was approaching high school, he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said I wanted to play baseball,” Wedge said. “He said, ‘Well, I suggest you do it year-round.’ When my old man suggested something, you did it.”
So Wedge worked at the game. Chris Stavreti was coaching baseball at Northrop High School when Wedge, who eventually would grow to 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, showed up as a monster of a freshman.
“He was probably as big as he is now,” Stavreti said. “I thought, ‘Who is this kid?’”
While Wedge’s imposing frame made the first impression, it was his drive that left the lasting imprint.
“Kids like him don’t come around very often,” Stavreti said. “He was very self-motivated. I don’t think he was blessed with a lot natural ability, but he made up for it with mental approach. It was just unbelievable.”
Early-season workouts indoors weren’t enough for Wedge.
“He would grab a couple of kids and the tennis balls and have them pitch and pitch and he would swing and swing,” Stavreti said. “I was on my way out to go home, and I would literally have to chase him out of the gym. And he would do the same thing the next day.”
Wedge started a handful of games at catcher as a freshman and then nearly every game after that. Northrop won a state title in 1983.
Even with his success in high school, Wedge wasn’t exactly having his door beaten down by college recruiters. A former Northrop teammate – Derrick Westfield – was at Wichita State and told the coaches about this hard-hitting, driven catcher at his old high school.
“He was not a heavily recruited player by anyone,” Shockers head coach Gene Stephenson said. “We were looking for a backup catcher to fill a roster spot.”
Stavreti put together a video of Wedge catching, throwing to second and hitting. Of course, the video didn’t show where any of the balls he hit landed. They sent the VHS tape to Stephenson.
“We never really could see him hit the ball,” Stephenson said. “We could just see that he swung the bat hard. He was a physical looking guy.”
Wedge visited Wichita in the summer of 1986 and fell in love with the place.
“Wichita State was an atmosphere like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The Shockers had plenty of success on the field. But Wedge wanted more than just success.
So near the end of his visit, he looked hard at then assistant coach Loren Hibbs, now the head coach at UNC-Charlotte, and asked a simple question.
“I said, ‘I just want to go somewhere where I can be the best I can be and reach my potential; is this the place?’” Wedge said. “He looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘I guarantee you will do that here.’”
Sold. Wedge flew home knowing where he wanted to go. That fall he drove 15 hours to Wichita State with his whole life in front of him.
“Now, you’ll show up at my place first Monday after school’s out at 5 a.m., and come with grit teeth, because gentlemen, that’s when school really begins.” – The Cowboys (1972)
Wedge was guaranteed he could reach his potential at Wichita State. But that guarantee came with a caveat: He had to put in the work.
So Wedge did what he’d always done – he worked. One of the catchers ahead of him left, and he simply outhustled, outhit and outplayed the other catcher, becoming the first true freshman to start for the Shockers.
Stephenson knew he had something special after Wedge’s first semester of fall ball.
“The one thing you can never measure in any player is their heart,” Stephenson said. “He just worked incessantly. He was a workaholic. He would outwork anybody.”
The more Wedge worked, the better he got.
“He was always soaking up all the knowledge he could get,” Stephenson said. “He realized that there’s not a substitute for hard work and dedication and perseverance and confidence.”
It all paid off in his junior season.
Wedge hit .380 with 23 homers and 99 RBI while leading the Shockers to the 1989 College World Series title. He finished runner-up to LSU’s Ben McDonald for the Golden Spikes award, given annually to the best amateur player.
During his three years at Wichita State, he hit .333 with 212 runs, 54 doubles, four triples, 45 home runs, 206 RBI and 21 stolen bases.
“He was truly one of the great players in our program,” Stephenson said. “He was a classic overachiever.”
Wedge was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the third round of the 1989 draft. His first stop in the minor leagues was Elmira, N.Y. Two years later, he was in Fenway Park.
“No great trail was ever blazed without hardship. And you’ve got to fight, that’s life.” – The Big Trail (1930)
Wedge played parts of four injury-plagued major league seasons, appearing in 39 games with 100 plate appearances, hitting .233 with five homers and 12 RBI. He had two surgeries on each of his knees and four on his elbow.
“I know he would have played in the big leagues for quite some time had he not gotten hurt,” Stephenson said.
Not even Wedge’s maniacal work ethic could alleviate the pain in his knees or arm.
“It was bad to where I had trouble sleeping at night,” he said. “Every step you felt it. If I kept going with it, I would have had to have both (knees) replaced at an early, early age. And the elbow was just as bad. We’re talking quality of life bad.”
He tried to keep the dream alive, playing in Triple-A.
But one summer night in Scranton, Pa., in 1997, Wedge knew he was done.
“It was just a battle that at some point in time you get tired of fighting,” he said. “I took it as far as I could take it. My knees were killing me, my arm was killing me. I couldn’t play back-to-back days anymore, and it was time to let someone else have a chance. I made a call to my agent that night saying I was going to finish out the season and then I wanted to coach.”
A year later, he was managing Columbus (Ga.) in the Single-A South Atlantic League.
“Well, son, since you haven’t learned to respect your elders, it’s time you learned to respect your betters.” – Big Jake (1971)
Wedge was all of 30 years old when he began managing the Columbus Red Stixx.
He was even more inexperienced than that.
“I didn’t even know how to fill in the lineup card,” he said with a chuckle.
Was that the realization that managing a baseball team was more difficult than playing for one? No. He got that slap to the face in spring training.
“I realized about two weeks in how much I didn’t know,” he said. “I felt like I was a smart player when I played. I felt like I had a better feel for the game than most. But I realized how much I didn’t know when I started managing. It was an education.”
Instead of cowering from the challenge, Wedge charged directly into it.
He learned. And he worked. It’s how he had success as a player. It was going to be how he’d have success as a manager.
“You can’t be afraid,” Wedge said.
Wedge climbed the Indians’ minor-league ladder. He moved up to Single-A Kinston and then Double-A Akron. In 2001, he rose to Triple-A Buffalo at the ripe old age of 33. Wedge was all about baseball and his career. Then he met Kate.
“... because all the gold in the United States Treasury and all the harp music in heaven can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman with all that growin’ together. I can’t explain it any better than that.” – Mclintock! (1963)
Wedge went to lunch at TGI Fridays one day in May of 2001 and left a changed man. The manager of the restaurant caught his eye. She was beautiful, smart and confident.
“You talk about strength and leadership, she has all that and more,” Wedge said. “When I saw her, I knew something was different. I really did. As of that day, my life changed as far I will ever know it.”
His passion and intensity didn’t frighten Kate Kulniszewski. It reeled her in.
“You could see his passion for life, and also for his career and baseball,” she said. “That’s what struck me most.”
Like everything in his life, Wedge was all-in with Kate. He sent flowers, and his romantic side came out.
“I was in my early 30s, I wasn’t going to settle,” he said. “Either I’m going to do it right and do it once, or I wasn’t going to do it all.”
Nine months later, they were in Buffalo doing a press tour getting ready for the upcoming season. Wedge came back to their hotel room from an early meeting with the media. He asked Kate to go get them some coffee. When she returned, the room was filled with lit candles and music was playing in the background.
“He proposed to me right there at 10 in the morning,” Kate said. “He was going to do the big dinner and everything, but he couldn’t wait.”
Kate was sitting in a red hotel chair when Wedge dropped to his knee to ask her to be with him forever. When they left the hotel, the chair came, too. They still own it.
“He bought that chair,” Kate said with dreamy voice. “I like to joke that it’s a good thing it wasn’t one of those big, ugly, plaid chairs.”
While the two planned for a wedding in November 2002, something changed their lives before they even said their vows.
“No track, no timber, no pipe. What do you expect me to build this thing with, spit and chewing gum?” – Tycoon (1947)
The Cleveland Indians were not a good franchise in 2002. They should have been better. They had talent but it was aging. Manager Charlie Manuel had led the team to just 39 wins in 86 games when Shapiro fired him. Joel Skinner took the interim role and managed the team to a 35-41 record the rest of the way.
Shapiro was comfortable with bringing Skinner back in 2003. As a courtesy, Shapiro interviewed Wedge, who had just wrapped up his second straight winning season in Triple-A Buffalo.
The first interview wasn’t formal. It was just two men talking baseball. If anything, Shapiro said he was looking at Wedge for a possible big league coaching position.
“I really wasn’t even sure it was an interview,” Wedge said. “We were just talking about the job.”
Wedge did a lot of the talking. His passion, intensity and enthusiasm poured out of him with every word and sentence.
“Within an hour of us talking, I was like, ‘Holy cow, I have to consider this guy,’” Shapiro said.
So they set up a second, more formal interview. Wedge was even more impressive.
“By the end of the second meeting, I was torn,” Shapiro said. “I felt like had a good alternative in Joel Skinner. But I felt like, ‘how could I not hire this guy?’”
Shapiro was trying to change the culture of the organization, and he knew the most difficult challenge can be at the highest level. He needed someone that believed in it as much as he did. He knew the 35-year-old guy who would be younger than at least two of his players was the only person for the job.
“I just decided that anything short of this guy was going to feel like something less than the best,” Shapiro said.
Wedge’s personality alone wasn’t going to make the Indians better. Shapiro reworked the roster. Jim Thome was gone. Bartolo Colon was traded. Wedge’s opening day lineup had three players over the age of 26. The Indians went 68-94 in 2003. Wedge wasn’t just managing in the big leagues, he was teaching players how to play in the big leagues. He had 25 rookies make their debut that season.
“We were so young, but there were always little things to grab a hold of to be optimistic,” he said. “There was always a reason to feel like we were going to get things done.”
Slowly, talented players like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Travis Hafner began to adjust to the major leagues. More youngsters like Victor Martinez, Coco Crisp, Jody Gerut and Grady Sizemore began to contribute. The Indians improved to 80-82 in 2004.
In 2005, the Indians finished 93-69. They were in the race till the last day of the season, but finished two games out. Wedge finished second in the manager of the year voting.
The next season was a disappointment at 78-84. But in 2007, the years of rebuilding paid off. Cleveland rolled to a 96-66 record – tied for the best in baseball. They beat the Yankees in the divisional series, 3-1. They stormed to a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS. But the Indians’ pitching fell apart and Boston won three straight games.
Wedge was selected AL manager of the year.
“We took it a long way that year,” he said. “But until you win that final game at the end of the postseason, the season always ends in disappointment.”
Wedge believed this was the beginning of something special. He had no reason not to.
“People said to get that far, you never know if you will get there again,” he said. “I don’t operate that way. I believed with everything inside of me that I was going to get that far again and then some.”
Two years later, he was fired.
“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude.” – Rio Bravo (1959)
The Indians simply didn’t have the money to keep their nucleus of young stars together. They couldn’t re-sign them, so they had to get something for them. Then the economy crashed, and the Indians were hit hard.
Slowly, they began to take away pieces of the 2007 team. It started with Sabathia, who was traded to the Brewers late in 2008 as the team finished 81-81. In 2009, Lee, and Martinez were dealt.
Wedge went from guys he had managed for his entire tenure to almost needing name tags for all the new players. Yet he never complained.
“I can’t sit here and pretend it wasn’t hard,” Wedge said. “But I understood it. The front office really included me in everything. I was privy to what was going on in the economics of it and where people were with the contracts. In that market, it’s tough to sustain it. You put yourself in the position to make a run at it and you hope to keep it going as long as possible.”
The Indians finished 65-97 in 2009. Wedge was going to take the fall. Fans in Cleveland demanded a change. It was a move Shapiro loathed to make.
“It was a tough realization for me,” Shapiro said. “It’s an entertainment business. Eric was more understanding than I was of it. I had to make a bunch of hard moves. That was among the hardest because it was among the least deserving.”
Wedge knew it was coming. He went to Shapiro with a week left in the season to ask about his future.
“I found out probably three or four days before everyone else found out, before we told the team and coaching staff,” Wedge said. “I really appreciated the respect they showed me.”
“I don’t like quitters, especially when they’re not good enough to finish what they start.” – Red River (1948)
The Indians announced Wedge and his staff would be let go after the 2009 season on Sept. 30 before a doubleheader against the White Sox. He managed both games that day. But there was still a four-game road trip in Boston. Most people would have called it a season. Wedge was never like most people. He demanded to manage those final four games.
“You finish the job,” he said bluntly.
Shapiro understood that Wedge would never walk away early. That’s not the way he was raised.
“He’s not going to leave any job early,” Shapiro said. “That’s consistent with the class act he is. He was a professional right to the end. That’s just consistent with him.”
The Indians lost all four games on the road trip, including a 12-7 loss in his final game.
“A lot of people found it to be odd or confusing,” Wedge said. “To me there was no other option. It’s the only way it should be. I just tried to engulf myself in the game and our daily routine. Of course, there were distractions along the way because it was a different way to go about it.”
“When the command meets the commander for the first time it’s like a wedding. Nobody knows how it’s going to turn out; whether it’ll be a happy golden anniversary or a divorce. We’ll see.” – Flying Leathernecks (1951)
Now Wedge returns to managing. The passion and intensity have been stoked even more. When he talks about the Mariners and the task at hand, his voice pierces and his crystalline blue eyes dance. It can be intimidating.
“His eyes can speak sometimes,” said Kate with a chuckle. “They speak their own language, those eyes.”
His hero could say so much with just a look. So can Wedge.
It’s a look the Mariners players will see often. He knows how much work awaits him. He’s done this before. He knows what to expect and he knows what he wants.
“I want them to know that I’m sincere and genuine with what I say and I mean what I say,” he said.
Wedge has mentioned often about players understanding what it means to be a Seattle Mariner. It’s not a difficult concept, at least to him.
“Do you handle yourself appropriately day-in and day-out, on and off the field?” he said. “You understand the responsibility you have to the organization, ultimately the responsibility you have to your family, the responsibility you have to the community, the responsibility you have to the fans that paid their hard-earned money to come watch you play. You have an obligation to be the best you can be, day-in and day-out.”
It may sound corny, but not when it comes from Wedge. It’s like The Duke giving a speech at the Alamo. It’s earnest, it’s real.
And Wedge will not accept anything less. To him there is no greater crime a baseball player can commit than not honoring himself, his talent or the game with maximum effort.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s going to happen from time to time because they are human beings and every now and again they let their guard down or have a human moment.”
But it won’t be a trend.
Wedge isn’t a tyrant. He demands a lot from players, but will demand more from himself.
“What you see is what you get with him,” Shapiro said. “His consistency is among his greatest strengths. You aren’t going to see anything different from him when you lose five in a row than if you win 10 in a row. He’s very clear. He’s very strong in what he believes and what he expects. He’s not going to deviate from that. There’s going to be no ups and downs. He’s a very strong, consistent person and you can lean on him. He’s there for you. He’s there for the players.”
Sounds like the way Wedge described The Duke’s famous roles.
Wedge thinks about the first day in Peoria, Ariz., when he addresses his team for the first time. His face goes hard, the icy eyes dance and his voice rises.
“They will know what I want and expect and demand,” he said. “They. Will. Know. You will notice it when they walk out that first day.”
Some advice for Mariners players: There’s a new sheriff in town.
His name is Eric Wedge.
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org