John McGrath: McClendon’s path from Gary to Safeco

Staff WriterNovember 8, 2013 

New Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon spent his childhood in Gary, Ind., birthplace of the fictional Harold Hill, the Music Man, and Michael Jackson, the music man so gifted he became known as the “King of Pop.”

A once thriving industrial town that fell on hard times after the steel mills downsized in the 1960s, Gary is also where California Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock, an innocent passenger in the back seat of a car, was the fatal victim of 1978 gunshot.

During his introductory press conference Thursday at Safeco Field, McClendon did not dwell on his humble roots, or the fact he grew up the youngest of nine brothers.

“I got my (butt) kicked every day,” said McClendon, who smiled when he realized he’d used a slightly salty synonym for the body part that got kicked. “Oops, do we have TV in here?

“Yeah,” he elaborated on the sibling treatment he

got. “It toughened me up.”

We won’t become acclimated to McClendon’s tactical tendencies until spring training, but no in-game moves will be more interesting, or more important, than his challenge to toughen up the young position players on the Mariners.

Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino not only are a generation removed from McClendon, they’re from a vastly different place – culturally, socially and economically – than their skipper.

If Thursday served as a sneak preview of McClendon’s management style, he won’t impersonate a drill sergeant in the manner of, say, the Orioles’ Buck Showalter.

“It’s about communication,” McClendon said. “Make sure you talk to your players every day – not just about baseball, but the things that bother them, which can be the same things that bother you and me. You have to show some compassion and understanding.”

Compassion and understanding are appropriate words for a Sunday morning sermon. But for a baseball team whose talented prospects struggle with adversity, wouldn’t the more necessary approach be a kick in the, uh, butt?

McClendon appears capable of both tasks. Although his genteel demeanor Thursday was sentimental – tears were shared, he admitted, when he bumped into a friend before the press conference – and almost poetic (“this is a golden age for the Seattle Mariners”), he came across as somebody who won’t back down.

There’s an aura about McClendon that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik likened to a man walking down an alley at midnight.

“Out of nowhere,” Zduriencik said, “two guys jump him and tell him to give them everything he’s got. And he says, ‘You might want to be careful. You might want to think twice about what you’re going to do, because it’s in your best interest to turn around and walk away.’

“I think there’s an inner-confidence with him,” Zduriencik concluded, “and I think he’s going to share it with our players.”

Asked if he’d ever used that inner confidence to avert a potential midnight mugging in an alley, McClendon answered:

“I grew up in Gary, Indiana. You deal with things. As Kenny Rogers sang, you got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.”

McClendon considers Jim Leyland, the recently retired Detroit Tigers manager, as his mentor. He played for Leyland in Pittsburgh, as a fourth outfielder and a right-handed pinch hitter, before joining Leyland’s coaching staff in Detoirt.

But McClendon got the bug to manage long before he got to the bigs.

“I was 9 years old on a sandlot baseball field,” he said. “I told Jimmy to go to right, I told Ernie to go to left, and I told Steve, ‘You can’t play third, so move over to first.’ I’ve been managing all my life, I guess.”

McClendon’s willingness to play any position – he was drafted as a catcher, and ended up occupying both the infield and outfield corners in the major leagues – suggested he was an overachiever who survived through sheer tenacity.

In reality, he was the baseball version of a child prodigy, hitting five home runs in five consecutive at-bats during the 1971 Little League World Series. (He was intentionally walked 10 other times.)

Behind the home-plate screen at McClendon’s Little League field in Gary was a house where its musically inclined occupants practiced songs that would become American pop standards.

The Jacksons.

Lyrics from a 1970 hit by the Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There,” could have been a portent of McClendon’s managerial philosophy.

I’ll reach out my hand to you,

I’ll have faith in all you do,

Just call my name, and I’ll be there.

And yet there is that other side, the don’t-mess-with-this-dude-in-an-alley-at-midnight side.

“My motto is simple,” McClendon said. “I respect my opponents, but I fear nobody.”

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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