John McGrath: Mariners’ McClendon becomes Carroll’s latest disciple

Staff writerJanuary 24, 2014 

As almost 56 million other American television viewers did Sunday, Lloyd McClendon watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, in the NFC Championship Game. But it wasn’t the Hawks’ offensive execution or defensive intensity that gripped the new Mariners manager.

What most impressed McClendon was the demeanor of coach Pete Carroll during the first half, when San Francisco jumped to a 10-0 lead.

“I thought it was absolutely phenomenal,” McClendon recalled Thursday during the Mariners’ annual pre-spring training media luncheon. “The 49ers were up, taking it to his guys pretty good, and they showed a picture of Pete Carroll. He put a stick of gum in his mouth

and was very confident, very relaxed. I thought that was a very important moment because I could sense his players were feeding off his confidence.

“Being a leader, that’s what it’s all about,” McClendon continued. “You want your players to take on your personality — how you go about your business and how you prepare. When you step between the lines, you have to believe that on any given day, I’m the best person out there.”

McClendon and Carroll don’t share obvious similarities — the manager speaks in sentences that contain fewer than 500 words and convey thoughts specific to a topic — but their belief in the benefits of daily preparation mirrors each other.

When Carroll insists on keeping external forces to a minimum and focusing only on the here and now, that could be McClendon talking. Both men inherited teams yearning for a powerful personality capable of changing attitudes steeped in self-doubt.

The Seahawks were merely two years removed from their reign as a division powerhouse when Carroll arrived with an agenda to overhaul the roster. They became contenders in his third season.

The Mariners’ drought has been much longer — 12 seasons and counting — but the challenge facing McClendon is no different than what Carroll encountered.

“I’m not here to say the culture was bad, because I wasn’t here, so that’s not my decision to make,” McClendon said. “But I will say I’m here. Changes obviously had to be made. Now it’s time for me to do things my way.”

McClendon has been on a whirlwind schedule since he was hired Nov. 5 to replace Eric Wedge. He has visited with the players who spend their winters in the United States and studied videos of the games that found the 2013 Mariners failing to hold a late-inning lead.

He noticed a pattern suggesting the team’s psychological makeup could be toughened.

“In order to be successful at this game, sometimes you’ve got to fail and get knocked down on the mat,” McClendon said. “But at some point, you’ve got to get up and start fighting back. I think it’s time for some of our young pitchers — particularly in the bullpen — to get off the mat. Let’s find out what you’re made of.”

Fighting words, those, and general manager Jack Zduriencik smiles when he hears them.

“You’re going to be excited about Lloyd, if you’re not already,” Zduriencik said. “I’m excited about him as a person and as a teacher. I liked him a lot when I hired him, and I like him a whole lot now. He gets it.

“Coaches can only do so much, let’s not kid ourselves. But they can do something. With Lloyd and the group around him, they’re going to challenge these kids probably a little different than they’ve been challenged before.”

Don’t expect McClendon to be a taskmaster who shows up at the park with a grim game face. Players enjoy competing for him — something else he has in common with Carroll — and his popularity extends to opponents.

“From the other side, he struck me as somebody who liked to have fun,” said John Buck, recently signed as a free agent to back up (and tutor) second-year Mariners catcher Mike Zunino. “But when the game started and it was go time, he wasn’t the same guy I was joking with behind the batting cage. It’s no-nonsense, business time. As a player, you like that.”

Expectations for 2014? McClendon won’t attach them to a anticipated record — the record can be sorted out in October — but he’s not ruling out anything, including success reasonable minds might consider impossible.

“One of the messages I’ll be telling the players is if you want to cross the ocean, you’ve got to take your eyes off the shore,” McClendon said. “You can’t be afraid to look forward. This franchise has been knocked down and been on the mat for some time. It’s time for us to get up.”

As McClendon prepares for a spring training that will emphasize fundamentals and push young players who have been coddled too long, he’ll spend a few hours, back home in Indiana, rooting for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

When they were down 10 points last weekend, their coach’s response to the sudden and surprising anxiety was to put a stick of gum in his mouth and hunker down.

It was all Lloyd McClendon needed to become Pete Carroll’s latest disciple.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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