Nothing new manager Lloyd McClendon did on the field when his Mariners convened for full-squad drills this week could have had the impact of a few salty comments in the press.
It’s one thing for a new skipper to tell players that good teams understand the value of unity and working with shared purpose toward a common goal.
But it’s another to see him stand up for one of his players so emphatically there’s no doubt that he’s got everybody’s back.
Earning vital emotional equity in that clubhouse, on the first day, this became McClendon’s team.
“Any time anybody attacks one of the my players, then I’m going to defend them,” McClendon said. “If you don’t like it, tough (stuff).”
It’s foolish to judge in the first few days, but we might expect Lloyd McClendon’s teams to be tough, ornery and competitively cranky.
“One of the messages I’m trying to send to my players is we don’t have to take a back seat to anybody,” McClendon said.
Well, actually, those who have been paying attention lately noticed that the M’s were 25-games behind in the AL West last season, and have spent most of the last decade in the divisional back seat.
But that, too, is a message from McClendon. What happened before doesn’t matter.
As he stressed, he doesn’t make out the lineup card, the players do – with their performance. Get the job done now, and you’ll have a spot.
Triggering McClendon’s paternal posture were comments from New York Yankees batting coach Kevin Long, whose many positive opinions about second-baseman Robinson Cano also included criticism of his casual approach to running to first base on likely outs while with the Yankees.
Cano’s 10-year, $240 million signing with the Mariners was the signature move of the team’s reconstruction.
The widespread quotes from Long included one describing Cano’s unwillingness to correct what was seen as a lack of hustle. “If somebody told me I was a dog,” Long reportedly said. “I’d have to fix that.”
A coach can fairly say that a player might be “dogging” it. But to use the canine critique as a noun? That’s a deeply personal insult. Particularly so in the context of a player who habitually gives you close to 30 homers, 100 RBI and a .300 batting average while being on the field about 160 games every season.
Papa Bear McClendon was having none of it.
“My concern is Robinson Cano in a Seattle Mariners uniform … I don’t give a damn what he did for the Yankees,” McClendon was quoted as saying.
And the message to his players: “My motto is simple, I respect my opponents but I fear nobody, and I want my players to take on my personality.”
I think fans should want that, too. Although tough talk in February will be forgotten if August finds them in fourth place.
But the early connection between McClendon and the Mariners is important. Messages cemented early can pay dividends, and serve as mission statements that players can internalize.
It’s fair to recognize that Cano didn’t have to be a leader on a team with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and others. But for $240 million, it’s not asking too much that he offer leadership as a value-added role in Seattle.
But while on the topic, McClendon let Cano – and everybody else on the team – know he expects good effort on the field.
Since Lou Piniella stepped down in Seattle in 2002, Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Don Wakamatsu, Daren Brown and Eric Wedge – as full-time or interim managers – all ended their Seattle tenure with records below .500.
Surely, some of those grim results were influenced by front-office management and personnel decisions.
To contend now, McClendon is going to have to develop young talents, keep King Felix Hernandez happy, and get the most out of his new star, Robinson Cano.
It seems he got off to a good start by letting everybody know that, if you mess with a Mariner, you’re going to have to deal with Lloyd McClendon.