Return of the Jedi: Snelling returns with a Yoda-like philosophy

By Darrin Beene

What would Yoda be like if he played baseball?    Yoda would adhere to a methodical workout regime,  wield a bat like a light saber,  and give interviews that sound like mystic philosophy.

In short,  Yoda would be a lot like Tacoma Rainiers outfielder Chris Snelling.

The comparison isn't as far out of this world as,  say,  Dagoba,  Yoda's home planet. Snelling,  who carries a Yoda doll with him when the Rainiers travel,  has emerged from the dark side of baseball to regain his place in the Mariners' galaxy as a top prospect.

Snelling didn't have to battle Darth Vader to earn a starting position in the Triple-A All-Star Game in Sacramento on July 13,  but he did spend 2 1/2 years fighting injuries.

Before this season,  Snelling had played in 65 games since tearing the ACL in his left knee against the Oakland A's on June 4,  2002,  in his brief moment with the Mariners. The cycle of injury/surgery/rehab frustrated Snelling to the point that he wondered if he would ever be able to play again.

But negative thoughts have no place in Snelling's life and he took strength in the philosophy of his "Star Wars" idol.

"I just love the idea of Yoda,  his great wisdom and the whole 'Try not,  do or do not' thing, " said Snelling,  who first connected with the Jedi master when he was in high school in Australia. "I'm a big believer in that because anybody can say they are trying. . . . I think people misuse the word 'try' a lot.

"To me,  the bottom line is either do it or you don't do it. There's no in between. That's the way I look at it because I think it makes it simpler."

Snelling worked on getting healthy as much as his battered body would allow. Rainiers hitting coach Terry Pollreisz,  who was Snelling's first manager at Everett in 1999,  said that's why Snelling is a better hitter now despite surgeries for knee,  hand and wrist injuries.

"When he could work on hitting,  and was allowed to work on hitting,  he really worked hard, " Pollreisz said.

Snelling,  the son of a tennis teacher,  knows no other way. His hands,  blistered and calloused,  show the effects of all the batting practice he takes. He said passion comes from growing up in Australia,  where people love their sports and play hard at them.

As a boy,  he tried his dad's game but soon learned he wasn't good enough. Snelling got hooked on baseball as a teenager,  liking the camaraderie of being on a team and the challenge of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely.

"When you fail it makes you a better overall person because you have to deal with failure in life, " Snelling said. "If you can't deal with failure,  baseball will eat you alive."

The words hint at a Jedi-like peace,  or at least a coolness that all athletes pretend to have. But Snelling is human and that means he has doubts,  fears and anxieties. He said he is still wary of running around third base,  which is how he tore his ACL back in 2002.

Snelling,  who was born in Florida,  returned to Australia last winter instead of staying in his home near the Mariners' spring training complex in Peoria,  Ariz.,  to spend two months in the outback with his brother. Part of the reason was for the adventure,  the other was to get away from baseball.

"I got a lot out of it because I learned a lot about myself, " Snelling said. "I was worried about getting hurt,  whether I was going to play again,  things like that. I just needed to get away and stop thinking about it. I think I stress less because of that trip."

The time away helped him realize how much he loved baseball while fueling a desire to travel. Snelling,  who said he's taken an interest in art and history,  said he wants to see the United States or maybe Europe this winter.

You can count on Yoda to go wherever Snelling does. He said he travels everywhere with his Yoda doll.

On a recent trip to Fresno,  he left Yoda on the airplane. Snelling didn't realize it until he had already passed through security and was promptly told he could not go back.

"Flat-out panic city, " Pollreisz said of Snelling's reaction. "He was really panicked that the plane was going to take off and he was going to lose Yoda."

Snelling described himself as being "some kind of bitter" but was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get his traveling companion back,  even if it meant buying another ticket. It didn't come to that because Snelling convinced the ticket agents to let him go back.

"Thank God he got it back, " said Rainiers third baseman Justin Leone,  who has known Snelling since starting out at Everett with him in 1999.

"He's obsessed with Yoda,  and I don't know what to say about that. He's like a little girl with a Barbie doll;  they don't want to give it up. Or like a little boy with his blanket."

That's just one facet of Snelling's personality that Rainiers manager Dan Rohn describes as being "looney tunes." Snelling,  who competes hard at everything from cards to fishing,  is a constant source of amusement for his teammates,  whether it's because of his shaggy hair,  his clothes or the things he says.

"He's just a fun-natured,  good young man, " Rohn said. "He's a classic looney tune but he's invigorating to be around."

Said Snelling: "A lot of people would say I try to be different. I'm not conformed. I like individuality. To each his own,  and stuff like that."

Leone calls Snelling one of his favorite teammates,  even if he thought he was a skinny bat boy the first time he saw him. While Snelling has added a few pounds and scars to his 5-foot-10 frame since that,  Leone said Snelling hasn't really changed since he was a 17-year-old in his first year of pro ball in Everett.

"He's grown up quite a bit and he's matured,  I think, " Leone said. "I mean,  you see it in some ways,  and in other ways he hasn't. Whatever;  it's baseball and we're all kids."

Snelling still qualifies as young despite having packed a lot into his 23 years. Rohn and Pollreisz agree that he can have a long career ahead of him if he can stay healthy.

He might not be the fleet runner he once was,  but he still has lighting-quick wrists and the "innate ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball, " Rohn said.

"Can he hit in the big leagues? Yeah,  there's no doubt in my mind, " Rohn said.

The future - specifically Snelling's with the Mariners - comes up a lot these days. That's what happens when you hit .368 and are the fourth-leading hitter in the Pacific Coast League. Snelling coolly brushes off the question about playing in the majors again with a Yoda-like response.

"It's something I can't control,  so why think about it?" he said. "If you take a selfless attitude about baseball,  the personal things will take of themselves."

Darrin Beene: 253-597-8656