The moment that Scott Servais began pointing toward and planning for, even before his playing career ended 15 years ago, finally arrives Monday when the Mariners open the regular season at Texas.
Servais returns to a big league dugout, not only in uniform, but as a manager.
This is what he wanted while working his way through four organizations in various front-office positions after some early turns as a scout and a minor league roving instructor.
Servais always believed he was ideally suited to be a big league manager, but it took the two-month grind of spring training for him to realize that he wasn’t prepared — not really prepared — until now.
Let him explain:
“I’ve said this quite a bit in the last two weeks: Thank God I did what I did before I took this job. I don’t know how players — very successful major league players — guys who go away from the game for a year or two can then jump right into managing.
“I thought I could do it, and everybody thinks he can. ‘Hey, I know the game. I can see the game. I’m great with players. I can relate. I can handle the media. I can do all of these things.’
“But having the experience I gained in the last 10-12 years of scouting, working with young players, teaching hitting in a cage when it’s 110 degrees in the Arizona Instructional League, going to Dominican Republic.
“Thank God I have as much experience in Latin America as I do. Our team is Latin-heavy, and I love Latin players. I understand where they come from and how the whole process works.
“You take all of those experiences that I’ve had for the last 10 years, and I think, ‘OK, I’m ready for this.’ Whether it’s managing rosters or sending guys out of camp or releasing players…
“I’ve probably released over 400 players. I know how to deliver the message and make that player feel OK when he gets up and walks out of the room. Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, man, there’s just not a spot for you here. It’s a numbers thing.’ ”
The words tumble out rhythmically. Clearly and precisely. Servais leaves no doubt that he’s examined the challenges he now faces from all possible angles. But it wasn’t just those life experiences that shaped his preparation.
More important, Servais said, is that he personally changed and evolved since his playing days — 11 big league seasons as a catcher from 1991-2001 with the Astros, Cubs, Giants and Rockies.
“When I was a player,” he said, “I was a grinder. I was Chris Iannetta. Grinding every day. I’ve learned over time that maybe that wasn’t the best way to always go about it.
“I’ve loosened up quite a bit and realized the value of guys who can make people laugh. Keep it loose and keep it fun.”
Servais sharpened his communication skills by learning to listen. He came to embrace the value of analytics in baseball without abandoning the personal touch of a scout and talent evaluator.
It was Servais, as Texas’ senior director of player development, who helped transform Nelson Cruz from an often-overmatched slugger into one of the game’s premier power hitters.
“He was one of the guys who changed my stance when I was struggling,” Cruz recalled. “I know him pretty well. He knows me good, too.”
When Jerry Dipoto, a former teammate, became the Los Angeles Angels general manager in October 2011, one of his first moves was to hire Servais away from the Rangers to be assistant general manager for scouting and player development.
“One of the things that I learned about Scott through the years, especially while he was really heavily involved in player development, was that he communicates well with players,” Dipoto said.
“If you can do that, and you have talent, now you have a chance to turn the key.”
When Dipoto became the Mariners GM late last September, it was widely assumed he would again turn that key by bringing along Servais to serve the same role he filled with the Angels.
But Dipoto knew of Servais’ desire for a field position and had no hesitation in including him among the candidates to replace manager Lloyd McClendon — even though Servais had never been a coach, let alone a manager — even in the minors.
“This was what we had talked about for years,” Dipoto said. “Once the kids were out of the house, and he had a chance to dive into the pool and get back into the dugout … that was his ultimate goal.
“It just so happened that the timing synced up pretty well.”
The Mariners also talked to Tim Bogar, Dave Roberts, Phil Nevin, Jason Varitek and Charlie Montoyo. As the process unfolded, Dipoto and his staff came to view Servais as the best fit.
“Publicly there is risk, obviously, because others aren’t as familiar, or as comfortable with him, as I am,” Dipoto said. “Knowing how he’s wired, he’s just a good person.
“He’s a good baseball man, he’s got good acumen, he has a good way with people, he’s a leader. He has an idea and he sticks with the game plan.”
When hired, Servais promised his game plan included lots of meetings. He pointed to football as a model. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Servais is a Wisconsin native and stockholder in the Green Bay Packers.
“I love football,” he said, “and that’s what they do in football. They break it down because they practice all the time. The attention to the detail is where we’re headed here.
“We’ll have a few more team meetings, getting together as a group regularly, and that’s not so much to talk a lot of baseball. It’s to get to know each other.
“We have to create a family type atmosphere around our team, and to do that, you’ve got to get to know about each other, where we come from and how they’re wired.”
But Servais wanted it to be fun, not drudgery. He brought in a handful of speakers, inspirational and light-hearted. He played some amusing videos. But mostly he just got the players to open up.
When reliever Tony Zych said he played pool, Servais told him to go buy a pool table for the clubhouse. A March-long tournament followed.
First baseman Dae-Ho Lee’s grasp of English is limited, but he brought down the house with an enthusiastic Gangnam Style dance performance. Another time, players noted pitcher Wade Miley looked a lot like that tree-climbing guy in Seattle.
Center fielder Leonys Martin was persuaded to sing the national anthem. Reportedly it was brutal, puttingit on par with performances routinely endured in the Cactus League.
“The thing I love about Scott,” Martin said, “is he’s a good communication guy. He tries to help you every time. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year. It’s going to be a great year for us.”
Before long, Servais increasingly found himself cast as the observer as others began to run with his have-fun-while-you-work approach.
The pitching staff’s daily “chalk talk” meeting often centers on ways to attack certain hitters and how to approach various game situations. But one day, Servais noticed the room was silent with the lights off.
When he knocked on the door to ask what was happening, staff ace Felix Hernandez piped up: “We’re meditating!”
Servais moved along.
“The atmosphere is good,” said second baseman Robinson Cano, who paid for Zych’s pool table. “The chemistry is good. We all get along. You can see that, that we’re all playing together and everybody is having fun.”
Cano’s comments speak to Servais’ biggest concern entering spring training: How would the club’s veteran core of players respond to his efforts to reshape the clubhouse culture? Would they buy into his message? Would they buy into him?
“Early on, I addressed the main guys,” he said. “I sat them here in this office and told them what I was about and where I wanted to go. And then let them talk. I’ve learned a lot over the years about how important it is to listen.
“And I listened. Taking what they said, taking what I believe in and what our coaching staff believes in, and meshing it. … It’s been pretty good.”
Soon the players were coming to Servais with suggestions. It isn’t all fun and games, of course.
“We’ve had a few meetings,” Servais said, “where (we ask), ‘What are you thinking in a hit-and-run situation? What are you thinking with a man on third? Do you think it’s a good idea to take a strike when you’re down in the eighth or ninth inning? Do you like hitting 3-0?’
“Those are different types of questions. When we started having those meetings and talking to those guys about those things, the looks I got from players (confirmed) it’s good we talk about this now.
“Because typically, you don’t talk about it until it happens during the season. And then someone reacts: ‘What are we doing swinging at that pitch? Why wouldn’t we take that pitch?’ Well, we’ve never talked about it.
“I’m sure there are a couple of things I haven’t covered, but it seems like we’ve hit on a lot.”
Until now, though, it’s just been spring training. Practice. A mere prelude to Monday, when everything counts. Servais believes his club is ready. He believes he is ready.
“Every morning, I scripted out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I’ve kept my agenda for each day. I look back at all of the things we done. I’m going to keep it forever.
“Hopefully, I do this job for a long time. I’ll be able to look back and say this is how it started.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners