SEATTLE – Let’s play a quick game.
This is not a word association, more of a player association.
When a baseball team is mentioned, name the first current player that comes to mind.
Let’s call it the “Face of the Franchise” game. We’ll start with a few simple ones:
Los Angeles Angels? Mike Trout.
Los Angeles Dodgers? Clayton Kershaw. In a few years, it will be Mookie Betts.
New York Yankees? Aaron Richter.
OK let’s move on …
And finally … the Seattle Mariners?
Hmm, it’s not that easy, is it?
When General Manager Jerry Dipoto convinced Kevin Mather and Chairman John Stanton to begin rebuilding after the 2018 season, most of the better-known Mariners names were traded (Robinson Cano, James Paxton and Mike Zunino) – or not re-signed (Nelson Cruz). . If Kyle Seager’s contract didn’t include a poison pill clause that stipulated an additional year of at least $ 15 million if traded, he’d probably be gone too.
Even with those personalities gone, the Mariners still had Felix Hernandez. Yes, he refused and rarely resembled King Felix who dominated the batting team for so many seasons, but he was still the face of the franchise.
When you thought of the Mariners from around 2013-19 you thought of King Felix. Even when Seager emerged from non-prospect to potential All-Star on the third base, when Cano signed a $ 240 million deal and buckled Cruz Homer, Hernandez was still the standout player.
It was cemented during a tearful press conference ahead of the 2013 season when he signed a $ 175 million contract extension.
“To the people in Seattle who trust and believe in me, I say this: I’m not going to disappoint anyone,” said an emotional Hernandez. “I will do my best. This Seattle Mariners team will be at the forefront. Believe me.”
Although the team never made it to the postseason, their role as a guy persisted.
This was underscored during his last Mariners launch on September 26, 2019, when he ventured onto the left field line of T-Mobile Park to thank the fans who made up the final King’s Court.
“The background on my phone is Felix with the fans of that last game,” said Kevin Martinez, senior vice president of marketing and communications. “I’d never seen a relationship like this when he went out to be with them, and he’s out there with them. I think it’s one of my favorite sports photos of all time. Everyone who was in the King’s Court with Felix that evening. It was a nice relationship. “
But after Hernandez leaves, the role of “Face of the Franchise” is noticeably vacant.
Who will fill this position?
Let’s be clear: you don’t need a face of the franchise to be successful or even relevant. It takes more than one star player to get the franchise into the playoffs – just ask Hernandez, who never saw the postseason, or Trout, who played on a playoff series during his illustrious career.
The Oakland A’s have worked in faceless anonymity for many years and have still found consistent success. Although Jason Giambi achieved that status in the early 2000s and Matt Chapman has the potential to be that guy.
It doesn’t have to be just a guy. The ’90s Atlanta Braves trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were the faces of franchise success.
And while Major League Baseball miserably markets its superstars nationally, stars are essential for teams and their fan base to connect with. Victories bring fans to the park. Stars bring fans to the park when they don’t win. Hernandez’s starts were still important to the fans, even if the team didn’t. Why? Because he had the ability to lift her into something more. Every attack by Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and Ichiro was important. You might not want to see the entire game, but you would stop flipping the channels when they are in the racket’s box.
But as the face of the franchise, you are more than just the best gamer. It extends beyond the field. You are asked to do more and be more. You represent the team more than your teammates in anything you do.
“I’m not sure I was ever the face of this franchise,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner. “But I take things seriously when I wear the Seattle Mariners uniform. I want to be professional and do what the Mariners expect. Even off the field, I felt like I had a Seattle Mariners logo on my chest. And so I wanted to wear myself with this logo on my chest. Of course there is an additional responsibility. “
You have to accept the role and not see it as a burden.
“There is always something you can do without taking too much time to prepare,” said Edgar Martinez.
Even Ichiro, always tied to his routine, understood that he had to do something more than anyone else.
“We can play this game because of the fans,” he said. “If the fans weren’t there, we wouldn’t have a game.”
The start in the franchise brought less than outstanding teams with unforgettable players with few successes. In 1984, Alvin Davis was called up to replace an injured Ken Phelps. He became a steadfast player, was named an All-Star Game, and won the American League Rookie of the Year.
“From a player’s point of view, it means you can make it on the field,” said Davis. “You have to look at it just to focus on who I am and do whatever has led people to look at you in that light. You just kind of realize that you are the type. “
Finally dubbed “Mr. Mariner”, Davis was the face of the franchise until the arrival of George Kenneth Griffey Jr. in 1989.
With his megawatt smile and turned-back cap, Griffey became a baseball phenomenon. He made baseball cool with everything he did on the field. Its popularity skyrocketed. And Kevin Martinez soon realized that the Mariners had to share Griffey because he wasn’t just the face of the Mariners. He quickly became the face of Major League Baseball.
“What we went through with Ken Griffey Jr. was just that. He was primarily popular here in our area,” he said. “But then I would say that as early as the 1990/91 season he quickly became the most popular player in the game. In 1992 he wins the MVP in the All-Star game that just took him into the stratosphere. He was charismatic and just as dynamic. “
When Griffey asked to be traded after the 1999 season, the humble Edgar Martinez was put into the role of the franchise’s new face, despite Alex Rodriguez’s incredible talent, production, and apparent desire to be that guy. A-Rod had everything that should have made him ideal for the role, except for one deciding factor – fan approval.
“Edgar was absolutely loved,” said Kevin Martinez. “Ken Griffey Jr. may have been the face of baseball and the Mariners for a while. But Edgar was the Mariners. “
When Rodriguez infamously went free for the Texas Rangers and Martinez was about to retire, the Mariners signed an outfielder from Japan that caught the imagination of baseball fans.
“Everyone was talking about Ichiro being the Michael Jordan of Japan, and while there was incredible international interest, he probably only played a week at Safeco Field to spark the imagination of Major League Baseball and fans in that country,” Kevin Martinez said, “As soon as he was in that field, they saw things they had never seen before on a Major League diamond. There was so much intrigue around him.”
Ichiro was already the face of professional baseball in Japan and understood the responsibilities.
“You’re thinking about it,” he said. “And then it becomes part of your nature, and so are you.”
And then Hernandez took over the coat. As a teammate with both of them, Seager observed this transition.
“As the face of the franchise, I think they both went about it in different ways,” he said. “They had different personalities and went about their business differently. There wasn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do this. It can be a burden to bear. Everything they did, everything people expected them to do. But they never complained. “
So who is the next face of the franchise? Who will lead this collection of young talent from a renovation to a place where the organization hasn’t been since 2001 – in the postseason? There are many candidates in the organization. But it’s something that neither the players nor Kevin Martinez’s marketing department can dictate. No, it’s an organic process.
“The fans tell you who this player is,” he said. “When you see a connection being made between a player and the fans and how they react to the player when they step on the field, come on the plate or take the hill. Then it crystallizes for you. “
In his expected final season with the team, Seager knows he can’t be, but he believes it could be Marco Gonzales or Mitch Haniger – two proven players.
Gonzales was supposed to be the top candidate, even though Mather mistook him for “very boring”. He has been the Mariners’ top pitcher for the past three seasons and has taken on a leadership role on the team. He is a Gonzaga graduate who lives in West Seattle year-round and has signed a contract extension that will keep him on the team until 2024. He’s the type that you would want your child’s best friend to be. But is that enough to capture the fan wonder?
Haniger is talented, but time is limited due to injuries and a possible exit via trade or the free hand.
There’s also outfielder Kyle Lewis, the reigning American League rookie of the year.
“I mean, he won a pretty big award,” swayed Seager. “That should probably mean something.”
Lewis has the intangibles that could put him in this role. But he hates talking about himself or his accomplishments. He wants his game to speak for itself on the field.
“It’s all part of the process,” he said. “I’m trying to get things under control. I’m just trying to be myself. “
Lewis worked a little unnoticed this spring, and top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez caught fans’ attention with their seemingly limitless potential.
“Everyone loves the view,” said Seager, who admittedly never was one himself. “What is a prospect? One prospect is hope. “
Kelenic has an intense boast and confidence that says, “I’m good and I’ll show you,” while Rodriguez has an exuberant personality and high level of comfort in public.
“Julio could definitely handle this,” said Evan White. “Shit, he’d jump to the top of the line.”
For Ichiro, however, consistent production means more than hype and hope. You have to prove it on the field.
“There are a lot of great players with great skill and potential, but when you talk about replacing someone, like one Felix or the next, it comes with results,” he said. “You have to have results to be in this place. I think it will take some time. I feel like if you can put the numbers up for three years, if you can prove you are that guy, then that role can be yours. “