Many theories have been put forth to explain the Seattle Mariners’ ability to win games without Ken Griffey Jr.
They outran, out-fought, out-thought and out-slugged the Yankees in their first sweep of the New Yorkers since 1979. Nine stolen bases, so many two-out hits you lost track. Better bullpen, better defense. Backed against the wall Griffey ran into when he was sidelined by a broken wrist, they have responded.
But don’t overlook the Latin Connection.
There were times in the ‘80s when highly touted pitcher Edwin Nunez and catcher Orlando Mercado were falling below expectations that Seattle was labeled as a poor environment for Latin baseball players.
Too far, too cold, too Scandinavian, too bad.
“When I came to the Mariners,” said Edgar Martinez, who hit a home run again Wednesday night in a stirring 11-9 comeback victory at the Kingdome, “there were only a few Latins … Edwin Nunez, Domingo Ramos, Mario Diaz. It was different then.”
The other night against New York, six of the nine players the Mariners had on the field were Latins.
“We can use the Latin law firm of Martinez, Martinez, Fermin and Cora for our infield and do pretty well,” said Lou Piniella, Mariners manager.
Perhaps it is Piniella who best exemplifies the change in attitude and environment for Latin players.
Behind the batting cage, he talks with Edgar Martinez, explaining the finer points of hitting in a curious but comfortable mixture of Spanish and English. Piniella’s parents emigrated from northern Spain. He was born in Tampa, Fla., but spoke Spanish before he learned English.
The grandparents of Tino Martinez lived in the same general area of Spain. Martinez, like Piniella, grew up in Tampa.
Two of Piniella’s coaches, Bobby Cuellar and Sam Mejias, speak Spanish. A third coach, John McLaren, has managed teams in Colombia and Venezuela.
In the last off-season, the Mariners went after Joey Cora and Alex Diaz, and the year before that, Felix Fermin and Luis Sojo. They’ve called up pitcher Rafael Carmona and traded for Salomon Torres, who is in Tacoma but soon will be here.
Cora and Sojo have filled in at second base after the trade that sent Bret Boone to Cincinnati. Fermin has replaced Omar Vizquel at shortstop, and Diaz is doing his best in center for Griffey.
“You feel more like you are at home,” Edgar Martinez said as Spanish was being spoken around the batting cage. “Every Latin player that is here gets along with everyone else. Everybody feels comfortable.”
Piniella calls Seattle diverse enough to be accommodating, but lacking overwhelming pressure.
“These kids like it here and they know they’re appreciated,” Piniella said. “For the most part, Latin kids play a lot more baseball in their formative years. They play year-round. Often they are more advanced at a younger age.”
The commitment to Latin players began before Piniella came to Seattle in 1993. It perhaps better parallels the tenure of Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners’ vice president in charge of scouting and player development. In 1989, when Jongewaard joined the club, Seattle bought a team in the Dominican Republic. The M’s put a Dominican folk hero, Ramon de los Santos, in charge. Another scout, Fernando Arguelles, pushed into Venezuela and Colombia.
Two of the team’s brightest younger players are second baseman Arquimedez Pozo from the Dominican Republic and shortstop Giomar Guevara from Venezuela.
Jim Beattie, director of the Mariners’ farm system, began his professional career as a pitcher in the Yankee system. He said the first dozen people he met didn’t speak a word of English. “The Yankees did a lot for Latin players,” he said. “I didn’t feel the same thrust in Seattle when I came here.”
Beattie wants players to succeed or fail in Seattle’s farm system on ability, not cultural adaptability.
“You don’t want to see good players lose their love for the game because they aren’t comfortable where they are,” Beattie said.
The Mariners have a Spanish-speaking manager for their short-season Class A farm team in nearby Everett, Orlando Gomez. Tommy Cruz, a Puerto Rican, is a coach at the instructional league team in Peoria, Ariz.
“Young players know the success of our team in the Dominican,” said Beattie, “and they’re aware how well Edgar and Omar (Vizquel) have done playing in our system and in the big leagues.
“They want to be in Seattle.”