SEATTLE – Maybe we all should have known something was up when, early in the 2021 season, Kyle Seager changed his walk-up song to Eric Church’s “Carolina.” The refrain went: “Like the sound of a siren song, Oh Carolina, ya keep callin’ me home.”
Now Seager has headed home to North Carolina, opting to retire rather than pursue free agency. Oh, maybe he’ll get the itch again and attempt a comeback in a year, like Andy Pettitte, Ryne Sandberg and a few others did after declaring their retirement. After all, Seager will still be just 35, and sometimes a year away from the grind changes your thinking.
But somehow, I doubt it. The main lure of a decision that frankly shocked me when I heard it Wednesday, but which I’ve grown to understand and appreciate, won’t change: Being with his family, including three children still in their formative years.
And so Seager walks away as a lifetime Mariner, one of a rare few who hold that distinction. Edgar Martinez, who served as Seager’s batting coach from 2015-18, is certainly the most prominent. I consider Felix Hernandez to be in that club, even though he went to spring training with the Braves and Orioles after his tearful goodbye at T-Mobile Park in 2019 – a moment that foreshadowed Seager’s own emotional farewell three months ago. Maybe give King Felix an asterisk, because he never pitched in the major leagues for any team but the Mariners.
Seager certainly gave the Mariners more than they could have hoped when they made him their third-round pick in 2009. Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Steven Baron and Rich Poythress were all chosen ahead of him that year by Seattle, which had become enamored of Seager while nearly embedded in Chapel Hill to get a gauge on North Carolina’s superstar, Ackley.
As Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara later told me, “In watching Dustin so much, Kyle was growing on us the more we were in there. I remember in the draft room, when it got to the third round, we kind of ignored our draft board. We just said, ‘We’re taking Seager.’ ”
Seager, of course, left all those others in the dust. Even his old friend Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick, and later a succession of high picks and touted prospects that never thrived in Seattle. Seager just kept producing, tearing up the minor leagues and then seizing his big chance that came on a fluke, when left fielder Mike Carp was hurt on opening day in Japan in 2012. That meant that Seager, who was slated for a utility role at best, or Tacoma at worst, got thrown into third base when Chone Figgins – in perhaps his greatest contribution to the Mariners – had to vacate the position to replace Carp.
Seager, who wasn’t supposed to have the power profile to play third base, became a Gold Glove winner, an All-Star and eventually a franchise rock.
Really, it was the Mariners who didn’t hold up their end, never managing to construct a team quite good enough to provide a postseason showcase for either Seager or Felix. Their entire careers could be looked at as one long, failed rebuilding project or lapse of vision. The irony, of course, is that Seager leaves just at the point when the Mariners’ rebuild finally appears on the verge of fruition.
Of course, the Mariners did provide a handsome living for both players, doling out nine-figure contracts that ensure neither will have to work another day if they don’t want to. That largesse no doubt made it much easier for Seager to forego what certainly would have been a lucrative free-agent contract offer that would have been forthcoming after the lockout ends. Seager’s leadership and still-productive bat (35 homers and 101 RBIs in 2021) would have been a strong lure.
But it’s still a shame that Seager never quite got to the promised land of the playoffs, though he came agonizingly close in 2014, ’16, ’18, and, of course, 2021, when the Mariners went into the final weekend needing a sweep to ensure a playoff spot, or some help from other teams failing that.
They got neither, which is why the tears flowed not just from Seager, but from nearly every teammate, when manager Scott Servais pulled Seager out of the game in the middle of the ninth inning, once the M’s were officially eliminated via Red Sox and Yankee victories.
The memory of that gap in Seager’s resume, for which he stands as the proxy for a whole generation of Mariners players who came and went and never got to the postseason, should be a siren call to Mariners management. Let’s hope they’re compelled to make sure that doesn’t happen to Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic and the next generation of stars in Seattle.
The Mariners’ inability to get Seager into October adds many levels of poignancy to his career, and his departure. Think how it must have felt – a mixture of pride and wistfulness – to watch brother Corey, his junior by six years, thrive on a Dodgers team that made the postseason every year he was in Los Angeles. That included a World Series title in 2020, led by Corey’s MVP performance.
We can now better understand the depth of Seager’s emotion in his finale, which we all thought was the end of his Mariners’ career, but Seager, and perhaps a handful of teammates, knew was the end of his major league career.
And perhaps now we can better comprehend the level of rage that emanated from the Mariners, and one can only assume Seager among them, at the trade deadline, when reliever Kendall Graveman was sent to Houston less than 24 hours after a rousing come-from-behind win over those same Astros. After coming within a game of the second wild-card spot, the Mariners proceeded to lose eight of their next 11 before getting hot again … and ultimately finishing two games out of the second wild card.
And then Seager went out on his own terms, which is all any of us can hope for. One wonders what he would have done if the Mariners had picked up his $20 million option for 2022 – though there was never any serious chance of that.
I recently dug up a column I wrote last offseason, in which Seager pondered his future after his seven-year, $100-million contract expired, with the mystery of the team option to bring him back for one more season.
“That stuff’s out of my control,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any say on what happens past this year.”
Turns out, Seager had all the say. And he ended up right where he wanted.
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