Michael Rynders knew the exact date.
The 15-year-old Seattle Mariners fan was ambling along the T-Mobile Park concourse with friends and family last week when I spotted him in a Julio Rodriguez jersey.
I stopped to chat with him about the appeal of the rookie sensation — what attracted him to the 21-year-old Dominican who is set up to be the most celebrated Mariner since Ken Griffey Jr.
Then I asked him when he got the uniform.
“Aug. 23,” he said.
Turns out his father, Sean, had been trying to snag a J-Rod jersey for Michael for a couple of months. Said it was backlogged in a way you might expect for a player who’s half-hero and another half-heartthrob.
But he finally spotted one on the rack and seized it like it was the last iPhone on Black Friday. This is just one aspect of the Julio Factor.
The M’s ended their 21-year playoff drought on the last day of September thanks to a walk-off home run by Cal Raleigh. But while the young catcher was the star of the moment, it’s the much younger center fielder who has been the star of the season — and if the Mariners $210 million bet pays off, the star of the future.
Rodriguez’s between-the-lines value is clear: 27 home runs and 25 stolen bases in the 129 games he played before October, and a 5.7 wins above replacement mark that ranks first on the Mariners and in the top 10 of the American League. It’s not hard to see why Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales — speaking of Julio’s raw talent — called him the best player he’s ever seen earlier in the season.
But what about his value outside the lines? In the dugout, in the marketing world — and in the minds of the M’s die-hards?
How do you measure Rodriguez’s Q rating? Or better put — his J rating?
Obviously, you can hear the “Ju-li-o!” chants throughout T-Mobile whenever he’s in the lineup. They have effectively replaced the “K!” cries of the King’s Court that were a stadium staple during the Felix Hernandez days. But from a fanbase-wide-enthusiasm standpoint, Rodriguez’s potential feels greater than Hernandez’s was. As in … something that comes along once in a generation.
Kids love him, for one.
Eleven-year-old Jaxon Banfield was sporting Rodriguez’s jersey at T-Mobile alongside his mom and grandma last week, explaining how he was hooked on Julio when he hit 63 long balls in the first two rounds of the Home Run Derby last July. But it was more than the dingers that does it for Jaxon — it’s the demeanor.
“I like how he brings the team together and emotionally helps the team,” Jaxon said. “I feel like every time he’s not here we’re in a slump.”
The kid wasn’t wrong. When I interviewed Jaxon, the Mariners were 73-56 with Rodriguez in the lineup and 11-14 without him. His WAR suggests he’d add about five or six extra wins — but could his presence be as valuable as his production?
I asked Mariners manager Scott Servais about it.
Is there a Julio Factor that goes beyond what he can do with his bat, legs and glove?
“I think so. I think everybody who has seen us play all year knows that there is a Julio Factor,” Servais said. “I think our ownership realizes it, I think our fan base realizes it, I think our team realizes it. I think there’s been other players that have played here for the Mariners have had the same attributes.”
Servais didn’t say Griffey by name. Maybe he wasn’t thinking of him specifically. But it’s hard not to make comparisons. A) They play the same position. B) They came out blistering in their first seasons, with Jr. finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year race and Rodriguez being the favorite this time. And C) They’re both marketing dreams.
As Mariners fan Lisa Beebe responded when asked what she liked most about Rodriguez: “His smile!”
Mariners president of business operations Catie Griggs took it a bit further. She didn’t single out Julio as the primary driver of M’s merchandise or the current mania — but she did recognize him as a distinct personality whose natural vibe does most of the marketing work for them.
“Julio is someone whose authenticity and charisma is incredibly relatable, and he engages with our fans in a real and meaningful way, not because we tell him to, but because he wants to,” Griggs said. “We are in the business of engaging the community and engaging our fans — and Julio embodies that in a way very few athletes do. So for us, it’s not about, ‘How do we market Julio?’ It’s about, ‘How do we showcase who he is as a person and all the things that make him special?’”
You never know how red-hot rookies’ careers are going to unfold. Sometimes they get hurt. Sometimes pitchers figure them out. Sometimes money mutes their motivation.
But right now, Julio is The Man in this town. The Mariners made a trip to the playoffs in his first season on the team. Can’t help but feel like it’s the first of many.
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