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‘There he is!’: It’s Julio Rodriguez’s world. Everyone wants to be part of it

March 28, 2023 Updated Tue., March 28, 2023 at 4:48 p.m.

Julio Rodriguez signs autographs before a spring training game on Feb. 24.  (Getty Images)
Julio Rodriguez signs autographs before a spring training game on Feb. 24. (Getty Images)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – With his glove on his left hand, clutching a pearl of a baseball inside of it and a pen in his pocket, ready to be retrieved the moment it was needed, a young boy named Kaenon waited for the one player everyone else was waiting to see.

On the other side of the covered batting cages, a group of kids similar in age, jostled to peer through an inch-wide space in the tarps covering the fences, trying to see him.

“I don’t see him,” one kid said.

“I think he’s still on the field,” another said.

“There he is!” screamed another.

“Julio! Can you sign?! Julio over here!” came the screams as a large group of people, perhaps more adults than kids, converged near the roped off area by the batting cages trying to get his attention and, more important, his autograph.

Julio Rodriguez smiled and waved at the throng as he moved along the fence line. The attention has become normal.

“I can’t do it right now,” he said to them. “I promise I will do it later.”

He had every intention of keeping that promise, but first he had to go through his daily hitting routine in the batting cages.

Rodriguez saw Kaenon, who was wearing his No. 44 teal jersey and staring awe-struck at him, near the cages.

“What’s up, little man?” he said, sticking out his massive paw, slapping five with young boy as he walked into the cages.

For Kaenon, he’d just met someone more important than Santa Claus.

“The best player in baseball just gave me five,” he said staring at his right hand in wonder. “I’m never washing this hand again.”

About 10 minutes later, Kaenon was relaying the story about the high-five from Rodriguez to some other kids, who were getting Ty France’s autograph. Always entertaining, France autographed Kaenon’s ball and said, “Well, can I give you five, too?”

Kaenon nodded at the offer, took off his glove and offered up his left hand to France instead. He wasn’t letting anyone touch the Julio hand. It drew laughter from the Mariners first baseman and the crowd watching.

“Just another day of living in Julio’s world,” France said.

It’s a world where Rodriguez is at the center of all things Seattle Mariners.

It’s a world filled with possibility and promise not just for him but an organization that finally has found baseball relevance in large part because of this 22-year-old man-child, dripping with talent and charisma.

It’s a world where Rodriguez has been anointed as the face of the franchise during a rookie season where he helped the Mariners end a 21-year postseason drought and signed a massive contract extension that could keep him in Seattle his entire career.

It’s a world filled with the possibility of even more success and stardom, the promise of elevating the Mariners to a championship and the growing pressure of expected success and all that comes with it.

Is he ready for it?

“I know that there are going to be a lot of people watching me and what I do,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’m going to keep being me. I’m going to keep trying to improve every day. I’m going to keep doing the right thing.

“If they are going to see me as the face of the franchise, I’m going to make sure I give a good example, keep raising the bar, keep helping people out, keep getting better. That’s how we can win by everybody getting better.”

Julio! Julio! Julio!

Kaenon eventually got his ball signed by Rodriguez and a picture with his hero as did most of the other kids calling his name that afternoon. It’s a daily occurrence on the back fields of the Mariners’ spring training complex.

You know where Rodriguez is by the crowds. Grown men, many of them autograph dealers and collectors, run after him along with the dozens of kids the second he leaves the field.

“Julio enjoys it,” manager Scott Servais said. “That’s why it works. He likes being that guy, knowing that he is in the spotlight, and he is the guy that young kids who love the game look up to. He embraces that.”

A year ago, it wasn’t quite this way. As one of the top prospects in baseball, he was popular but still just an impressive package of unproven potential.

He forced his way onto the opening day roster, arriving at camp intent on showing everyone that he could be the everyday center fielder.

After some struggles in April, he began to play like one of the best players in baseball. His popularity grew exponentially.

He was named to the American League All-Star team and gave a scintillating performance in the Home Run Derby.

Rodriguez might have lost to Juan Soto in the championship round, but he was still the big winner that night. His stardom and popularity began to extend well beyond the Northwest and his native Dominican Republic.

He loves to use the word “trending” when it comes to improvement. And he was trending toward becoming one of the biggest stars in baseball.

By the end of the year, he was the best player on the Mariners. He played in the playoffs in his first MLB season and was eventually named the Jackie Robinson American League Rookie of the Year.

“You see a guy and you can just tell that they’re going to be different,” Ichiro Suzuki said through interpreter Allen Turner. “They have this something about them that they’re going to be special. But usually it doesn’t come this quick.”

A raucous parade in his hometown of Loma De Cabrera where seemingly the entire population within a 100-mile radius turned out to celebrate his achievement left him stunned.

He’s blossomed into the biggest star in Seattle and a budding superstar in baseball.

His life has changed in almost every way from a year ago, including those crowds.

“It is definitely different,” he said. “But I just feel like the way that I handle it – I just make sure that if it’s five kids, three kids or whatever amount that I can make happy or make their day, I’m going to try to do that.”

But he knows he can’t please everyone.

“I’m just one person and I can’t cover everybody,” he said. “I would love to give my signature for every fan that comes to the ballpark. Sadly, I can’t do that. I’m trying to take care of the kids that I can or people that I can. I know there’s going to be people who are going to be mad or sad, but at the same time, I did what it was within my power to impact somebody’s day.”

‘He just loves being Julio’

It’s the simplest way that France can describe Rodriguez’s personality and comfort level with being in the spotlight.

“He’s known from a very young age who he was meant to be and the kind of player he’s meant to be,” France said. “He’s just ran with it.”

But as France sat on the field of Dodger Stadium, seeing Rodriguez crush homer after homer in the derby, wowing fans in attendance and those watching on television with his easy power and ebullient personality, he recognized change coming, all of it being good.

“Once he was out on that national stage and started to get that national attention, I think that confidence came with it,” France said. “He’s always had a confidence to him, but it was more of: ‘OK, I belong in this league. I know I can do this. I’m a superstar in this league.’ Confidence is everything in baseball.”

In the established baseball culture, rarely does a rookie, no matter how talented, take control of a team with his personality and play on the field. It just isn’t allowed.

And yet, Rodriguez did it by simply being himself. He never pushed for it. He was respectful of veterans like France and Mitch Haniger, who were established leaders. He prepared diligently. He played hard. He practiced humility. He never took himself too seriously. He brought a youthful vigor and enthusiasm to each day.

“Joy is the word I always use,” Servais said. “He’s just very engaging, and it’s why fans love him. That’s why it’s easy to watch him in commercials and not think, ‘Oh, this guy doing this and he’s going to get a head too big to fit in the room.’ Never has that once crossed my mind with Julio. He’s very humble. You can bring him in and give him a hard time. I just like the whole package.”

Players recognize effort, competitiveness and priorities. Older players quickly understood that Rodriguez wanted to win as much they did. It always took precedence over personal production or popularity.

“It’s just really special to watch him play day in and day out,” Robbie Ray said July 15, the game Rodriguez hit his first career grand slam. “The poise he has out there. He carries himself really well. He’s super humble. And he works really hard. He prepares himself for those moments. And it’s really fun to watch.”

After crashing into a wall early in spring training and worrying fans about a potential injury, Rodriguez was unapologetic about playing so hard in a spring training game.

He believes he needs to perform any time he steps on the field. He’s incapable of not playing all out, believing it cheapens the game and himself. After being asked why he played so hard every game, Joe DiMaggio once famously answered, “Because there might have been somebody in the stands today who’d never seen my play before, and might never see me again.”

Though it’s unlikely Rodriguez knew of the quote or even of DiMaggio as a player, he is of a similar mindset.

“It’s always 100%,” he said. “You want people to know who you really are. And I feel like you’ve got to show that every time on the field. I want people to know me for who I am and not, ‘Oh he might be having a bad day or look he’s lazy today.’ No, I try hard. I want to keep that consistent.”

‘I buy into the person’

Admittedly, Servais wondered if not worried that this would all be too much, too fast even for a baseball prodigy like Rodriguez. But it has since changed for that simple reason.

“Unbelievable talent, there’s no question about that, we all can see that,” Servais said. “But it’s buying into the person and what he brings every day and how he goes about his business. He has a growth mindset. He’s a learner. He wants to continue to learn, and that’s why I think the ceiling’s as high as it is.”

Seemingly everyone needs something – usually time – from Rodriguez. The Mariners can’t use him enough to promote and market their team and events. There are commercials and endorsements that have come with stardom. Every media outlet, local and national, wants five minutes if not more to bring more of his intoxicating charm and charisma to their audience.

Servais had a frank conversation about time management and priorities in his day, preaching that baseball needed to come first.

But it was an unnecessary reminder. Rodriguez loves playing baseball too much to let it become secondary.

He’s too competitive and too driven to not put in the work that got him to this level. There’s so much more he wants to accomplish. He holds himself accountable to future success as much as past failure.

“I try to maximize every single thing that I can do on the field,” he said.

Rodriguez and Ichiro started playing catch three years ago. They’ve developed a bond despite the differences in age, culture and playing profile. In a profession of talented and driven people, they understand what it means to be elite.

“He hasn’t changed, if anything he’s even more hungry to get better,” Ichiro said.

The physical gifts – size, strength, speed and charisma – couldn’t be overlooked. But it was the maturity and diligence when it came to honing his craft that convinced Ichiro that potential greatness loomed for Rodriguez.

“I’m not a bit surprised,” he said. “I’m expecting him to be greater. There’s more to come.”

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