MLB

'I would watch Julio Rodriguez': MLB's youngest All-Star is generational talent for playoff-starved Mariners

Seattle's postseason drought goes back more than two decades and their rookie All-Star is trying to end that.

Gabe Lacques
USA TODAY

Next week in Los Angeles, the game’s brightest stars will gather in Los Angeles for what’s become Major League Baseball’s Midsummer Existential Crisis, an annual opportunity to showcase the game’s greatest players and hope that someday, one of them may be more than a passing topic at breakfast tables coast-to-coast.

From Bryce Harper to Mike Trout, to Aaron Judge to Fernando Tatis Jr. to Shohei Ohtani, the thirst for a Jeterian global presence continues. Oh, baseball does not eat its young, but it would love to leverage them to attract a fresh fan base, and the All-Star Game remains an optimal window to do so.

This time, it is 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez who will step into the All-Star spotlight for the first time, hand-picked by MLB to fulfill the Seattle Mariners’ roster slot, although his baseball chops make him more than worthy to represent, his joyous personality and heightened sense of propriety just a bonus.

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Rodriguez will be both the youngest All-Star and the game’s only rookie, a prime candidate to step into the “who’s next?” narrative occupied by many who preceded him. Yet if the past decade has illustrated anything, it’s that market penetration and household recognition remain elusive for even the biggest stars in the most populous ventures. Rodriguez, it seems, doesn’t need to be the next young star thrust into a role of nationalizing a sport regional at its core.

Julio Rodriguez celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run against the Oakland Athletics.

Yet in just three months as a major leaguer, Rodriguez has proven worthy to elevate a moribund, playoff-starved market back to prominence, while reminding a forthcoming generation how tantalizing the game can be.

“I’ll tell you this,” says veteran Mariners starter Marco Gonzales. “If I was a young kid, and a baseball player hoping to make it one day, I would watch Julio Rodriguez and everything he did. The way he works. His attitude. The way he treats teammates. It’s genuine.

“And for him to have success and become an All-Star, I’m genuinely happy for him. If I was a young kid, I’d be tuning in.”

Rodriguez has commuted his legitimate five-tool talent into both Rookie of The Year-worthy superlatives as well as a level of production that has the Mariners again threatening to break a playoff drought that dates to their 116-win, 2001 season. Rodriguez debuted on Opening Day, quelling worries the Mariners might jerk with his service time, and after a slow start became the fastest player to reach 15 homers and 20 stolen bases – just 80 games – in major league history.

Rodriguez has stolen 21 bases in 25 attempts. He plays an often spectacular center field, likely needing only time and consistency to get on the Gold Glove shortlist. His baserunning derring-do, often accompanied by what might be the quickest smile in the West, only accentuates the feeling that Rodriguez is evolving into one of baseball’s greatest players and perhaps its best-suited evangelist.

“I feel like this is a beautiful game,” Rodriguez tells USA TODAY Sports. “And the more people that play this game, the more fun it’s going to be.

“Anything I can do to help grow the game and keep opening doors for kids, I’m definitely down for that and something I have in mind to do.”

Eyes wide open

That trail has been blazed from a somewhat unlikely place. While Rodriguez joins dozens of others who have made the major leagues from the Dominican Republic, he hails from relatively tiny Loma de Cabrera, a city of around 20,000 bounded by the Dajabón River, which separates Haiti and the Dominican about 15 miles to the west. It is hundreds of miles and several hours away from the capital city of Santo Domingo and the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris.

“There will be more people at the All-Star Game,” Rodriguez says of 55,000-seat Dodger Stadium, “than there are people in my hometown. I’m excited to represent my hometown.”

Still, ballplayers blossom, if not with the same tonnage. Shortstop Rafael Furcal hailed from Loma de Cabrera, while the coastal town of Monte Cristi, an hour north, produced Ozzie Virgil Sr., who was the first Dominican to make the major leagues, along with Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal and longtime DH Nelson Cruz.

Cruz, 42, was with the Mariners when the club signed a 16-year-old Rodriguez, a kid he’d heard about back home and whose $1.75 million signing created a palpable buzz in Seattle’s organization.

“Humble kid. I’m really happy for the success he’s had,” says Cruz, now with the Washington Nationals. “I’d heard about the talent he had and the kind of player he could become.”

In Seattle, he’s found an interesting cocoon in which to blossom. While several key contributors return from last year’s 90-win team that wasn’t eliminated until the final day of the season, manager Scott Servais insists his club isn’t yet a “veteran” team. Fair enough: Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, acquired from Cincinnati in the offseason, is the lone starter older than 30.

Yet six other starters, from shortstop J.P. Crawford to slugging first baseman Ty France to left fielder Jesse Winker, have played for at least one other franchise in the major leagues. These Mariners aren’t so old as to be irrevocably salty, but they’ve seen some things.

“I feel everybody on on this team has a good piece of advice for me,” says Rodriguez. “I always have my eyes open, my ears open, to listen to what everybody has to say. I feel like everybody has that little bit of help in me becoming an All-Star.”

Now, they hope Rodriguez can be the missing ingredient for a most inglorious streak.

'A generational talent'

Rodriguez is the Mariners’ first rookie All-Star since Ichiro Suzuki, whose appearance in the 2001 game at still-new Safeco Field represented a franchise apex of sorts. Suzuki was one of eight Mariners All-Stars in Seattle, representing a team that would win a record-tying 116 games. Suzuki would win Rookie of the Year and MVP; the Mariners would advance to the ALCS.

They haven’t been back to the playoffs since.

The subsequent two decades would bring a bevy of five-year plans, failed GMs from Bill Bavasi to Jack Zduriencik and 80-ish win seasons that squandered the stints of beloved players like Suzuki and pitcher Felix Hernandez. Robinson Cano received $240 million – and got popped for PED use. Adrian Beltre was a Hall of Fame performer in L.A., Texas and Boston – and barely a league-average hitter in Seattle.

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“Obviously, it’s noise,” says France, who leads AL first basemen in average (.302) and on-base percentage (.375). “You hear it, but you don’t pay attention to it. It’s not going to help change anything. We’re obviously very motivated. Last year we were so close. We’re just trying to build off that.”

As Rodriguez got off to a slow start, the group seemed to lack identity. Coincidence or not, a wild brawl that resulted in 12 suspensions – topped by Angels manager Phil Nevin’s 10-game ban – seemed to galvanize the club. The Mariners lost three of four in Anaheim but won 13 of 15 since, the back end of a 28-15 run fueled by Rodriguez and excellent starting pitching.

They went 10-1 while Winker (six games), Crawford (four games) and Rodriguez (one game) served their suspensions and take a 10-game winning streak into the final series of the first half, in a three-way tie for the final two AL wild-card berths.

“If anything, it confirmed what we already thought – that we have a good group that is willing to fight for each other, literally and figuratively,” says Gonzales. “I feel like the perspective on the outside is different than what it is amongst us in this clubhouse.  We’ve held strong to who we believe we are and haven’t listened to anybody else tell us what we’re going to be or if we’re going to make the playoffs, blah blah blah.

“We’ve done a good job maintaining what we think we are.”

And who are they? Fun-loving, fiery competitors, says Gonzales. Their clubhouse can be a treacherous place for the thin-skinned, the constant ribbing sometimes drifting into the public realm. When utilityman Dylan Moore scored a social media endorsement deal with a men’s grooming company, Winker and Gonzales jumped mercilessly into his IG comments.

And when Rodriguez wobbled and stumbled and crawled futilely toward third base, unable to complete a triple in a game against Toronto last week, he gamely posed near a chalk outline by the bases a day later, clad in goggles and Floaties to commemorate his failed “swim move.”

“Nobody makes fun of us more than us,” says France. “This game is really hard and you’re around the same group of guys for a really long time. The lighter we can keep it, the more fun we’re going to have. The more fun we have, the more success we’re going to have.”

And the more Rodriguez grows, the better the team seems to be. Servais cautiously draws a connection to Washington star Juan Soto, who broke through as a 19-year-old and now is 23 and a player the team hopes to lock up to a record-setting contract.

Rodriguez still has a few boxes to check before reaching that status, but it won’t be for lack of trying – or for a failure of his teammates to know just what they have.

“To be able to watch him, in awe at times, and the joy he brings – it’s genuine,” says Gonzales, who helped prime Rodriguez for this role with spring training talks in recent years telling the teenager that Seattle would need him if they were to reach their goals.

“He’s electric. He’s a generational talent,” says France.

Soon, Rodriguez will get a national platform for his skills, and his smile. It may just be an inning or two in reserve, or perhaps Rodriguez will take over the proceedings at Dodger Stadium.

It seems inevitable all of this will grow into something bigger, not because of what the world wants Julio Rodriguez to be, but for who he is and what he wants.

“Honestly,” says Rodriguez, “it means the world to be recognized for what you do and what you love to do.”