Seattle, Forever

Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

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I’m not going to start with a fairytale story. Life isn’t always like that. I want to start with something REAL. Let’s start with an 0-for-5 story.

Early on last season we played at home against the Rangers. It was April. I’d made my MLB debut two weeks earlier — one of the greatest days of my life, something I was able to celebrate with my whole family. I was settling into the big league world, soaking it all in. Everything was pretty good, you know?? But this one game, man, I’m tellin’ you…. I think about it a lot. I started the game with four strikeouts, and in my last at bat I made contact with the ball for the first time that night. I was mad in that batter’s box. I swung hard. I hit a line drive into the left-center gap. I was flying down the baseline. Triple or inside-the-park-er for sure, I thought. And then I saw Adolis García make a Superman catch to rob me. We lost 8–6. I was 0-for-5. Four Ks. Batting .136 in 12 games.

I understood it was April. I knew I was a rookie. I got it. But it’s one thing hearing people say it to you, and it’s a whole other thing to believe it. Like really believe it. It didn’t feel early to me. I’d been waiting my whole life for this chance. Since I was hitting the tennis balls my dad saved up money for back in the Dominican. Since I was playing with Hot Wheels on the floor. Since I was pretending to be Ichiro in Loma de Cabrera. It wasn’t early to me. It was right on time. And I wanted to deliver for the people of Seattle. I wanted to show them who I could be.

I’m not going to start with a fairytale story. Life isn’t always like that.

Julio Rodriguez

I went home that night and watched back my at-bats. I kept looking at the clock beside my bed. It was 1 a.m., then 2, then 3. And I was just watching different swings of mine, even good ones from other games, just looking for anything to help me out. I probably watched 500 swings that night before I passed out. I got to the park the next day and I found my hitting coach and I was just like, “What are we going to do? I know I can do this…. What am I missing?” We chatted for a bit. Some technical stuff, some mindset stuff. But what it really came down to was this: Trust. I’d believed in myself my whole life. My family instilled that in me. And I’d always had confidence that the work I put in would pay off. But belief and confidence are different from trust. To me, trust is a whole other thing.

And it’s a word that has meant so much to me in my time in Seattle.

I want to tell you why.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

I know I’m not the first Dominican player to have made it to the big leagues like I did. There have been plenty before me, and there will be plenty after me. But you know what we all have in common? At some point, as young men, we just had to jump — we had to trust in those around us. Our parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, friends, friends of friends. Anyone. We had to hope that they had our best interests at heart. Because it takes a village to make a ballplayer in the Dominican. I saw kids like me, kids with real talent, get lost along the way because they didn’t have the right people around them. But I was lucky. I had my dad. He was a ballplayer back in the day, and I think that’s where my passion for the game comes from. And my mom made sure I treated everybody well and played the right way.

They helped me see people for who they really are. And when I was considering my options for coming to America, I wanted to be around good people. The more time I spent talking with the Mariners, the more I started to feel something really special growing. In one of our conversations, they said something that really stuck with me: “We don’t want you to be anything other than the guy that you say you’re going to be.” They looked at me, a 16-year-old kid, and put their faith in who I thought I could be. That’s trust. You get me?? That’s trust.

And I felt that trust every step of the way to making my Mariners debut last spring in Minnesota. The team was so great with my family, making them feel right at home so they could be there to see me. To see our dreams come true. I remember so much of that day because, like, to me and my family? That was it. You understand?? That was what we dreamed of every night when we went to bed. It’s what we worked for when we got up. Each trip my dad made to Dajabón to get the tennis balls — this what it was for. He and I used to have this little routine before tryouts or big games or something like that. When I’d say goodbye to my family just before I went into the dugout, I’d talk to my dad last. He’d get my mind right and give me a hug. And that day in Minnesota, when I was leaving the hotel after saying bye to everyone who had come out to be with me, my dad came down to be with me last.

Each trip my dad made to Dajabón to get the tennis balls — this what it was for.

Julio Rodriguez

He looked at me and he just said, “I can’t believe we made it this far.” 

And then he just hugged me with the biggest dad hug and started crying. He sacrificed so much for me. He had debts and had extended himself so much to give me a chance to get to this point. I remember back in 2017, before my signing bonus came in, we were in a tough spot financially. Everything was sort of hinging on getting a contract fast. We were barely making ends meet, living day to day. But my dad, he just kept dreaming with me. And that morning in Minnesota…. I felt all that in his hug. 

That day to me was almost like the end of one journey, and the beginning of something completely new.

I remember before the game, Mitch Haniger talked to me in front of everybody. 

“Julio, you’ll never have another debut. This is it. This is your day. So enjoy it, man. Soak it all in. Fool around. Have fun. Be yourself. Nobody’s going to tell you nothing.”

Jackson Krule/the Players' Tribune

So I just let myself be me. That’s what I tried to do the whole year. That’s what I felt like Seattle wanted me to do. And when it got tough, and there were bad stretches, I just had to trust in myself — in those around me. The day after the loss to the Rangers in April, after I talked with my hitting coach, I just tried to slow everything down. I had two hits in the next game, and two more in the one after that. Then I started to get some confidence, and I really felt the city start to get behind us as a team. As a rookie, you know, you come into the show with some personal goals, right? You want to stay up in the bigs, you want to prove to everyone who helped you that you can do it, all of that. But I’d be lying if I said everyone in our clubhouse wasn’t thinking about the drought in March, in April, in May. We wanted to break it so bad.

And that became all I wanted. I felt a part of something that connected generations of Mariners fans. I’d come out to the stadium each day and I’d see that look on their faces, that desire to see a good ballclub. That became a part of me. And all the guys in our room, too. I remember back toward the end of June, when it wasn’t going great and we were a few games below .500, we were in Anaheim for a weekend series. I’m not going to get into the whole thing — everyone remembers. We got into a pretty good brawl and there was a lot said, and done, by both teams. But that moment meant a lot to our club because that’s when I think we all realized that we’re really in this together — that we have each other’s backs, no matter what. It might sound silly, but if we could fight for one another…. Then we could play hard for one another. And we could turn this thing around.

People ask me all the time about what our fans are like, or what the stadium was like during the playoff run. I’m not going to sit here and tell you about how they’re the “loudest” or the “craziest” or whatever. It’s not about that. I’ve been in the league for a year. Mariners’ fans are all I really know. Yeah, we went to some loud parks and all that, but it’s different when you’re a visitor. All I can tell you is that there’s an emotional connection at our park that you just have to experience to really understand. Coming out onto the field for big games…. Man, I would just get this feeling. It would start in my ankles, up my legs, through my back and then just BAM — this bolt of energy through my body. And I’d take that and I’d run with it all night. I’d look around the park … and it just felt like, I’m supposed to be here.

There’s an emotional connection at our park that you just have to experience to really understand.

Julio Rodriguez

I was in the back of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse with my agent at the end of August, and that’s what I was thinking about. That energy. He was telling me about the contract, about all the details, and I just wanted that energy, forever. I’ll be honest, I never thought twice about another club or a future anywhere else other than Seattle. I don’t care if people believe it. The Mariners took a chance on me all those years ago. They let me be me. Other clubs had their opportunity. I was still Julio back then. Seattle just saw it before everyone else. I’ll always appreciate that. And another thing: I’m happy here. Every time I’m at the ballpark, every time I’m walking around the city, every time I look at the Space Needle and remember The Jetsons cartoons I used to watch on the living room floor — I’m reminded how happy I am here.

I think people sometimes get so lost trying to get more and more and more. And that’s not to say I don’t want to get better, or help the team get to late October baseball — that’s my biggest goal.

But, man…. When you find something good? Something you love? Hold on to it. Don’t let it go.

And I love Seattle.

It’s home.

I feel embraced here, and I know how this city treats people who give their all.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The night Ichiro was inducted to the Mariners’ Hall of Fame I was fortunate enough to speak with him and get to be part of the ceremony. (I was the flower boy. I brought him flowers. It was one of the greatest honors of my career so far. For real.) I remember seeing members of our staff, our fans, with tears in their eyes as highlights of Ichiro rolled on the big screen and while he spoke. He meant so much to everyone in the city — to every Mariners’ fan around the world — and I was just in awe of him.

During his speech, he spoke about his new role with the team and being a mentor to the next generation. He said, “I want our players to know: I am with you in your fight to be the best.” And he looked over at the dugout, and maybe I’m crazy, but I felt like he looked at me. And the moment just kind of hit me. I knew I wanted to finish what he started here.

I have such a tremendous respect for him, and I cherish getting to pick his brain and get to know him more. His work ethic, his diligence, his love of the craft — it’s in our clubhouse. We’re taking it with us wherever we go. And we got places we want to go.

When you find something good? Something you love? Hold on to it. Don’t let it go. And I love Seattle.

Julio Rodriguez

That feeling we all had when Cal finished his swing, and he stuck his bat straight up into the sky? That’s what it’s all about right there. Ending the drought the way we did, man, in front of you all at our ballpark? I’m going to remember that forever. I think about it all the time. Not just because the moment was great, but because that atmosphere, that electricity, that’s what we want. That’s what we need to remember with every rep in the spring, every hurdle along the way this season. We know we can do it. We’ve seen it. And we know we can take it further, too.

I feel honored to know that I’m going to be a Mariner for a long time. I know what it means to wear this jersey. What we got…. That’s for us, Seattle. I appreciate with all my heart the trust you put in me from the moment I came to America. I really do. And I trusted you right back to help me grow, to support me and let me be the person I always wanted to be.

So we’re going to do this next part together.

Can’t wait to see you at the park.