By Isabelle Minasian
One month ago, the Seattle Mariners signed 27-year-old shortstop Jean Segura to a five-year, $70-million contract extension. Segura inked the deal at a press conference with Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto by his side and his son, Juan Diego, in his lap.
Amidst the usual beat reporters, broadcasters and photographers perched in the press room at Safeco Field was a more unusual sight: a cluster of Segura’s teammates, including two countrymen from the Dominican Republic, Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz; as well as Cuban outfielder Guillermo Heredia, Mike Zunino, Taylor Motter, Tyler Smith and Ben Gamel.
Their presence did not go unnoticed by Dipoto, who — despite the Mariners’ sub-.500 record halfway through the season — seized the moment to address them directly.
“It is important that you guys here grow together and the core of this club stays together for a number of years,” Dipoto said. “We have talked repeatedly about the core group that is here. We believe in this team, we believe in these players.”
The players’ presence was no surprise to those who observe the team on a daily basis. Watching Motter and Canó perform a dual “hair flip” after a home run, seeing Cruz waiting at the top of the dugout to congratulate his teammates each time they score and witnessing the camaraderie they display on social media and in the clubhouse, it’s clear this is a tightly-knit nine, with Latino players at its core.
The Latin Corner
In Major League Baseball lingo, the area where Spanish-speaking players congregate in the clubhouse is called “the Latin corner.” But for the Mariners, the Latino influence extends well beyond that.
Canó and Cruz, arguably two of the best Dominicans in the game today, have taken over a full corner, lockers overflowing with shirts, shoes and boxes labeled “Mr. Canó fan mail.” The two occupy extra locker space, as is tradition for veteran players, but they are rarely found sitting at their spaces — and if they are, it is nearly always with several teammates or Mariners staff members buzzing around them.
As with any clubhouse, music and good-natured teasing can be heard echoing throughout the room. Díaz gives a small shimmy of his shoulders, and Segura bobs his head up and down with the beat. Music was the first thing Cruz mentioned, when asked about the Latino influence in the clubhouse.
“We’re pretty loud,” he said. “We always like to take charge of the music.”
The lockers of Segura, Heredia and Puerto Rican closer Edwin Díaz adjoin the Canó-Cruz intersection. Further down, Cuban starter Ariel Miranda sits next to Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma while the two catchers, Panamanian Carlos Ruiz and Zunino, keep their belongings in lockers at the opposite end of the clubhouse. As manager Scott Servais notes, this team successfully embraces its diversity. Last year they finished 86-76, second place in the American League West.
“That’s what the team’s about, it’s a family,” Servais said. “They all come from different spots, different places. You embrace it all, and you get to learn more about each other along the way.”
That feeling is also what Ruiz, who has played for three teams in 12 seasons and won the World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, said is a necessary element for any team’s success.
“The key to winning is to keep it like a family, and protect each other,” he said.
Cruz, who came up to the majors in 2005, the same year as Canó, echoed that statement.
“We make sure that for the other guys, especially the young guys, that this feels like a house, that they feel welcome anytime they come to the clubhouse.”
Canó Front and Center
Seattle is not known for its Latino population. According to the 2010 Census, just 6.6 percent of Seattleites identified as Hispanic or Latino, but in an ironic twist, last year on Opening Day the Mariners started the season with 13 Latinos on the roster, the highest number in MLB. And this year they opened with 12, tied for the second-highest number.
The Mariners’ front office, desperate to break the longest playoff drought in the majors, which dates to 2001, has not been shy about signing premium Latino talent from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Right-hander “King” Félix Hernández, one of the best pitchers of his generation, winner of a Cy Young Award and author of a perfect game, has been a Mariner since 2005, his first year in the majors.
It is Canó, born in San Pedro de Macorís, the cradle of many Dominican stars, who makes it all come together, on and off the field.
It was Canó who advocated for the Mariners to sign Cruz when he became available as a free agent after the 2014 season, and he likewise encouraged the slugger to sign with Seattle.
It was Canó who counseled and supported Segura after the death of his young son Janniel in 2014. Segura also credits Canó for improvements to his batting stance while he played for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, advice that helped Segura average .319 and lead the National League with 203 hits. Without those timely suggestions, maybe the Mariners and the Diamondbacks don’t agree to the blockbuster trade last offseason that brought Segura over.
As a rookie with the Yankees, Canó may have played in the shadow of World Series veterans Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but he was obviously paying attention, helping win the 2009 World Series. At the end of the 2013 season, he parlayed his apprenticeship into a 10-year, $240-million contract with the Mariners and now — after a period of adjustment — is a leader in the clubhouse and a mentor to the younger Latino players.
Thirteen seasons into his career, Canó, 34, is such a central figure in Seattle that, when I arrived at the clubhouse to interview him, I worried that he would run out of time to talk before the team took the field to stretch. He was surrounded by three to four other players at any given point, and also seemed to be guest-starring in three different phone calls.
All about chemistry
But this is Robinson Canó, after all, a lifetime .305 hitter as of July 4. He came through in the clutch, gesturing me over after finally hanging up a gold-covered iPhone and tossing it, with unsurprising precision, onto Segura’s chair a few lockers down.
As we spoke, he remarked that this year’s team is one of the youngest he has played with, due largely to a rash of unfortunate injuries to the pitching staff — Hernández and Drew Smyly included — that have necessitated numerous Triple-A call-ups. With all the new guys coming in, Canó’s steadying hand in the clubhouse and on the field has been critical.
In addition to Segura, players like Heredia and the Cuban Leonys Martín have all cited the second baseman as playing a key role in their own development. Heredia, in particular, mentioned how Canó and Cruz have created a family-like atmosphere in the clubhouse, and how that subsequent comfort has created a team that is always united.
Andrew Moore, a young right-handed pitcher who made his major league debut on June 22, mentioned that Canó went out of his way to offer encouragement and support before, during and after the game. In his post-game interview, the veteran took a moment to praise Moore, who went seven innings, allowing six hits and three runs while earning the victory.
“I loved the way he got on the mound and threw the ball wherever he wanted,” Canó said. “He didn’t try to do too much. He just pitched his game. That’s what you want somebody to do.”
That’s high praise, coming from one of the brightest and most well-respected stars in the game.
As for Canó himself? He credits the team’s chemistry and the lack of ego in the clubhouse.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh, I’m the man’ or ‘You’re the man,’” he said. “It’s more about making everyone feel comfortable here so they can feel comfortable on the field.”
The upshot? It doesn’t matter so much if the clubhouse is in San Pedro de Macorís or in the upper left corner of the United States.
As Ruiz says: “We are brothers. We stay together.”
Featured Image: Michael Zagaris / Getty Images Sport