Older, wiser Wedge eyes Mariners turnaround
New skipper brings old-school mentality to young Seattle club
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Maybe it's the mustache, flecked now with gray. Or the fading hairline. Or the fact that he's already managed seven seasons in the Major Leagues. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because Eric Wedge is just an old-school baseball guy at heart.
Whatever the reason, the Mariners' new manager seems older than his 43 years upon first sight. But don't let that fool you. When it comes to energy and ideas, Wedge has already been a breath of fresh air for a franchise eager to reboot its image and approach.
The former Cleveland skipper takes over a Seattle club that lost 101 games last year while rolling out the lowest-scoring team of the designated-hitter era. Faced with a fairly tight budget due to existing contracts, the Mariners didn't make any major offseason splashes, instead counting on bounce-back years from some key veterans, breakthroughs from several promising prospects and help from lower-priced free agents Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo.
"The difference here is Ichiro [Suzuki] and Felix [Hernandez]," Wedge said. "And I feel good about the players we've signed. We had some goals, and obviously we had a budget. I think we've done everything we could do. We brought in some tough Major League players, because you've got to be tough to play this game."
Wedge talks tough. He talks about accountability. He talks about insisting his players pay attention and play smart, hard-nosed baseball.
The former catcher brings instant intensity to a franchise that has longed for a Lou Piniella-like leader since the club's winningest manager left for Tampa Bay in 2003. Since then, Seattle has rolled through six different men in eight seasons, with the even-keeled Don Wakamatsu replaced by interim skipper Daren Brown last August.
General manager Jack Zduriencik was struck by Wedge's forcefulness from their first interview in October.
"That's who he is and that's what comes across," Zduriencik said.
The third-year GM jokes that he thought Wedge might come across the table at one point in their interview, but he also notes Wedge actually seems to have loosened up a bit and allowed his personality to emerge more with the media and others in the initial days of this second shot as a manager.
"I wasn't there in his first stint, but he obviously has a great deal of confidence," Zduriencik said. "I think experience lends itself to that. When you have a year off and a chance to reflect, sometimes that's a really good thing because you can evaluate yourself and you're removed from the day-to-day grind. He's eager right now, and to me, that's a very positive sign."
Mariners catcher Josh Bard played for Wedge in Cleveland and says his teammates will learn quickly what their new skipper has in mind.
"He's a guy who expects you to play the game the right way," Bard said. "He doesn't pull punches; he tells you what he thinks. And I think that'll be good for our young guys. He's not mean. He's not a tyrant. But he'll tell you what he feels. He runs a tight ship, but to me, anyone who respects the game will love him. He's an old-school baseball guy."
That approach will be particularly interesting with Milton Bradley, another of Wedge's former Cleveland players who was traded by the Indians just prior to Opening Day in '04 after a Spring Training run-in between the two.
Now, Wedge inherits a 32-year-old Bradley in the final year of a contract that pays him $12 million this season. Bradley was arrested on a felony threat charge in a domestic situation with his wife on Jan. 18 in the latest of a long string of issues, though the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office decided last week not to pursue criminal charges at this time.
How Wedge works with Bradley figures to be another interesting challenge this spring, with Wedge insisting his past experience there actually is an advantage.
"Arguably, I know Milton better than anybody in the game," Wedge said. "I knew him when he was a kid and we've had very frank conversations in the past. So I look at it as a challenge, and I'm hoping we can make this work. Has he made some mistakes? Without a doubt. Is he misunderstood? Without a doubt. But is he a good ballplayer? Yes."
Wedge figures how he deals with those kinds of challenges is what defines him in his role.
"I'm the manager here, not the head coach," Wedge said. "One of my jobs is to manage people. There's not an asterisk beside it that says just manage everybody that does everything right. Anybody can manage that. It's my job to get the most out of Milton Bradley.
"People make mistakes. There are no perfect human beings out there. Do I agree with everything that has happened? No. But right now, he's still part of this ballclub and it's my job to make sure we get the most out of him. If it gets to the point and time where he stubs his toe so much that he can't be a part of this, then I'm sure Jack and I and the rest of us will get together and talk about it then."
In other words, Wedge will go about putting his mark on whatever players are in his charge, pushing and prodding and looking for every edge. But he's also learned that part of being a good manager is working with all different kinds of people and situations.
At 43, Wedge is not much older than some of his players. But he is a throwback. He is the son of a former truck driver from Fort Wayne, Ind., who believes hard work is the only way to get anywhere.
"I've always been a fan of the old guard," Wedge said. "Bobby Cox is the first guy that comes to mind. I've always had great respect for the way he handles himself and players. The consistency and even keel of a Joe Torre. I've had great conversations with Lou. It's funny. I was watching the MLB Network the other day and they had the 50 best ejections, and I think Lou was every other one.
"I got a chuckle out of that. I love the intelligent conversations I've had with Lou. He's witty. But he's also the same guy I saw slide into [Carlton] Fisk and they started punching each other out at home plate back in the day. I love that balance."
Wedge will bring some of that to the Mariners. A wry sense of humor coupled with a hard edge, a willingness to pat you on the back one minute and fight you the next.
He loves the motivational pregame speeches football coaches use and would love to be a Knute Rockne, but Wedge knows such a tone wears thin quickly in the 162-game baseball marathon.
So he'll bring out the full Wedge when it feels right, but temper that with the maturity developed over seven seasons in Cleveland -- when he started out as one of the youngest managers in baseball and wound up taking the Indians within one game of the World Series in 2007.
He's still a relatively young gun, but this is an older and wiser Wedge. A more comfortable Wedge. And, the Mariners hope, a Wedge that separates them from their frustrating recent past and gets them turned back into a consistent contender in the American League West.