Spotlight is on J-Rod in Seattle

Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez celebrates as scores on a double by Teoscar Hernandez against the Chicago White Sox during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, June 16, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez celebrates as scores on a double by Teoscar Hernandez against the Chicago White Sox during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, June 16, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

SEATTLE -- Less than a block from T-Mobile Park, the image of Julio Rodriguez plasters the side of a warehouse. The mural is an ode to the Emerald City's young baseball star -- one the Seattle Mariners plan to have in center field for the next decade.

At only 22, he's already the face of the franchise, the one whose No. 44 jersey floods the stands nightly, both home and road. He's carrying the expectations as the next generational player watching over that sacred position of center field in Seattle.

This All-Star week in Seattle was supposed to be Rodriguez's party. The "J-Rod Show" at home for the world to see on the All-Star stage.

And it still might be, even with a season that to date hasn't matched those expectations, for Rodriguez or the team.

Already committed to competing in the Home Run Derby, Rodriguez was an injury replacement on the American League roster after injuries to outfielders Yordan Alvarez and Mike Trout created an opportunity for Rodriguez to be added.

But his season and that of the Mariners has not been what was expected coming off Rodriguez winning AL rookie of the year and Seattle snapping its 21-year playoff drought.

"It's a learning curve. It's a huge learning curve," said Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., the last generational center fielder in Seattle. "But he'll be alright."

This season has been that learning curve for Rodriguez. It's not a sophomore slump. It's not a disappointment. Rodriguez's season has been much like the team he plays for -- remarkably average. The Mariners are 45-44 at the break.

Is he deserving of being in the All-Star Game? A slash line of .249/.310/.411 with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs at the break doesn't exactly jump off the page. Even his own fans in Seattle seemed to recognize Rodriguez's first half lacked the buzz of a season ago, and he didn't crack the top 10 in All-Star voting among outfielders.

But for a sport that needs engaging personalities on its biggest stages, having Rodriguez -- with his youthful exuberance and radiant smile -- taking part in everything inside his home ballpark this week is a win for the league.

"To be rewarded with the opportunity to be able to step on that field, and for all those fans in Seattle, for my family that's going to be there, it's definitely going to be a lot of fun," Rodriguez said.

Seattle's meager team success historically has created an environment where fans passionately latch on to individual stars of the franchise. It happened with Griffey, who had a candy bar as a rookie and quickly became the best player in the game in his early 20s. It happened with Felix Hernandez, who debuted at 19 and was known by "King Felix" as one of the best right-handers in baseball at 21.

There's a weight that comes with being the front door of an organization at such a young age. In just his second season, Rodriguez has several national endorsements and even his own cereal, on top of seemingly always being the first image when the Mariners are mentioned.

"There's always going to be expectation. Julio probably gets more because he plays every day. I used to go out there every five days," Hernandez said. "He's doing a great job. He's a great kid and lots of talent."

When Rodriguez took off in 2022, so did the Mariners, with their center fielder the sparkplug to so much of the good that took place for Seattle. While baseball knew Rodriguez, his national introduction came during the All-Star Game a season ago and specifically the Home Run Derby, when he hit 81 homers across the three rounds before losing to Juan Soto in the final.

"It was unbelievable. It definitely felt like a dream, honestly," Rodriguez said of last year's All-Star experience. "Just stepping on the field and seeing everybody out there, a lot of the players I grew up watching and just sharing the clubhouse with them and being able to learn from them."

Along with his participation in the All-Star events, Rodriguez is also an "ambassador" for this week's festivities, along with Griffey, Hernandez and Edgar Martinez.

Two are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with statues on the first and third base sides outside T-Mobile Park. Hernandez will go into the Mariners Hall of Fame later this summer, recognizing his place as one of the top pitchers in baseball for a decade during a time when Seattle was a mostly forgettable ball club.

Will Rodriguez reach that level? Time, production and success will be the ultimate judge. But it's another weight added to an already heavy load for a 22 year old.

"The only advice I would give Julio is just to, 'Hey, have time for you,' " Griffey said.

"Enjoy what you're doing, but have time for you."

  photo  Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez celebrates after hitting a double during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Houston Astros, Friday, July 7, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)
 
 
  photo  Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez makes a leaping catch at the wall on a fly ball hit by Houston Astros' David Hensley during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 7, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)
 
 
  photo  Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez catches a fly ball hit by Houston Astros' Corey Julks during the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, July 8, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)
 
 
  photo  Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez reacts after a postgame interview following an 8-4 win against the Washington Nationals in a baseball game Monday, June 26, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
 
 

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