Julio Rodríguez gets All-Star stage at home despite challenging Year 2

Jul 10, 2023, 9:03 AM | Updated: 3:11 pm

Seattle Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners celebrates with teammates on July 1, 2023. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

SEATTLE (AP) — Less than a block from T-Mobile Park, the image of Julio Rodríguez 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.

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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 Rodríguez’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 Rodríguez or the team.

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

But his season and that of the Mariners 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 Rodríguez. It’s not a sophomore slump. It’s not a disappointment. Rodríguez’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 Rodríguez’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 Rodríguez — 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,” Rodríguez said.

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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 Félix Hernández, 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, Rodríguez 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,” Hernández said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s a great kid and lots of talent.”

When Rodríguez 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 Rodríguez, 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,” Rodríguez 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, Rodríguez is also an “ambassador” for this week’s festivities, along with Griffey, Hernández 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. Hernández 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 Rodríguez 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.”

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