Salk: Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez a rare star who truly plays for the fans

Jul 12, 2023, 9:55 PM

Seattle Mariners Julio Rodriguez...

Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners reacts during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on July 10, 2023. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

It was a magical week in Seattle as the baseball world descended upon our hometown and the city responded in a big way. Visiting media was impressed by the scene. Major League Baseball executives recognized the character of the region. Star players came away impressed with energy and passion of a fanbase that with a three-word chant let everyone know they want to be a player in the greatest free agency sweepstakes since LeBron made his Decision.

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But while fans gathered around SoDo and attended each event, one player took on more responsibility than anyone else: Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez.

He wasn’t the most worthy All-Star, certainly not if you go by his numbers in the first half. Julio has largely disappointed on that front. But his star power shined brightly because of his otherworldly talent, youthful energy and motivation that isn’t often seen in professional sports.

Julio Rodríguez truly seems to play for the fans.

That might not sound unique. Players often thank fans, make time for them, and recognize that those fans make it all possible. In recent years, social media has brought the two groups closer together without the middleman of the media. In some ways that has helped – players can get their message out more cleanly. But it has also brought them closer to some of the anger, vitriol and denigration that some lay at their feet.

Players tend to play for five groups of “people.”

1) Money/Family

This group is probably a lot larger than we think and I don’t look at them negatively. The owners who employ them see it as a business and they have every right to feel the same way. There is so much money in sports and players see where it goes. Why shouldn’t they want to change the future for themselves and their family? When generational wealth is on the table, most of us get motivated real quick. And they have skills that few possess, not to mention the risks they take trying to make it in a business that leaves most behind at each level. Whether they come from money, are trying to escape poverty, or something in between, players have millions of reasons to play for cash rewards.

2) Teammates

If you spend five minutes around NHL players, you will hear how important it is for them to play for their teammates. That bond is sacred. And certainly, they aren’t alone. Former Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette once explained that to play for your teammates means to make a block not because it’s your assignment on that play, but because you care about making sure your teammate doesn’t get hit. Teams that play for each other tend to go farther. This might be the motivating factor most coaches strive for.

3) God

For those that are religious, there is no higher calling. I feel uncomfortable describing in detail anyone’s personal relationship with religion, but it is clearly a major motivator for many athletes (including my partner Brock Huard).

4) Themselves/Their Legacy

You might think I put this here to take a shot at a former Seahawks quarterback who seems somewhat obsessed with proving he belongs among the greats. I didn’t. Yes, in his case, the personal motivation has probably cost him his reputation and has prevented him from playing his best. But this has been the major motivator for plenty of all time greats. I’d put Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in this category.

5) Fans

I honestly think this is the smallest category. Players notice fans. Many are conscious of the money fans lay out to come see them and have a notion that that money helps pay their salary. They hear the cheering, sometimes resent the booing, and feed off the energy that a great crowd can create. But truly being motivated by the customers? That is rare. And when you spend any time around Julio, it is obvious that he is in this group.

It’s worth noting that few players (if any) fall exclusively into one category or another. There is a scale and most players probably feel multiple motivations which likely change from moment to moment. To say that Julio Rodríguez plays for the fans doesn’t mean he is immune from wanting to be paid or that he doesn’t care for his teammates.

But in my years of watching, covering and talking about sports, he seems to genuinely care about the fans as much as anyone.

You can see it when he makes a great play and immediately turns to the center field seats to celebrate with his No Fly Zone. You can see it before games when he makes unusual efforts to sign autographs and ensure they get to the right kids. You can see it when he runs to the dugout after an inning, often watching the stands or clapping to a beat like he’s one of the many thousands in the crowd himself. You can hear it whenever he talks to the media, always commenting on how important Seattle is to him, how he recognizes the support he receives, and how badly he wants to bring a championship home to them.

You could feel it this week as he fed off that crowd at the Derby, pummeling 41 home runs in one round and probably tiring himself out before Round 2. You could feel it when he took time to be the unofficial ambassador to Seattle each morning before the other All-Stars needed to be at work.

Watch: Julio Rodríguez breaks Home Run Derby record in Seattle

And you’ll know it if and when he ever brings his team to the World Series and he leads the parade.

We are lucky to get to watch an athlete like Julio Rodríguez. He has unique skills that make him an incredible success at a young age and have him set up for an incredible career. But even more so, he is a player that truly seems to want a relationship with the people who adore him. And that helped make our city look good this week.

Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez: ‘Electric’ derby crowd ‘meant the world to me’

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