After more than a month, the Rainier interviews are back on track. This time I got the chance to spend some time with Tacoma third baseman Justin Leone. As many of you know, Lookout Landing began as "Leone For Third" almost two years ago. We were never a fan club for Leone, but rather a weblog devoted to shedding light on what players like Leone can do for a club not getting production from certain positions.
For those who will be listening to the session, you'll have to forgive to background noise as the interview actually took place in the dugout and not the clubhouse, so the stadium speakers are picked up. Chris Snelling was taking BP, so you'll hear him too.
So, for those who are audio-oriented you can listen here. For the readers, click the "Read More" link below.
Lookout Landing: Okay, we're here in the Tacoma clubhouse again as part Lookout Landing's continuing series of Rainier interviews. Today we're sitting down with Justin Leone. First of all, I would just want to say thanks, Justin, for taking the time to sit down and talk to us about what's going on with your game this year and in years previous.
So, first things first, should we infer from your homerun on Tuesday that your hand is feeling pretty good?
Justin Leone: Yeah, it feels much better. It took a long time to get better; I think I was out for over five weeks. Once I got back I still had that little feeling in it, and the strength is not completely there yet, but it's definitely feeling better.
LL: What was it about the injury that took it so long to heal, anyway? We were hearing that it was day-to-day when you first went down, but before you knew it a month had gone by before you returned.
JL: Yes, I thought I was going to be back within a week, I kept telling that to everybody that I talked to that I'd be back in a couple of days or a week. And then one week I said I'd be back the next week, because I didn't know just how serious it was. Finally, we had to go get a couple X-rays and an MRI and it came out that there was a bone bruise, and I didn't realize how serious bone bruises are. I thought they were like a regular skin bruise and it would go away in a few days. But the hand swelled up and I couldn't see my knuckles - that's how bad it was. I couldn't throw the ball after two weeks from here to ten feet away, that's how hurt I was. You know, I'm pretty impatient, probably wanted to let everyone know I'd be back soon and that was wishful thinking, I guess. I thought I would be back but unfortunately it turned out to be about six weeks.
LL: It seems like something comes up whenever it looks like you can get a foot in the door, whether it be the beanball last August in Seattle, your health during Spring Training, or you hand when Beltre got hurt with his hamstring earlier this year. How frustrating does that get?
JL: Nah, I don't really think about it being frustrating. Well, this (gestures to his hand) is the most frustrating injury. Last year I wasn't sure what would happen. I didn't know if I'd get up or not, and I finally did and I got about a hundred at-bats or whatever and got a taste of the big leagues. So, it was unfortunate that that happened, but I wasn't going to get myself down, you know, I was able to accomplish what I've been trying to do all these years in baseball. So, I didn't let last year's injury really frustrate me. I don't know how it affected me, I mean as far as the decisions, it probably had a lot to do with what they were thinking about this year with me. But this year was a lot more frustrating because I didn't realize how long I'd be out, and with a couple injuries up there I could have been back.
LL: So, could you tell us a little bit more about your experience in Seattle last season?
JL: No. I'm just kidding. (laughs) It was fantastic, though our team was struggling. It was a dream come true, I was able to get up there with the organization that had drafted me. I knew so many people from the front office and all the coaches that had helped me out along the way, that was just the best part, for all them to see this happen. All my family members that had supported me and stuff, to see me go through this, it was just fantastic. But the experience? You have no idea until you get there. It's a tough game up there, that's for sure. You better be ready to go everyday, and that's what I learned. The whole thing is to learn to get comfortable up there in order to be able to relax even though it's a pretty intense game, you know that's where you want to be. Hopefully, I'm able to get back there again someday.
LL: You ever going to forget the name Jake Westbrook?
JL: (laughs) No, of course not. I get that question probably once a week, since it's who I hit my first homerun off of. I definitely won't.
LL: What kind of adjustment did you have to make to hit major league pitching? Something tells me you didn't see too many Barry Zito curveballs in the PCL.
JL: No, still it wasn't that much of a difference. You just better be ready to hit that one pitch that they make a mistake on. You know, you hear that all the time, 'don't miss that mistake pitch'. And I didn't perform that well up there as far as my hitting went. I mean I had a few homeruns and a few RBI's, but I struggled up there last year. Just trying to relax, that first hundred at-bat you know, I don't know, I probably put too many expectations on myself and too much pressure on myself, and it kind of showed. You know, I learn, I got back there this year for a couple days, six days, and I was much more comfortable. I knew if I did get a couple plate appearances I'd be much more relaxed.
LL: Despite the low average in the Major Leagues, you still showed that trademark patience that you showed in Tacoma and San Antonio. Did you find it a little bit harder to be patient in the Major Leagues, or was it about the same?
JL: Well, they throw more strikes. I think they're just quality strikes, they're right on the corner. They just can pinpoint so much better up there, so you better be ready to hit them, and you better be ready to cover a lot of pitches up there. You better be ready to cover the outside pitch, the inside pitch, and the off-speed pitch, because they can all throw it for a strike. But I like the fact that I can be pretty patient, I've heard that before and sometimes I'm a little too patient, under-aggressive, I guess, or unaggressive.
LL: How well were Melvin, Molitor, and some of the other veterans able to ease your transition up in Seattle?
JL: They were great. There was never a time that, even though as bad as it was getting for me at certain points, they weren't tough on me. They just told me to stick with it, you know, 'you're here for a reason', 'you can play up here', just a lot of support from those guys.
LL: Now, we probably wouldn't be talking with you about the Majors if not for that big year you had for San Antonio back in 2003. After struggling to keep your average up and hit the ball consistently for a few years prior, did something finally just click?
JL: I think I just pretty much stuck with a certain swing. You develop a little more confidence, I had a feeling that year I was going to do well regardless of where I was at. I was originally supposed to go back to A-ball at the end of Spring Training on the last day. Then I realized that the injury that I had throughout Spring Training wasn't that bad, so I played the last day and the next thing I know I found out I was going to Double-A. I had a feeling that wherever I was at, I was going to play well. Basically, just working on a good swing. Terry Pollreisz was my hitting coach that year and he's helped me all along, I've been with him since day one in '99 when he was our manager up in Everett. So, he's a heckuva lot of help. It was just staying consistent with my routine and stuff and I just had a good year and realized my full potential, I guess.
LL: About your patience, your walks are way up this year. Do you feel like you're being pitched a little bit differently by pitchers, or have you changed your approach?
JL: No, I can't really pinpoint it. I haven't thought about my walks this year, I just know that I'm not swinging at so many bad pitches. I don't know how many at-bats I've had this year, and this year's not going all that great, but I try not to concern myself right now with me. I like the fact that the team is doing well right now, we're in first place, and anything I can do to help. Everything else will come, but as far as the walks go, I haven't paid much attention. I've heard that my on-base percentage is high right now, I don't know, I'm just getting better quality at-bats, better two-strike at-bats, I guess.
LL: You were drafted as a shortstop out of college. As a shortstop you need to be agile and have strong instincts on the field. What kind of advantage do you think this background gives you up against other third basemen who may have not been gifted with the same athleticism?
JL: (laughs) Seems like everybody who's drafted anymore that plays in the infield is a shortstop. I kind of still see myself as a shortstop; my first game in the big leagues was as a shortstop. So, I don't know what advantage I might have over them. I just think it's my hands, my hands are pretty good, I think. You know, being drafted as a shortstop, you have to have good hands. I think originally I was supposed to play, but they saw how bad my range was and they threw me over to third base, and it paid off. My range has actually increased, I've gotten a lot better over there. You have to realize how important your footwork is in defense, I think that's the most important thing.
LL: You got to move around a lot last year, from third base to first, the middle infield, and the outfield when the Rainiers were fighting some injuries. After playing all over the place, do you feel like versatility is a skill you could offer a big league ballclub?
JL: Absolutely. They've told me just to keep moving around the infield and get your fly balls in the outfield. Definitely, my versatility is very important to me. I try as much as possible to get to second base or shortstop.
LL: How comfortable are you out in the outfield? Like in left field, where you played a little bit last year?
JL: It's a piece of cake. Outfielders, I don't think you've ever heard one say how tough it is out there, except for the sun, maybe. (laughs) So, you just stand around and hopefully the ball is hit to you. I was watching Spiezio last game and he got two or three fly balls, but then you look out there and realize how bored he looks. I enjoy being in the infield, but the outfield is a lot of fun, also.
LL: When you did join the Mariners as a third baseman/shortstop/outfielder/everything, we saw you make some great stops, but struggle with a few throws across the diamond, especially from third base. How much of that do you think was just nervousness?
JL: All of it.
LL: All of it?
JL: Yeah, basically. I don't know, you get to thinking too much and you don't realize until you're out there how pressure-packed the game is. It's just a learning experience, you know? I worked my butt off, I got out there everyday early. I didn't really talk to too many people about it, but it's pretty obvious when you see a guy out there who's a little nervous. I definitely settled down, I think the last two or three weeks I was up there, I was throwing the ball fine. You just got to get over it, it's tough to get over a defensive problem, but I worked on it, had a lot of support from the guys, and basically overcame it.
LL: Do you ever feel as if you're in direct competition with somebody else for a possible promotion, or is it more about just doing your best and letting things sort themselves out?
JL: What you said, the second thing. I don't worry about the rest of these guys here. We all can do different things. Dobbs can play first base and he's a left-handed stick, and we're compared with each other, definitely. I know they like his left-handed bat, that guy, he's a great hitter. You know, I think I can juice the ball, I guess. You're kind of tagged with certain things. You know, a guy can drive in runs or hit the ball out of the park and stuff. So, I don't really think about comparing myself with these guys. I know there's a lot of other teams out there that are looking at you.
LL: It seems like one of the main benefits of spending time in the Majors is learning how better competition attacks your weak spots. What things did you notice about your own game that you could stand to improve?
JL: Just consistently putting the good part of the bat on the ball. I think striking out is just a pain in the butt. Everyone talks about how they can't stand striking out. And it's just putting the ball in play much more. Just having a better game plan, better thought process and a better approach as far as hitting goes. Defensively, I don't concern myself with that at all, I know I can play the game defensively anywhere, I believe. But as far as at the plate, I think being much more focused and having an idea what the pitcher is trying to do with you, just being smarter up there.
LL: Even though you didn't play, you were called up for about a week back in April. Was that a beneficial experience for you?
JL: Oh, certainly. I didn't know what was going to happen this year, and for it to happen the second week of the season, it gave me an idea of what they think about me, and they think I can help the team. And, like I said earlier, I was much more comfortable this year, the guys welcomed me a lot better. Last year, you know, not too many would talk to you, and I guess that's what goes on with rookies, and also the team last year was struggling. So, this year the team was more upbeat, and they're winning a lot more and stuff, and it just makes for a better time.
LL: Well, with being a rookie last year, was there anything Eddie Guardado may have done to you? Any practical jokes or anything like that?
JL: He lit my pants on fire. (laughs) I still have the pants with the big burn mark on it. He did that to pretty much every rookie on the team. He lit Mickey Lopez's shoes on fire and Mickey didn't know for almost a minute, and it was burning off his shoe. (laughs) He makes fun of you as much as he can, and he'll pick on something and just continue to pick on it, but he's a great player. I like being around him.
LL: How often do you think about your future in this organization? Bringing in Beltre locked up third base for a few seasons. It must be tough to have your position blocked in the Majors during your peak years.
JL: Yeah, it would be kind of dumb to say I don't think about it. I'd love to be with Seattle, I'd love to stick around here for years and years. I know it doesn't happen with hardly any players anymore, as far as sticking with the same organization throughout your whole career. But I just hope that my versatility...have a role out there playing other positions. I know I am strictly playing third here, but I think they know I can play short and a little bit of second base, which I did in Spring Training, and also outfield. I certainly hope I'll be able to stick with the Mariners, but you know, I wouldn't be too upset if I happened to get traded, that's just the way baseball goes, and hopefully there's somebody else that's interested in me and would want me to play for their club in the big leagues.
LL: If you could, could you give us a quick rundown of your goals for the 2005 season, both here in Tacoma and possibly in Seattle?
JL: Just to improve on last year, obviously everybody will tell you that. Just play better defense, I know my defense was a problem last year and I'll bet it'll affect almost any part of my game. Last year, I took it over into the games, as far as hitting went. But my defense has been superb this year, and I've worked hard on that and just continuing the confidence. You know, I don't really set number goals, I just know you want to have big opportunities, RBI opportunities, you want to come through and hit well with runners in scoring position and stuff like that. I think those are the things I pay attention to as long as you see what numbers you have up there, your RBI's increase and you're having a good year just helping the team win. But for the most part, I don't think about setting goals, I just know we're having a good winning season and I'm doing something right for the team.
LL: And finally a color question, were you ever aware about a year ago of a website that was named after you?
JL: I didn't know what it was called, but my mom is always on the Internet and she might have said something. I don't know what it was.
LL: Okay, there was one, we were just wondering if you knew about it. Anyway, again I'd like to say thank you for your time. A lot of us are pulling for you, so best of luck with the rest of the season and we hope to talk to you again soon.
JL: Thank you very much, I appreciate that.