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The Abbreviated Year of Mike Zunino

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On baseball, failure and eggplant

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It took me, after the breakup of an eight-year relationship, a long time to learn to be single. Months later, I still measured too much coffee into the machine, and woke to a pot I knew would be cold and bitter at the end of the day. Laundry confounded me. I’d pull a dress out of my closet and forget I needed help to zip it, engineering coat hangers to do the job for me, feeling a fleeting moment of pride before the sadness set in. Certain restaurants, songs, and authors were off-limits, but small details conspired to undo me, a constant war of attrition between me and my memory. Once I was at Wegman’s and absent-mindedly stuck an eggplant into my cart and when I got home and looked in the bag, there it was, bulbous and alien and so egregiously purple and wait a minute I don’t actually like eggplant, never have; and for some reason it was this detail that lodged itself, burr-like, into my heart, the detail that threatened to break me.

I wonder if Mike Zunino had a moment like that, a sudden startle into a new kind of life, when he woke up on the first day of being assigned to Tacoma. Even when you sense something coming, it’s odd to wake up and and know you’re now a different thing; it’s like suddenly discovering you no longer can see the color blue. It’s a realization that comes not all at once, but in a thousand tiny details that, no matter how innocent, feel designed to wound. Like the navy and teal catcher’s gear labeled Zunino, remnants of your old life remain, crop up in places you don’t expect.

Mike Zunino believed he would spend the meaningful part of this year in Tacoma; he had many months to adjust himself to the new normal. After taking in a remedial hitting camp back in January—they dressed it up as a “summit” but really, it was Mike and whoever fell out of the prospect treehouse first—Zunino went to spring training where he got 19 ABs, less than half of what he had in 2015 (54), and slashed a dismal .158/.227/.263. But spring training stats don’t matter, just like they didn’t in 2015, when he slashed .352/.435/.852. More importantly: he walked more and struck out less. “This is the year of Mike Zunino,” declared Scott and Jerry, before sticking a red cap on his head and sending him to Tacoma. Now Mike was tasked with finding out what that would mean.

It’s hard to accept a new normal. The Mariners did what they could, by telling him—gently, kindly--that he wouldn’t be competing for a job in 2016. After he was sent down to AAA to finish last season, he wasn’t called back up when rosters expanded. Instead, the Mariners set him up with a lane at the bowling alley with the bumpers installed, gave him a ball, and told him to go nuts. And he did! He finished out 2015 in Tacoma slashing .317/.349/.585, a far cry from the last time he was at Tacoma for half a year in 2013 (.227/.297/.478 but why wait for the fruit to ripen when you’re hungry now). Then he lit up the PCL for the first part of this year, hitting .441 with four HRs in his first eight games and winning player of the month for April. But JerryCo wisely left him in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome for a bit longer, and good thing: Zunino followed up his sizzling April with a dreary May, batting just .167/.237/.333 in the first half of the month before finishing off with .198/.315/.418. However, the number of strikeouts he had in May remained consistent with what he’d done in April (17 vs. 14), and his walks actually increased, from 6 to 10, leading to a not-great-but-respectable .315 OBP. For contrast, in May of 2013, Zunino slashed .250/.278/.548. He struck out 26 times. He walked twice. Finally, five years into his pro career, Zunino was getting a chance to experience the peaks and valleys he was denied as a younger player; an opportunity to get to know himself as a hitter, not what someone else wanted him to be. Maybe Mike hates eggplant, too. (Probably not. He is Italian, after all.)

But then the crack heard round the (admittedly small) Mariners world. In one of the miserable last games—a drubbing at the hands of the Pirates—at the end of a miserable June, an Andrew McCutcheon foul ball caught backup catcher Steve Clevenger right in the metacarpal. Zunino was called up to fill the void because Jesús Sucre was still rehabbing his broken leg and Rob Brantly was away watching his first child get born, and in his return to Safeco Field he clubbed two home runs and took a walk. It’s hard to say which was more exciting. He made one more start before being sent down before the All-Star Break in a bid to get him more playing time, because, as the refrain goes: “This is the year of Mike Zunino.”

But this is also the year of the Mariners treading water above .500, and one of the major impediments to Zunino being called up back in May or June was that Iannetta was doing a decent job of holding down the fort. That’s not the case anymore. It’s clear to anyone that Zunino’s defensive catching abilities are top-drawer, but Iannetta’s have been shaky lately, at best. Iannetta was supposed to bring an offensive upgrade, but lately his at-bats have been painful to watch; in July, he’s hitting .167/.300/.190. The only thing that’s propping up his slash line right now is his ability to take walks. And maybe, if Mike Zunino was still 2015 Mike Zunino, we’d shrug and say, welp at least he knows how to take a walk and doesn’t strike out all the time. But from all indications, this Mike Zunino is not the Mike Zunino we have seen:

To wit:

[I am truly sorry for the horrendous quality of that image. Let us all shake our fists in the direction of MLB.com for doing away with classic Gameday.] Anyway, as you can see, yes, this is pretty much Kimbrel cooking up what’s known league-wide as the Mike Zunino Special: a bunch of junk low and away and maybe some high heat thrown in there for funsies. But this Mike Zunino, 2016 Mike Zunino, says nah, and takes the free pass issued by one of the better closers in baseball in a high-leverage spot. This is the Mike Zunino you’ve been waiting for: the one who forces pitchers to pitch him honestly, who is ready to turn on a mistake pitch and punish it. This Mike Zunino has four walks in nine games (last year it took him almost twice as many games to get to four walks) and seven strikeouts (compared to fourteen last year). Nine games is a pathetically small sample size from which to draw sweeping declarations. But taken together with his performance in AAA, one could apply something like Hemingway’s iceberg theory here; perhaps the tiny piece we are seeing is representative of what is beneath the surface.

But, recent success aside, none of this is fair to Mike Zunino. He was supposed to have this year, a full year, to remake himself in his own image, to learn the names of his particular demons and call them under his control; to learn how to make coffee for one. It was his time to live out of the spotlight, to not have to walk up to the plate staring at his batting average in ten-foot-high numbers. He was not to be bothered by the fate of the team an hour north. Instead, he will again be leaned upon to lift this team away from the drain they are so intent on circling. For all the lip service Servais is paying the idea of an even split, Zunino has started 9 of the 10 games since he’s been called up. Instead of figuring out his new identity in the relative privacy of Cheney Stadium, Mike is going to have to do it on the biggest stage, for fans desperate to see that the new ownership can stem the flood of constant, crippling failure endured by this franchise over the past decade-plus. It’s not right, and it’s not fair. It’s love. It’s baseball.