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About Last Night: On Belonging

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Leonys Martín has been lifted up by love

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners
Leonys—leading the charge now?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be a post about Mike Zunino. Ostensibly this post exists to look at the game from the day before, pluck out the brightest, shiniest coin, and then attempt to trade said coin for some small bit of meaning. Mike Zunino was the prime mover in the game yesterday, ending a baseball’s brief dream of existence by sending it to—I don’t know, France?—while also registering a walk and a two-RBI double to the gap. Mike Zunino, this was supposed to be your post. I am sorry.

But what I can’t stop thinking about is Leonys Martín, who didn’t even play yesterday, his birthday. The team surprised Martín with a mariachi band who followed him around all morning, serenading him. This is the kind of silly, team-bonding thing we’re starting to see come out of the clubhouse in spring training: pool tournaments, piano concerts, escape rooms, group dinners featuring an assigned group of players, no cliques allowed. But the meaning here goes deeper than the giant sombrero Leonys wore all around the facility might suggest. Per Divish:

And per Leonys himself:

This is some pretty strong language: a beautiful gift, one of the best moments in baseball in his entire life, something he will never forget. And then that hashtag: #family. It would be easy to dismiss this as typical Leonys hyperbole, emotions amplified through translation. But there is a deeper message here, and it is one of belonging.

The need to belong is a universal human one, with evolutionary ties to our ancestors, who hunted and gathered in groups. Feeling excluded correlates with drops in achievement, health (both mental and physical), and productivity. Workers who feel higher senses of belonging are more willing to do things for the perceived good of the group and more likely to extend help to others in doing the same. Belonging to a group, then, not only informs one’s identity, but also contributes to an overall sense of being part of something greater than oneself, something that can extend beyond the limits of one’s puny human life and become part of a greater whole. Maslow puts belongingness smack in the middle of his hierarchy of needs, the first thing after the physiological level (the things that literally keep us alive) and the personal safety level (the things that keep us from not-dying).

Leonys Martín didn’t leave Texas on a high note; that much we know. He lost his starting job to Delino DeShields and faced a crowded Rangers outfield filled with a rotating cast of big hitters like Shin-Soo Choo; prospects like Ryan Rua, Nomar Mazara, and even power-hitting-but-athletic-as-a-shipping-container Joey Gallo; and perpetual Three-card Monte victim Jurickson Profar (find the Juri, fiiiind the Juri). The Rangers saw Martín as such an ill fit for their system that they essentially gave him to the Mariners for two DFA-able prospects and double agent Tom Wilhelmsen. Having been with the Rangers since his difficult defection from Cuba, being sold for the low, low price of “basically free” must have impacted Martín’s sense of belonging, and could shed light on why he is so enthusiastic to have a team that values him and cares about him. Again, per Divish:

Martín and Servais have a history that goes back to when Servais was with the Rangers, serving as their Player Development specialist. Martín’s sentiment is one we’ve seen echoed throughout the organization, whether it’s Ethan Katz helping Vieira master a slider or Scott Brosius telling Zunino to connect to a time where he felt like he was good at his job—these players love and appreciate their coaches, and the sense of belongingness that is fostered by being treated like you matter to the organization. That quality of belief can go a long way, especially in a sport where failure is the default and rosters turn over every year.

A rhinestone tiara for a bachelorette, a yarmulke for a bar mitzvah boy, a crown for a new regent, a comically oversized sombrero—all of these things are signifiers that your community sees you, understands your place within it, and is marking this threshold moment with you. We all want to belong to something. Scott Servais and Co. seem to have figured that out, and have strategies for creating that sense of belonging. With Canó, Cruz, and Félix gone for an indeterminate amount of time with the WBC, the clubhouse dynamics will shift some as a gap in leadership emerges. Leonys’ special treatment, then, is two-fold: first, it affirms to him that he is an integral, valued part of this community; second, it puts him into a starring role in the clubhouse as the center of attention—something Leonys seems to relish, and perhaps a pathway to not only understanding how powerfully he belongs to the group the Seattle Mariners, but also sets him up to be a vocal leader in that group over the next month.