The Mariners face elimination from the post-season today, but you wouldn’t know it from spending time in the clubhouse. The Mariners were MLB’s fifth-youngest team in 2022, with an average age of 27.88 (21-year old Julio Rodríguez and his mentor, 36-year-old Carlos Santana, stand as the two outliers for age). The Astros, by contrast, are MLB’s 11th oldest team. The Mariners are also in the post-season for the first time in two decades, compared to their opponents, who have appeared in the playoffs seven of the past eight years. Yet these Mariners, despite falling to 0-2 to begin the ALDS, believe they can hang with the perennial bullies of the AL West, and that belief is rooted in and perpetuated by two of their youngest players.
Becoming the Big Dumper
It’s ironic that the biggest moment of the past 20 years of Mariners baseball—so far—belongs to one of the Mariners who is the least comfortable in the spotlight. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Julio, who has been using his social media channels since prospect infancy to connect with Mariners fans, Cal Raleigh didn’t even have an Instagram account until a couple of months ago, which he now uses solely to congratulate his teammates. But with two iconic hits in the post-season and as a rising star in the game, Raleigh seems to have accepted his role as a public-facing leader on this team as well as a leader behind closed doors, much as he’s now embraced the nickname “Big Dumper”: the stupidest, most wonderful player nickname since “the Mayor of Ding Dong City.”
“I am full, 100%, all-in on Big Dumper,” Raleigh told 710 Seattle Sports recently. “It’s not what I thought it was going to be, but I’ve embraced it.” As a sweet-faced, soft-spoken catcher, Cal is eminently nickname-able; he’s been a Beef Boy in the past, and Julio used to call him “Babyface”. But the nickname he got in Tacoma, from Jarred Kelenic and echoed by former teammate Braden Bishop, has been the one that’s stuck, and after his franchise-altering moment that ensured him a spot in Mariners lore forever, he’s decided to lean into it. Even Raleigh’s mom, Stephanie—not originally a fan of the Big Dumper moniker—has signed a tweet as “Big Dumper’s Mom.”
“I just love that the fans love it,” says Cal.
Cal is the oldest of four, with the attendant age gap between him and his youngest sibling, “T.” Cal’s older-brother vibes shine through in the way he operates with his young pitching staff. The most-known example is Logan Gilbert, drafted just ahead of Cal in 2018: the two have been teammates, roommates, and “forced friends” in the organization throughout their journey through the minors; they’re teammates and roommates again, now, with Cal often making breakfast for Logan. (Pitchers: like Gremlins, except they must be fed after midnight, and then again the next morning.) With pitchers who are his peers, Raleigh doesn’t have any fear in taking charge of mound meetings; he’s used to tough conversations, starting from his time with Gilbert in Modesto, but is willing to take any young pitcher in hand.
Cal Raleigh saying “DONT SHAKE” is the energy I am here for pic.twitter.com/yY8YT9Tir8— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 30, 2022
Over this year, though, Raleigh has blossomed into a full-blown leader of the pitching staff, young players and veterans alike.
I find Cal's shoulder-shrugging after Servais walks away very relatable. I had the exact same conversation with my boss today. "Yes, I agree this is a problem. What do you want ME to do about it?" pic.twitter.com/V21N9gyQJO— Action Zach (@RealZachMason) June 7, 2022
“What you want me to do about it,” apparently, is “get Robbie Ray to throw his new two-seamer.” Starting in the second inning of this game, Ray started mixing in his slider a little more after giving up a leadoff home run to Kyle Tucker followed by a homer to Chas McCormick a batter later.
That change would stick—for a while, at least.
With this overarching leadership has come ownership.
“I always feel like I take responsibility up there, both the good and the bad.”
Cal says he was “sick to his stomach,” about the Álvarez hits, and felt responsibility for having been the catcher calling the pitches that resulted in the Mariners falling to 0-2 in Houston, admitting there was a “mourning period” where he had to sit with the results of the game.
“You go back through, it’s hard not to second-guess yourself. You always will...You have to think about it, you have to go over some stuff in your head; whether you want to or not, it’s going to be there.”
But Raleigh, despite his young age, is wise enough to know to ask for help. He says he’s talked to coaches, pitchers, or the other catchers to see what they might have had in that moment. The most helpful feedback came from one of the young pitchers he’s helped manage, George Kirby, who told him not to second-guess himself, and that he called a great game. “That made me feel a little better,” says Cal.
And deep down, Raleigh knows his decision-making behind the plate is deeply rooted in two things: his legendary preparation (the famously-cerebral Logan Gilbert once said he thought no one could out-prepare him, until he met Cal Raleigh), and his feel for the game—one teachable, and the other a thing that cannot be taught, only honed.
”Do all that work, and then once the game comes, you kind of let it go and play the game. As long as you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing, that’s what helps me relax and actually play the game, I can let everything flow instead of going back there and second-guessing myself. I don’t think that’s good for anyone.”
Raleigh is also willing to take responsibility for his performance in the box. He won’t cut himself a break, exactly, for grounding out in a key spot in Game 2 against Hector Neris, who was in the bigs when Raleigh was still a junior in high school.
“I was a little aggressive early on, I swung at some pitches I shouldn’t have,” he acknowledges, but says that now he knows the Astros know he’s aggressive at the plate. “So I’ll put that in the back of my head, save it for next time, and just be ready.”
Servais praises his young catcher for taking responsibility, saying that’s one of the things that has endeared Cal to his teammates—a willingness to be vulnerable about his mistakes and hold himself accountable, and in doing so, model for his teammates how to do the same. “He really takes it to heart,” says Servais.
If you’ve followed Julio for a while on social media, you know he’s fond of the saying “I never lose, I win or I learn.” Luckily for Mariners fans, Julio has been winning—and learning—at a breakneck pace this year, thanks to his dedication to always finding the positive in any situation. Whether rebounding from injury in the minors, taking his lumps against experienced pitching as a teenager in LIDOM (the Dominican Republic’s professional baseball league), or shrugging off the racist comments of a certain disgraced ex-team president, Julio has shown a precocious ability to channel every experience into a learning one.
Scott Servais tells a story about when Julio got caught stealing in the series with the Mets in May. Julio had stolen nine bases in April without being caught; he was finally cut down by Maldonado in Houston on May 2nd. But that wasn’t enough information for Julio; he needed to know how fast a pitcher had to be to get him, so he attempted a steal off the lefty Chasen Shreve during the Mets series. Shreve, slide-stepping, pivoted around to throw to second, cutting down Julio easily. “I needed to know,” Julio explained to Servais, on heading back to the dugout. “I needed to know how quick the pitcher had to be, how quick the catcher had to be to throw me out.” The following month, Julio stole just five bases, but all without being caught.
At the time, that could have cost the Mariners a game—they eventually lost on a Patrick Mazeika solo home run. But it was information Julio needed to have going forward, a failure he needed to have in order to serve as a benchmark. Julio hates failing, but he understands the necessity of it. And, even more importantly, he knows how to laugh at it, confident that he’ll get his the next time. That’s been something he’s done since the minors:
Then he triples on the next pitch. pic.twitter.com/2l9HGJbCBu— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 29, 2019
And it’s carried over into his professional career, even into the post-season. Julio had some bad luck with batted balls in Game 2, scalding almost everything he saw but coming away with just one hit. But when Altuve made an improbable Jeter jump throw to rob him of a key hit, this was Julio’s response:
Julio will never let baseball, his great joy in life, be not fun for him, and he will never let the moment be too big for him, either—echoing another favorite sports cliché, “pressure is a privilege.” After a sub-par (for Julio) showing in LIDOM which caused some evaluators to suggest he had strike zone recognition issues, Julio bounced back in 2021, both in the Mariners’ minor league season and in a starring role for Team Dominican Republic in the Summer Olympics, helping to lead the DR to their first-ever medal—an accomplishment that endeared him to every Dominican-born baseball fan, regardless of their team affiliation. That moment on the world stage, proudly wearing the name of his country across his chest, wasn’t too big for a 20-year-old Julio, and also gave him a taste of the postseason format, where every game matters:
“I feel like that helped a lot, because I feel like whenever you play in crucial situations—like, here and now, not tomorrow, not like a year or five years from now, it definitely puts a lot of pressure into the moment—but being able to help in those situations, I think it helped me out, to learn how to deal with pressure.”
It’s also helped him learn to lean in to his particular, fearless brand of baseball.
“If you’re afraid to give it your best shot you’re not going to get the best result. If you don’t give your best shot in those situations—you can be nervous or whatever, but that doesn’t have to get in the way of what you’re trying to do. If you find a way to manage that feeling and you just keep on going, keep on being yourself in those pressure moments, you’re going to deliver.
And I find it fun. I find it fun to be able to get those clutch hits, when everybody is against you, and it’s just you and the pitcher in the box, and you come out on top.”
As much as Cal’s accountability and drive to improve inspires his teammates, so too does the necessary counterweight of Julio’s joy and belief. Julio has set himself a list of accomplishments, and he’s checking them all off, one by one. Julio is the living embodiment of yet another cliche—dream it, believe it, achieve it—except not, because he actually does all the achieving. He’s no inspirational poster or PowerPoint slide: he’s real, and he’s fantastic.
There’s a reason Scott Servais has called this the most resilient team he’s ever coached, and a huge factor in that is the young leadership up the middle. His young catcher agrees:
“I think you look at this club all year long—whether it’s the losing streak early, the tough road series, it seems like any time we’ve been counted out, we’ve always come back strong, we’ve always bounced back. I think that’s something that this club feels,” says Raleigh.
“Everybody feels that this is not over.”