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About Last Night: Scott Servais defends his own

A moment of appreciation for the Cheesehead skipper who’s really come into his own in Seattle

MLB: APR 28 Mariners at Rays
That bird flew right through here and I swear to God its wings were this big
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The big story in baseball on October 23, 2015 was Game 6 of the ALCS, which saw the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals eke out a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in rollercoaster fashion (side note: I am already so excited for the postseason). Somewhat lost in the aftermath of Lorenzo Cain’s first-to-home sprint and a 45-minute rain delay was an announcement earlier that day about the Seattle Mariners’ new skipper: Scott Servais.

When Jerry Dipoto named Scott Servais as the M’s new manager, the rumors had already been circulating for weeks. “Through the course of the 20-plus years I’ve known Scott, I’ve come to see him as one of the most complete, well balanced and inclusive baseball people in the industry,” Dipoto said after the announcement. The two were teammates on the Colorado Rockies during part of the 2000 season, though interestingly a look into their respective B-Ref pages reveals that they never matched up as a battery in a major league game. But clearly they left positive impressions on each other, because over a decade later Dipoto hired Servais to be his assistant GM of the Angels. Prior to that appointment, Servais had served in more player-facing roles, starting out as roving catching instructor, scouting for a year and then moving into the Rangers’ front office as the Senior Director of Player Development.

When Servais took the manager role in Seattle, it could almost have been viewed as a sort of demotion - many assistant GMs ascend to the GM level, or at least aspire to. But as Dipoto noted during a press conference after the team announced their contract extensions, “We always talked about, ‘What is your dream job?’ This is my dream job, what I do today. And managing is Scott’s dream job.” Servais, a catcher in his playing years, has seemingly always gravitated toward working with and engaging with other people.

Maybe it’s the gregariousness of being raised in a small town in the Midwest, or maybe just something he was born with, but regardless of whether it’s nature versus nurture, Servais has long been dedicated to the belief that the greatest strength of any organization is taking the time to approach each player as an individual - and then bring them all together. “Most players, they kind of tell you who they are,” he said to Ben Lindbergh in a 2015 Grantland piece about his role in the renaissance of Nelson Cruz. “If you get everybody on board,” he told Sam Miller in 2014, “you’ve got a chance.”

During the 2017 and 2018 seasons, I had the privilege of spending time in the Mariners clubhouse - including shuffling into Servais’ office alongside all the other reporters. As you may recall from that era, the M’s were one of the most Latin-centric teams in the league based on numbers but also star power, with guys like Cruz, Robinson Canó, Jean Segura, Edwin Díaz and Félix Hernández all congregating before games.

I remember feeling surprised by how thoroughly the clubhouse felt like it did not belong to Servais - though that was, perhaps initially, by design. “I said, ‘I need your guys’ support,’” Servais recalled during Spring Training in 2016, going so far as to tell Canó, Cruz and Hernández, whom he’d sought out as his advisory group, “this is your team.” Later, he expanded on this approach, noting “It’s important to let their personalities come out so they can relax and go play. I like talking with players and finding out more about them. Hopefully in building that relationship, it helps play out on the field and hopefully they play a little bit better.” It was an admirable approach for Servais to acknowledge his inexperience and give power to the players, but it also seemed to make his presence appear nearly obsolete. I’ve wondered, in the following years, if he lost himself a bit in that initial secession of control, and if it’s taken him some time to finesse a balance between “letting the kids play” and maintaining a level of respect.

Yesterday, Servais was ejected after arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. In the grand scheme of things it was nothing noteworthy - Lou Piniella was tossed 64 times over the course of his career! - but in the midst of a growing firestorm of fury surrounding the perception of Julio Rodríguez’s strike zone, it stood out.

In all likelihood, Servais’ outburst and subsequent ejection won’t change anything with the way that umpires call balls and strikes on Julio. But I bet that Servais so publicly standing up for his player meant the world to a young rookie scuffling under intense scrutiny and heavy expectations.

“It’s frustrating. I give all the credit in the world to Julio, not many people could handle things the way he has. He’s not barked back. He’s not changed his approach. He’s not chasing balls out of the strike zone, but it’s wrong. He’s 21 years old. Let the kid play.”

Well beyond any bullpen decisions or lineup choices, the paramount role for a baseball manager is to, well, manage their players. It’s a tall order, particularly at the major league level, to unite 26 men whose only certain common denominator is their ability to hit and/or throw a baseball better than almost anyone. It requires compassion and boundaries, resilience and acceptance, a Goldilocks’ porridge bowls-worth of respect and good humor. It seems, essentially, to be the roles of teacher, school counselor, school principal and afterschool crossing guard all bundled into one. It’s been years since I’ve been in the clubhouse, but between the on-field product and the snippets we’ve heard from players, I feel pretty certain that this is much more Servais’ team now - albeit in the unobtrusive, player-centric way that is the defining trait of his leadership philosophy.