Update: At 8:19 this morning, the Seattle Mariners officially announced that Julio Rodríguez would be on their Opening Day Roster.
Despite popular belief, sheep are not stupid. They’re prey animals, driven by a powerful instinct to stay with their flock. It’s a matter of self-preservation: Where one sheep goes, they all go. Shepherds learned this centuries ago, and began attaching a bell to one of the sheep in their flock. This allowed them to snatch a few precious hours of sleep, knowing that if they followed the sound of that single bell they would inevitably find the whole flock. That bell-bedecked ovine became known as the bellwether.
In my family, my younger sister is the bellwether. Not necessarily the leader of our actions (each of us desire that role - family trip planning is a nightmare), but the leader of our collective emotional state. If she’s happy, everything is great. But if she’s upset - or sick, angry, hungry, etc. - the familial mood is instantly grim. It’s not that she herself is emotionally manipulative, simply that she feels so strongly that the rest of us can’t help but be pulled into her orbit.
Julio Rodríguez is the bellwether for the Seattle Mariners - their present and their future. His success is an organizational triumph, his failure a condemnation of years of rebuilds, stepbacks and other public relations platitudes. Julio is not, of course, the only one capable of having an impact on this team, but through a combination of timing, varying degrees of fortune, and his own skills and personality, Julio is the fulcrum upon which the Mariners’ fate teeter-totters.
Ding! Goes that bell.
Imagine being as good at anything at 17 years old as Julio Rodriguez is at baseball. https://t.co/p9RJefApIr— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) August 25, 2018
On July 2, 2017, I recapped an exciting Seattle win and made a note at the start about the team’s signings of two of the top international free agents that year: Julio Rodríguez and Juan Querecuto. There was a line or two each about their respective skills, and the signing bonuses they had garnered, but at 17 and 16 respectively, it would be some time before we could watch them on a bigger stage - if ever. And so, we waited. I, like many others, tried to shove that watched pot to the back burner, hiding it behind other pans or leaving the kitchen entirely. But there were a few who bent closer to the burner, turned up the heat as they could, patiently scanning the surface and waiting for bubbles to appear.
Within a few years, it became clear to anyone in the proverbial kitchen that Julio Rodríguez’s excellence was no mirage. The Mariners leapt head-first into the hype-and-money-generating machine that is Julio, capitalizing gleefully on the innate charisma of the now-21-year-old with prominent social media features and his own show: “Vibin’ with JROD.” And who could blame them? It’s hard to imagine an easier player to market, with his towering stature, infectious grin and gregarious attitude. On the field he’s an even swifter sell, playing with a dynamic athleticism and beguiling power. No matter which number decorates his broad back, it’s him that all eyes are drawn to on the diamond.
In a system with a number of top prospects, Julio carries the weight. The organization has heaped praise and responsibility upon him in equal measure, and he’s risen to the occasion statistically and intangibly. It is a precarious pedestal, and for all that Julio has fostered it with his carefully affable openness and personal branding, it’s the Mariners and the media (yes, we too are guilty) who have elevated him to frankly dizzying heights for a player who has yet to make a AAA appearance. Even the way we collectively refer to him, with that first-name only familiarity, sets him apart from his peers. Fans have been conditioned to recognize his name, to feel a rush of endorphins simply from hearing “Juliooooo” trumpeted aloud and online, and that familiarity breeds the unique intimacy of sports fanaticism. Much of the Julio hype has been purposefully crafted, but there is also something to be said for the way the organization has backed themselves and Julio into a co-dependent corner. As has been tradition for centuries, the royal we look to youth for salvation. Each time the major league season resulted in disappointment - be it within the first few weeks, or Game 162 - our collective eyes turned to the prospects. And who was there, spotlit by his own abilities and a healthy dose of Mariners PR? Julio Rodríguez.
On that early June signing day, I closed out the introduction with an ambivalent platitude: “They might become MLB superstars, or they might never get past AA; their futures are uncertain but today, by signing with a major league team, one of their dreams has already come true.”
Perhaps this is the real draw to Julio: He represents a long-simmering dream for so many. He’s a hero to his small but mighty hometown of Loma de Cabrera; his dominance at every level (and he has dominated every level) continues to bring validation to a host of scouts and analysts within the front office; and his shoulders are the twin pillars upon which the hopes of a world’s-worth of Mariners fans rest.
Fortunately, those shoulders are broad enough - and Julio just might be good enough - to carry us all.