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I’m grateful for Mitch Haniger

The fever’s gonna catch you when the Mitch gets back

Los Angeles Angels v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

My favorite foreign word is the Italian sprezzatura. Even though the OED recently added it to the official English language, it’s one of those foreign words that doesn’t translate exactly. I’ve always understood it to mean something like having deliberate little imperfections to convey that you’re not trying that hard. It’s the difference between Eugene Levy’s hair and Dan Levy’s hair.

We all know they both sat in the chair longer than Catherine O’Hara or Annie Murphy
Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Effortlessness, making it look like you’re succeeding casually, is cooler than anything except smoking a cigarette. [Ed. note: in the theoretical sense, obviously, not actually smoking, which is bad for you and would cause Mitch Haniger to frown at you unbecomingly.] And the Americans who’ve defined cool, from James Dean to Stevie Nicks to Ken Griffey, Jr., have had sprezzatura. It’s why it’s such a devastating insult to call someone a try-hard. And I understand. It’s a high-wire act to pull off, after all. If you don’t pull it off, you’ll look like you’re trying to look like you don’t care, and that’s the worst case scenario. It’s how you end up with this:

Oh, these old boulders? They just fell like this
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But I think the idea that effortlessness is praiseworthy is misguided. Rather, trying hard is a virtue. Especially for performers, to give it your all is to give your audience a gift, to tell them you appreciate their attention. And that’s what I love about Mitch Haniger.

What he’s meant to the Mariners on the field hardly needs to be catalogued, though John did a pretty good job this morning. By bWAR, he’s been the 17th best position player in franchise history, and he’s done it in just 492 games. He’s been at the center of many of the team’s most iconic moments from the past several years. John embedded the clips of his 2018 walk-off in the rain and putting the 2021 team’s playoff hopes on his back. But his highlight reel is unyielding.

But more than that, I’m captivated, inspired even, by his effort. One of the first things I learned about him when he was traded to Seattle was that he’d requested his own demotion from AA to High-A in 2015 so that he could play every day. It takes an earnest desire to improve to return to the low minors so you can get better because that’s not an easy thing to do in such a public profession.

And ever since then, he’s let us see how hard he’s trying time and again. I mean, damn:

Lots of players try hard. Obviously. At the MLB level in the 21st Century, you simply have to be giving it your all or you’ll wash out. But most of the game’s stars have sprezzatura.

No one can doubt that Julio’s logging his miles, and I don’t love him any less for looking like he can’t help but be great. My love for Haniger isn’t greater, it’s just different. Haniger’s willing to let the seams show; he doesn’t fool us into thinking this is all simply a gift.

Earlier this year, he was open with Ryan Divish about how much was going into his recovery:

Haniger ... log[s] the same amount of hours at the park, if not more than his healthy teammates.

“I usually get here around 1 p.m. to do my rehab and treatment stuff,” he said. “When I get done with that around 4 p.m., I try to sit in on the hitters’ meetings and then do some more strengthening.”

Haniger will eat dinner with his teammates and watch the first two or three innings in the dugout before going back to do extra strengthening or mobility work and recovery treatment until the game ends on most nights.

There’s a fine line, of course. There’s a way in which trying too hard can get you too tightly wound. And Mitch himself is aware of the dangers in pushing a recovery too hard, too fast, again telling the Times, “You want to avoid the times where you push too far and then you have to shut down for three or four days. The goal of the rehab is to get as close to that line as possible and not cross it. And I feel like we’ve done a really good job with that, just building and building.”

He even lets you see how hard he’s trying to relax.

Mitch Haniger’s work ethic and humility impact the rest of the team too. That’s why Scott Servais described his return as changing the conversation the team has in the dugout. The players notice his example. His teammates call him “our champion,” as in the person they’d send in to battle on their behalf.

There’s no mistaking Mitch’s passion for this because he lets you see how hard he’s working to be great. If you asked Mitch whether he’s trying hard, he’d say yes. I guess that makes him a try-hard, and while it’s more earnest than sprezzatura, passion is maybe a different way to be cool.

It’s all embodied in his swing. When he connects, he sends balls into the heavens. But to get there, he has to coil himself like a wet rag to wring every ounce of power out of his frame and reach his arms out a mile to cover the whole plate. So when he misses, it’s an ugly miss. He’s willing to make that tradeoff for the positive results, and I admire how overtly effortful the swing is because looking like this when you whiff has to make you feel naked.

Mitch Haniger is willing to risk looking stupid because it’s the best route to success, and he cares more about the success than about looking stupid when he fails. This isn’t usually the type of risk people are talking about with riskiness being cool. But at its core, it’s the same. It’s still the root of risqué, and risqué is definitely cool.

So in a society of hustlers and mountebanks, there’s a cosmic justice in an inspirational figure like Mitch hitting his stride so quickly after an extended absence (again). It shows us all that hard work can pay off.

Everyone can love the game in their own way, and if you view a Haniger extension as another few projected WAR, that’s great. But to me, it would also mean something else. For the try-hards, he’s our champion too.