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40 in 40: Julio Rodríguez and limitless joy

Mariners fans are allowed to have nice things, as a treat

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2023 BBWAA Awards Dinner Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Post-pandemic popular culture is largely interested in the question “what is the innate human condition?” So far, the answer seems to be: “selfishness.” From Joel and Ellie dispatching folks with abandon in order to survive post-apocalyptic America in The Last of Us, to the cast of The White Lotus draining resources from the people and land around them like the Grinch sucking up Christmas, to Ms. Cyrus saying she would buy the flowers herself, post-pandemic pop culture is understandably (self-)centered upon surviving and thriving.

Like Joel and Ellie’s world, baseball, at its most base, is a game of winning and losing, of have and have nots. Each at-bat is a battle between pitcher and batter for who will gain the upper hand and eventually “win” the at-bat; suffer too many losses consecutively, and lose your place in this world.

This can lead players down a dark path into a scarcity mindset, one of intense competition and jealousy. On a broader scale, it can lead entire organizations down a similar path, to pitting players against each other or encouraging a “win at all costs” mentality, even into bending or breaking the rules of fair play entirely, and then justifying immoral decisions as acceptable; a survivalist, wartime mindset that cycles from season to season, leaving its impression both on the people within the organization and the fanbase.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

But there is another way, and it is being pioneered right here in the Pacific Northwest by our very own Julio Rodríguez. Julio does not operate from a scarcity mindset, but from a mindset of abundance. In Julio’s world, there is plenty of talent to go around, and everyone is entitled to as much of it as they choose. The amount of talent another player has does not threaten the amount of talent Julio has; rather, it enriches it, hones and defines it. He almost seems to delight in being beaten, at times.

After all, a test of skill is no fun if your opponent isn’t at your same level; what is Sherlock without Moriarty? Besides, Julio—like another Northwest sports legend—knows that he’s gonna get got, but he’s gonna get his more than he gets got.

Many times over, even.

This is an abundance mindset: being able to laugh at oneself, while also understanding how to grow from it (cue J-Rod’s favorite “I never lose, I win or I learn” line). Just a few days ago in spring training, Julio poked fun at his now-infamous first career ejection.

In a scarcity mindset, the world is getting smaller, available resources are getting scarcer, and everything is finite. We saw this kind of thinking laid bare during the pandemic when it became apparent how flawed and inequitable our systems for delivering things to people—goods, medicine, justice—really are. It’s easy to have an abundance mindset when you’re not crossing town trying to track down the last roll of toilet paper, the last bottle of baby formula, insulin; it’s easy to live in abundance when you’re not, figuratively or literally, staring down the barrel of a gun.

Similarly, it’s easy for athletes to theoretically commit to an abundance mindset—we’ve all seen gymstagrams captioned “iron sharpens iron” with two teammates lifting increasingly heavy objects or jumping progressively higher—in the rosy dawn of the off-season. It’s a different grind in July, when you’re striking out, scuffling in the field, looking at an admittedly finite number of roster spots and wondering where you’ll find those next at-bats. Those are the dark nights of the soul, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “cliffs of fall”: frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

But that’s not the world Julio lives in. In the abundance mindset, the world is ever-expanding, like that part of Genesis that’s just an endless list of people begetting each other. Certainly, it’s easier to adopt an abundance mindset when things are going well, or when one has been granted certain privileges in life, say like a 6’4” athletic frame that responds to every command and possesses preternatural power. But even when facing obstacles—doubters who saw a corner outfielder with too much swing-and-miss in his profile, pesky injuries, dismissive comments from self-important team executives—Julio has kept his vision laser-trained on his ultimate goal, knowing that wherever he was going was bigger than what was standing in front of him.

The abundance mindset sees the world as a friend to partner and grow with, not an enemy to be conquered. It is one that creates, rather than capitalizes. Julio has long spoken of his desire to “break baseball,” to find a new way to stand in the sport. He doesn’t adopt an abundance mindset, he is an abundance mindset.

In the abundance mindset, there is unbridled joy, both when few people are watching:

And when many are watching:

And, importantly, it’s a selfless joy: it’s a joy that invites people in to the J-Rod Show, a joy that posits that the world is big enough, and beautiful enough, to contain many forms of happiness. In Julio’s house there are many rooms, and all of them are full of laughter.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Seattle Mariners Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Two years after disgraced former team president Kevin Mather described Julio’s command of English as “not tremendous”, Julio stood before the BBWAA at their annual gala to accept the Rookie of the Year award, giving an eloquent speech. In it, he thanked everyone, but took time out to acknowledge the contemporaries he was seated beside, including Aaron Judge, who buddied up with him during All-Star Week, and Justin Verlander (“JV”), who considerately held Julio’s plaque while he delivered his speech.

This has always been the stratosphere in which Julio has envisioned himself, despite growing up in the small town of Loma de Cabrera in the Dominican Republic, fighting to make his mark as a bigger-bodied, lesser-heralded international prospect, learning English from tapes his mom brought home and teaching himself to become what the Seattle Mariners needed him to be, what evaluators saw as his shortcomings. “Don’t let anybody set your limits,” said Julio in his speech, another favorite line of his, but one that drives home his abundance worldview—happiness is there for those with the courage to seek it.

Mariners fans, like post-apocalyptic survivors, have been conditioned to the idea that there’s only so much happiness to go around; that the human condition is one, necessarily, of selfishness. And it’s true: every year, only one team will win the World Series trophy. That is a built-in scarcity, a cost of doing business with the sport.

But there is also a way to relate to baseball, and to the world, that isn’t driven by scarcity, or the insatiable need to profit at others’ expense. There is a way to stand in joy, to define happiness as abundant and exponential, and it is being manifested here, now, in our city, with our franchise player, who stands to become one of the sport’s best. It is a world bigger and more beautiful than we have ever imagined, and we are being invited—at last—to take part.