Finally, they arrived at a small, darkened meeting room filled with chairs that many of the players ignored, choosing instead to sit on the floor, backs to the wall. Before they would swing a bat or throw a pitch on another busy morning, they would sit here in silence for half an hour. They would meditate.
“Close your eyes,” a man’s recorded voice, soft and soothing, instructed the players. “Bring your attention to how you feel. Right. Now. Embrace whatever those feelings are. Feel yourself on the floor or chair. Feel yourself being here, now.”
Welcome to another day of new-age spring training with the Mariners, who are among the industry leaders in a holistic form of player development beginning to take hold across the game. Where once teams sought advantages from the bodies of players — through strength training, nutrition and other means, and more recently through their minds with the introduction of advanced analytics and mental training — now the focus has shifted to the soul.
“There’s always a next big thing,” Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “And right now, the next big thing is finding advantage in creativity and human capital. … Not only do we feel it’s a competitive advantage, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”
A typical day for a Mariners minor leaguer includes such spring training staples as batting practice, fielding drills and bullpen sessions. But it might also include meditation, yoga, a classroom lesson on social issues (on this day, the topic was domestic violence) and a one-on-one session in front of a computer with one of the team’s data analysts — to hone a batter’s swing or a pitcher’s curveball with the optimal launch angle or spin axis.
“Traditionally, you had your uniformed, on-field coaching staff that took priority over everything. Everybody else was considered to be support staff,” said Andy McKay, who, as the Mariners’ director of player development, oversees their minor league operations. “We’re trying to remove that label. They’re not support staff. They can change the trajectory of a career. A nutritionist can change a career. I’ve seen it happen. A mental-skills coach can change a career. A data analyst, who’s able to organize data in a way that impacts you as a player, can change a career, every bit as much as a hitting coach can.
“So when I talk about ‘holistic,’ that’s really what I’m saying: Let’s [let] each of these personnel have equal opportunities to impact the player. The traditional pitching coach/hitting coach/manager model — while those guys are important, they’re not more important.”
To carry this philosophy to its logical conclusion: Could there come a time when a Major League Baseball team brings its minor leaguers together for five weeks in the offseason, and they never pick up a baseball? We don’t need to wonder. With the Mariners, it has already happened.
At the end of the 2016 season, their first with the Mariners, the team’s new front-office regime, headed by Dipoto, confronted an unforeseen but welcome problem: All seven of the team’s minor league affiliates had made the playoffs.
There was a fall instructional league camp coming up at the Mariners’ minor league headquarters in Peoria — in which teams pit their minor leaguers against one another in a relaxed, teaching atmosphere — but nearly all the team’s pitchers, by virtue of the postseason berths, would be maxed out on their yearly innings limits.
The Mariners’ brass discussed scrapping the camp altogether but ultimately decided to do something different and maybe a bit radical: They brought the players together as scheduled, but instead of playing more baseball, they turned it into a “high-performance” camp where the minor leaguers would do a little bit of everything — with an eye toward making them better ballplayers — except play or practice baseball.
The Mariners have not held a traditional instructional camp since but have enhanced and strengthened the high-performance camp each fall. The theme this past fall was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Street Sweeper” speech. There were no baseballs to be found.
“We all have different roles, different paths in life,” Carson Vitale, the Mariners’ field coordinator, explained, paraphrasing King. “But if we can all be the very best street sweeper we can be, we all have the chance to do something great together. That comes with a growth mind-set. … It’s not something we just check a box to do. I look at it as a duty to impact these guys and make them feel loved and cared about. And if you empower them to be the best version of themselves, and empower your staff to take ownership and give them a voice and platform, to bring great work to the surface, good things are going to happen.”
The ultimate goal of the camp, Vitale said, was “enlightenment.” And so, each day began with yoga and meditation. There were cooking classes in which players learned to make such delicacies as quinoa enchiladas (tortillas, quinoa, beans, guacamole and a light sprinkling of cheese) and overnight oats with peanut butter and cacoa powder.
There were team-building exercises in which players were assigned the name of a teammate or coach for whom they had to assemble a biographical project and make a presentation to the group the next day.
There was a competition, using wearable sleep-monitors, to see who could get the soundest sleep each night. There was leadership training and community-involvement projects, where players would visit hospitals or work in soup kitchens.
“You’re trying to get kids to understand there’s a much bigger picture at play. It’s not always about you,” McKay said. “A huge part of the program is getting our athletes into environments where they can be humbled, where they can see a more global picture of the world around them.”
To that end, the Mariners initiated an exchange program over the winter in which American-born prospects were sent to train at the team’s Dominican Republic academy for a couple of weeks, and Dominican prospects were brought to Peoria — just to experience the different cultures.
“We’re trying to build a togetherness and camaraderie,” Dipoto said, “but more than that, we want to build a tolerance, an understanding. You may not fully understand what your teammate’s background is. But when you see it firsthand, you can better appreciate what they did to get here.”
Tony Arnerich looked up at the 30-foot observation tower at the center of the Mariners’ practice fields, then down at the bulky, electric-powered pitching machine at his feet, then back up at the tower. Arnerich, the Mariners’ catching coordinator, was going to need some help getting that thing up the stairs.
Once he and another coach humped the machine to the top of the tower, he trained its gun on a target in the grass below and started firing baseballs. The Mariners’ catching prospects, assembled below, eyed the setup with understandable skepticism.
“Okay,” Arnerich explained. “We’ve just signed a 30-foot-tall pitcher, and now we’re going to see if you can catch him.”
As the catchers squatted and practiced catching fastballs from an angle — originating 30 feet above — that they had never had reason to contemplate and chased down the ones that got away, Arnerich explained that was precisely the point.
“We want them,” he said, “to be comfortable with chaos.”
When Vitale — as field coordinator, he runs the day-to-day operations of minor league camp — arrived in a golf cart, he nodded with approval at Arnerich’s wacky drill. “Growth,” he said, “happens on the outer edge of comfortability.”
Even the Mariners’ batting practice, a staple of every workout in the history of spring training, looks different, with hitters taking aim at specific targets set up in the outfield, rather than just trying to jack balls over the fence. At times, the coach throwing BP would move to the left or right of the mound to give the hitter a different angle — albeit one they would never see in a game.
“That gets the mind external — you’re changing the task, so the hitter is no longer thinking about the body or mechanics,” Vitale said. “It’s more: ‘This is the task. This is the environment. Now, organize your body so you achieve the goal.’ It’s getting them out of the mechanical thinking.”
Being a Mariners minor leaguer can be a culture shock. You typically don’t come into pro ball expecting your learning curve to include meditation, quinoa enchiladas and fastballs fired from a pitching machine 30 feet up in the sky. But then suddenly, on a cool spring morning in March, there you are.
“It probably takes some time to get used to. You’re going to be pushed out of your comfort zone,” said Braden Bishop, an outfielder competing for a spot on the big league roster this spring, and a third-round draft pick in 2015 who is one of the few in the Mariners’ system who predates the current regime. “But they’re good about explaining it to you: ‘You’re going to be uncomfortable, but I promise we will be there with you, and you’re going to come out better on the other side.’ They’ve pushed us all to open our minds.”
The Mariners have integrated most of the holistic concepts into the major league clubhouse as well, but with the franchise in a rebuilding phase — or, as one executive, using the Mariners’ preferred language, put it, “pushing pause on the major league winning continuum” — the emphasis is on building a foundation with the younger players who will populate the big league roster when the team is ready to contend again.
The common narrative with champions, Vitale argued, is, “They’re gritty. They’re team-oriented. They’re pulling for each other. Yeah, they may have a big payroll. But they’re united. There’s a ton of chemistry. And we’re trying to build that chemistry from a very young age. That starts with having very high-character people. You don’t typically hear about World Series-winning teams who have the bad eggs.
“Either he doesn’t get it and he moves on,” he said, “or we show him a better path and he becomes enlightened.”
As high-minded as some of the concepts may be, grounded as they are in the philosophy of wellness, the Mariners are in the business of winning, and they make no attempt to hide their ultimate motive. Yes, they want to create better, more complete, more empathetic humans.
“But we also think this will help the Mariners win baseball games,” McKay said, “and ultimately a championship.”