Putz says Mariners clubhouse was divided, that there were some players who weren't "team guys"
Putz, however, sees a markedly different attitude with the Mets than on the downtrodden Mariners' team he left behind. Putz, in fact, painted a grim picture of a house divided last year in Seattle, contributing to the historic flameout that ensued.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Loosening up a clubhouse is a role that J.J. Putz takes seriously — and he has the whipped-cream pies to prove it.
Putz, however, sees a markedly different attitude with the Mets than on the downtrodden Mariners team he left behind. Putz, in fact, painted a grim picture of a house divided last year in Seattle, contributing to the historic flameout that ensued.
Putz has had nearly two weeks to soak up the Mets' atmosphere, having showed up in Port St. Lucie in early February to work out at the team facility and get acclimated.
"It's different. Big time," he said Sunday. "It's almost like there's a more relaxed feeling. They just know they're going to win. Where in Seattle, a lot of times, it was expectations, and a lot of times we didn't really know how to deal with that. Here, it's a given. We will win. Not 'we're supposed to win this year,' but: We will win."
Asked to analyze the Mariners' demise last year, from supposed contenders heading into the season to losers of 101 games, Putz first cited injuries — including his own, a rib-cage strain that landed him on the disabled list after the second game of the season. He later was sidelined with elbow problems.
"We got killed by injuries, too early," he said. "I don't think we ever fully recovered from that. We lost a ton of one-run games those first few weeks of the season. Like I said, we never recovered. There wasn't enough time."
But Putz also made it clear that he felt there was more to their collapse than just injuries. The Angels, for instance, had far more players get hurt than the Mariners and still won 100 games.
A poorly constructed roster and a long list of underperforming players would seem to be two major culprits. That's just me. But add Putz to the chorus of those who point to a dysfunctional clubhouse as tearing apart the Seattle ballclub. John McLaren and Bill Bavasi, you might recall, both alluded to the exact same thing upon their firing last June.
I started by asking Putz if all that was overblown. He shook his head and said no, and noted that there was an undercurrent of internal tension all season.
"There were just some guys that just aren't really team guys," he said. "There's a lot of guys that are team guys in there. There was definitely some butting heads on certain things. What the hell can you do? Some guys are just stubborn."
He refused to name any names. But his inference was strong.
"I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus," he said. "But I think everybody knows who everybody is talking about. It is what it is. Hopefully, it changes for them over there."
Can the Mariners ever win with "non-team guys" on the roster?
"I don't think so," he said. "It depends. It depends if they hold everyone accountable equally, or some guys just get special treatment, like it's been in the past."
You don't have to be a Rhodes scholar to ascertain that Putz was talking primarily about Ichiro. We've heard that line of thinking before, of course, usually in veiled or off-the-record comments. Putz, able to speak frankly now that he's wearing a different uniform, was more direct.
When I asked him specifically to comment on Ichiro, Putz said: "It's hard to argue with 200 hits every year, and a lifetime, what, .320 hitter [actually, .331]. I just think there's so much more he can do that doesn't happen. I would have liked to have seen him take more chances on the basepaths. It seems like he was only going to steal a bag when he was absolutely sure. I don't think he even realizes how good he is at stealing bags.
"I don't know. Two-hundred hits isn't easy, and to do it eight straight years, it's hard to argue. You can't really knock the guy for his work ethic. His routine is ridiculous. Everything is the same every single day. I mean, he's prepared to play. But ... "
No question that new manager Don Wakamatsu's first and perhaps biggest challenge is making the Mariners a cohesive group again. There is undeniably a perception by some in the clubhouse that Ichiro is a selfish player, a style-master unwilling to do the little things it takes to win.
You may scoff at that notion, or rebel against it, but it's not just a media creation. It's real, and clearly it has divided the team to some extent. Wakamatsu needs to find a way to un-divide it. Of course, winning would be the best unifier of all, but in the meantime, I expect the manager will use the full power of his considerable people skills to try to forge, if not a harmony, at least a truce.
It's not Putz's problem any more, of course. He's delighted to be with a Mets team that is legitimately built to win. Oh, he was initially a little taken aback by fact that the Mets, barely 24 hours before his acquisition, had signed Francisco Rodriguez, the single-season saves leader, and to realize that he was no longer going to be a closer.
"If there was anything that pissed me off about the whole thing, it was the fact they did trade me somewhere knowing I wasn't going to close," he said. "That was the only thing that didn't sit well with me from their [the Mariners] standpoint."
But Putz quickly concluded that setting up for a contender was something he could live with.
"I'm just closing the game in the eighth," he said. "That's the way I'm looking at it. To have a chance to come to a contending team and win, it's not that big a deal.
"I'll get some save opportunities. Hopefully, K-Rod gets tired, because that means we're winning a ton of games. It will be good. I'm not worried about it."
Mets teammates are happy to have Putz's killer split-fingered fastball and his fearless approach to late-inning jams. New York starter John Maine calls Putz "the best eighth-inning guy in baseball."
What makes the Mets a bit nervous, however, is Putz's well-earned reputation as a merry prankster, a practical joker nonpareil. In fact, Putz recently claimed his first victim, nailing a Mets television broadcaster with a whipped-cream pie while he was interviewing another ex-Mariner, Sean Green.
"He's a bit of a jokester," Maine said with a laugh. "He's done a couple things already, but right now, I think he's just trying to get a feel. I can tell the longer he's here, the more he's going to do."
Putz's last name, which doubles as a popular insult among a segment of New Yorkers — it's the Yiddish slang term for male private parts — has already been greeted with much amusement by fans and media.
"You know me — I don't really give a bleep," he said. "It's not going to affect the way I'm going to pitch There's nothing out there I haven't already heard. It will be good."
Unlike, it seems, the situation he left behind.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.