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Thursday, August 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Snelling shows a healthy attitude

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Chris Snelling is a Yoda man.

Always has been, from his early days in the minor leagues, when he affixed a picture of the Jedi master to his glove and would write "Yoda" on all his bats, to this very day, when he carries a Yoda stuffed doll with him as a good-luck talisman.

Never mind that Snelling's luck has been about as rotten as anyone in baseball. He still lives by the Yoda code of conduct: "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try."

In baseball terms, that means playing with what is invariably called reckless abandon, or what his former Tacoma manager Dan Rohn once termed "a run-through-the-fence kind of attitude."

Rohn is now with the Mariners as an administrative coach, and he says of Snelling, "He probably won't ever change. He plays the game hard. That's what you love about him. He's a happy-go-lucky, free-spirited young man who plays the hell out of it. Consequently, that's probably led to about seven of his surgeries. How many has he had, about 13?"

Not quite, but more than enough, including an operation last September to repair the torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee — the second torn ACL in that knee. Snelling has also had torn ligaments in both hands, a fractured right hand and a broken left hand.

As Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said, "The stuff that has happened to Chris has been pretty bad stuff. Lengthy. He hasn't had something where it's been a 10-day deal."

And that, to his everlasting frustration, has become as much a part of the Chris Snelling story as his Australian-American upbringing (he lived his first nine years in North Miami while his father, Jeff, worked as a tennis instructor), quirky personality (he used to buy his clothes at thrift stores, and once attempted to break the world record for consecutive taps of a pingpong ball off a wall), and considerable offensive potential.

For that reason, Snelling is not getting giddy over his latest Mariners playing opportunity, during which he has already flashed tantalizing glimpses of the patient plate approach and lethal bat that long ago had Lou Piniella salivating over his potential.

Remember, his last big chance came last August, when the Mariners traded Randy Winn to the Giants and turned over left field to Snelling. He lasted about a week before tearing the ACL.

Snelling's goal during this current stint as the team's right fielder, which began when Ichiro volunteered to move to center field, is not hitting .300, as he has done throughout the minor leagues, or winning a job for next year. No, it's far more practical.

"My whole goal at the beginning of the year was to finish the year," he said. "That's my goal. I haven't done that in six years. I only did it in '99 in Everett. Every other year, I've been hurt."

When it's pointed out to him that he has already made it to late August, he grimaces and makes a hand gesture that indicates he wants that line of thought ended immediately.

Not that Snelling is superstitious, or anything. A 1999 story in The Seattle Times from his rookie year in Everett, when he was a 17-year-old kid with braces, fresh from Gorokan, Australia, noted that he batted with several charms around his neck. He wore "a ring from his girlfriend, a crucifix, a medallion of St. Christopher and a silver four-leaf clover."

Just last year, when Snelling left his beloved Yoda doll on a plane and didn't realize it until he had already gone past security, he paid off an airline employee to board the plane and get it back to him.

But Yoda will only get you so far. The Mariners care less about his Jedi than his good eyes. Snelling's first at-bat Wednesday in a loss to the Yankees showed exactly why he is such an exciting proposition for their lineup as a No. 2 hitter behind Ichiro. He fell behind 1-2, worked the count full, fouled off two pitches, then grounded a single into right field.

Speaking before the game, Rohn had said, "He's probably seen more pitches in the last week than some of our guys have seen in two weeks."

The Mariners entered the game 13th out of 14 American League teams (and 28th out of 30 overall) with a .320 on-base percentage. It is a stark contrast to their opponents, the perennially patient Yankees, who were second in the majors at .361 (one point behind Boston).

Snelling could be a welcome antidote to Seattle's free-swinging approach — if (all together now) he can stay healthy.

"Hopefully, we're through all that now and he can continue on and do the job up here," Rohn said. "I told Pent [hitting coach Jeff Pentland] when he first got here, this guy's got the best hand-eye coordination of anyone I've seen, all the way through.

"He can put the ball in play with the best of them. There's a lot of things he needs to work on yet, but health is the big thing. If he stays healthy, who knows? We have yet to see how good he can be."

Yoda couldn't have said it any better.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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