Mariners Magazine Preview | Back in Action
After a season away contemplating life and baseball, Franklin Gutierrez is back playing the game he loves.
By Scott Holter
The following article is from the September issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2015 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.
With 20 minutes worth of batting cage sweat still dripping from his brow, Franklin Gutierrez leans back in a chair, hands buckled behind his head, and flashes a trademark smile.
It’s three hours before first pitch and the 32-year-old outfielder nods to his clubhouse neighbor and fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez as he explains how grateful he is to be back in baseball and back with Seattle.
“To see my friends and to be playing with them again, it’s huge for me.”
“It’s just a blessing to be playing professional baseball again, and especially with the team I love,” said Gutierrez, who joined the Mariners in late June after spending the first three months at Triple A Tacoma. “I don’t have the words to explain it: all the fans, the city, the ballpark. I just want to win here. They treated me so well. I feel comfortable [in Seattle].”
A Year in the Making
Gutierrez was feeling anything but comfort when he informed the organization just before the start of Spring Training in 2014 that he would have to miss the season due to a chronic arthritic condition that had zapped his strength, his balance and his ability to bounce back on a daily basis.
So instead of spending the season in Seattle with his friends and teammates, the native of Caracas, Venezuela was at home in Boca Raton, Fla., getting in quality time with his wife and son rarely afforded to baseball players. At the same time, he was longing to get back on the diamond.
“I went to the gym every day and kept up with the team, but I didn’t do anything [baseball related] until about August,” he recalled. “Then I started swinging the bat again, running and getting my body ready for winter ball. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could play baseball again. I thought if I could get on the field, a team might want to sign me.”
That team was the one that knew him best. The Mariners again inked Gutierrez to a minor league deal last January, ticketing him for Tacoma in hopes of kick starting his journey back to the Big Leagues.
“When [camp] first started, it was hard,” admitted Gutierrez. “Waking up early every day and getting into the routine again. I knew that I had to go to Tacoma before I would play [in Seattle], to work on my hitting, my body and my legs. I guess the hard work paid off.”
Gutierrez hit .317 in 48 games with the Rainiers, with seven homers and 31 RBIs, while mostly patrolling the corner outfield positions.
“He’s finding ways to contribute and has really been a huge bonus for us.”
“When I got the call up I felt like a rookie again,” said Gutierrez. “There were a lot of emotions going on. When you work hard and accomplish something you set out to accomplish, it’s great. To see my friends and to be playing with them again, it’s huge for me.”
Return to Form
Gutierrez is now a platoon corner outfielder, finding his way in the starting lineup exclusively against lefties. Still, he prepares the same way as when he was known as “Death To Flying Things,” the moniker bestowed on him by legendary announcer Dave Niehaus for Gutierrez’s ability to chase down baseballs in Safeco Field’s outfield.
His appearance is similar to when he first joined Seattle in a trade from Cleveland in 2009 — lean and muscular — though he admits being up 15 pounds to about 210. His current pregame routine is a series of exercises geared to keep his body loose and mind at ease.
“I don’t do weights as much as before because I get too stiff,” he said. “My body has changed a bit. I do light weights and a lot of balancing exercises, working on the small muscles as opposed to the big muscles.
“I still have to deal with stiffness every day, sore heels, lower back. But I know I have to keep going. I know my body a lot better and I know what I have to do to recover.”
Though he hit 18 home runs for the Mariners and knocked in 70 runs six years ago, Gutierrez actually feels like he has more power these days. Two particular round-trippers are already at the top of the Mariners 2015 highlight reel: a pinch-hit grand slam to help beat the Tigers on July 21, and a 10th-inning game-winning homer over Toronto five days later.
It’s not hard to find praise for his efforts from teammates. Nelson Cruz is happy to be playing alongside Gutierrez after admiring his game for years from the other dugout while a member of the Texas Rangers.
“It’s great to have him out here, especially knowing what he went through to get himself ready to play,” said Cruz. “He’s finding ways to contribute and has really been a huge bonus for us.”
Gutierrez reflects on this season’s memorable home runs “because they really felt good, not only for myself but because they helped my team win. That’s what it’s all about. I know that if I contribute to winning, I’ll find myself on the field more often.”
Defensively, Gutierrez may not flash the gazelle-like grace of four years ago, but he remains a solid Major League outfielder with a flair for tracking down line drives and an arm that base runners still must respect.
“Being in the corners is not easier, but it does allow you to take care of yourself a lot more than if you’re in the middle,” said Gutierrez, about playing left and right field, as opposed to center. “Still, if I have to go after a ball, I’m going to do it.”
Appreciating the Opportunity
On this day Gutierrez took some early work in the batting cage, a routine that he started early in the season to reacquaint himself with his craft. He remembers it not taking long to feel comfortable again in the batter’s box.
“It was just remembering to watch for the fastball first,” he said, “because if you can’t recognize the fastball, then you’re in trouble.”
It didn’t hurt that Gutierrez joined the Mariners four days after another familiar face — Edgar Martinez — joined the organization as hitting coach. A month earlier Martinez visited Tacoma and offered advice to Gutierrez about his daily routine in the batting cage.
“What can I say about Edgar?” said Gutierrez. “He’s not only a great guy, but he has so much knowledge about hitting. He teaches us about preparation before every at-bat and works individually with everybody. You really appreciate all you can get from a guy like that.”
Appreciation is a familiar word these days in Gutierrez’s vocabulary, mostly for what he has accomplished in a season where many doubted that he’d ever see the Big Leagues again.
“When I got to Tacoma in the spring, I wasn’t thinking about anything,” he said. “I would just go to the ballpark, see pitches and swing the bat. I didn’t have to prove to anybody that I could play. I worked hard and made it back here, and I’m so happy because I love baseball.”
Scott Holter is a freelance writer based in Seattle.