As baseball’s best players descended on Los Angeles for All-Star Game festivities in July, one burgeoning young standout had their attention most of all.
Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ exhilarating, ebullient 21-year-old center fielder, had powered Seattle to a 14-game win streak through the break, vaulting the Mariners from a sub-.500 record to wild card position in the American League.
The young Dominican shook off a slow start to earn an all-star selection as a rookie, showcasing a remarkable blend of power, speed and personality to captivate the city of Seattle and make the Mariners appointment-viewing television from coast to coast.
Rodriguez had been a major leaguer for barely three months by the time the All-Star Game rolled around. That was all the time he needed to earn the highest compliment possible from the game’s most decorated player.
“He plays the game the right way,” said Angels center fielder Mike Trout, the three-time American League MVP. “He’s always having fun on the bench. He reminds of myself kind of when I first came up.”
Rodriguez made that comparison look remarkably plausible in his major league debut this year. He became the fastest rookie to reach 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases, beating Trout’s record by three games, and finished the year with 28 homers and 25 steals. He became a staple of nightly highlight reels with his play in center field, showing speed and agility that exceeded even the most bullish projections held for him. And, most importantly, he carried the Mariners to the postseason for the first time in 21 years, leading the team in batting average, runs, stolen bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases to help end the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports.
For his transcendent season, Rodriguez is the 2022 Baseball America Rookie of the Year.
“I just trusted myself,” Rodriguez said in an exclusive interview with BA during a late-season series in Anaheim. “I trusted myself throughout the year. And I trusted the work that I put in through the offseason and basically just let everything play out.”
As with most fruitful relationships, the connection between Rodriguez and the Mariners began with a phone call.
Tim Kissner, then the Mariners international scouting director, was driving near his home in Seattle in February of 2016 when he got a call from Eddy Toledo, the Mariners scouting supervisor in the Dominican Republic. Toledo was on his way back to Santo Domingo after a scouting trip to Santiago, the country’s second-largest province.
As soon as Kissner picked up the phone, he could tell something was different. Hearing the excitement in Toledo’s voice, Kissner pulled over.
“He said, ‘I just saw one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen,’ ” Kissner said. “And Eddy’s been scouting for over 40 years and signed all kinds of really good players.
“And then he drops the name on me: Julio Rodriguez.”
Rodriguez hailed from Loma de Cabrera, a small town of 20,000 people in the Northwest part of the Dominican Republic, far from the baseball hotbeds of Santo Domingo, San Pedro De Macoris and Bani in the country’s Southeast. The only prominent major leaguer to come out of the city was Rafael Furcal, who signed back in 1996.
Despite his remote locale, Rodriguez’s power and physicality earned him renown as a young teenager and caught the attention of trainer Quico Peña, who recruited, trained and showcased Rodriguez at his program in Santiago.
It was there that Toledo first saw Rodriguez and immediately reported what he saw to Kissner. Though Rodriguez was only 15 years old at the time and nearly 18 months away from being eligible to sign, there was no doubt in Toledo’s mind the Mariners had to have him.
“He said, ‘I want to give him every dime we have in the budget,’ ” Kissner recalled. “And I said, ‘Eddy, we don’t even know what next year’s budget is.’ Because with the Mariners, it wasn’t like we were going above and beyond the pool money.
“So for Eddy, being an old school scout who always tried to be very financially responsible, for him to say he wanted to blow the entire pool on one player just to me, like, was absurd. But it showed me how convicted he was that this guy was a great player, because I had never heard anything like that.”
When Kissner saw Rodriguez for himself in January 2017, he quickly jumped on the bandwagon after two workouts.
Rodriguez’s physical skills were prodigious, but that wasn’t what sold Kissner. What impressed the Mariners international director most was the energy, awareness and passion Rodriguez showed for baseball when they sat down for a post-workout interview.
“It was, like, everything that you would want to hear from a prospective player,” Kissner said. “It just was very apparent Julio wasn’t like ‘I just want to sign.’ I mean, Julio played baseball because he absolutely loved it. It’s what made him get up in the morning.
“The physical ability was one thing, but it was after the interview with him that I was like, ‘If the Mariners don’t sign this player, we’re making a monumental mistake.’ I had to do it. It was a no-brainer.”
Rodriguez signed with the Mariners for $1.75 million on July 2, 2017. As soon as he began his pro career, he showed the wider baseball world everything the Mariners saw.
Rodriguez stormed through Rookie ball and the Class A levels, earning hyperbolic praise from rival players and coaches and perennial all-star projections from scouts. After losing the 2020 season to a fractured wrist and the coronavirus pandemic, he came back in 2021 and finished second in the minors with a .347 batting average while also leading his native Dominican Republic to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympic baseball medal in the country’s history.
But as much as his talent shined through, his exuberant passion for the game shined even brighter.
It shined in the way he meticulously watched and studied the big leaguers as a teenager in spring training after his own long days of workouts on the back fields. It shined in the way he relentlessly cheered on his minor league teammates over long summers in small towns like Charleston, W.Va. and Modesto, Calif. It shined in the way he kept reinventing his body to disprove predictions he would slow down as he aged and matured physically, to the point he kept getting faster and more nimble with each passing season.
And most of all, it shined with his ever-present smile, boundless energy and love for the big moment on every field he stepped on, from 4,500-seat minor league ballparks in remote backwaters to sold out T-Mobile Park on national television.
“I just enjoy it,” Rodriguez said. “. . .I feel like when I enjoyed playing baseball the most was whenever I was playing as a kid. So I feel like I kind of took that, like, I never want to lose that joy. And I feel like that’s something really important to me because at the end of the day, I’m just playing out here the game I love.”
In a matter of months, the Mariners took on Rodriguez’s personality. They became baseball’s most energetic team, holding on-field dance parties to celebrate wild wins. They surged back from their early-season hole with the 14-game winning streak that carried them into the all-star break. They won 24 games in their final at-bat, many of them fueled by Rodriguez.
At only 21 years old, Rodriguez became the team’s leader not just statistically, but emotionally.
“The guy is special,” Mariners second baseman Adam Frazier said. “It’s not just his ability on the field, but the intangibles off the field too.
“He’s a good leader. Even though he’s in his rookie season at 21 years old, he’s still a good leader. There’s been times where we need some energy and stuff like that and he’s there. He’s always there picking up the guys. It’s been really impressive to watch and fun to watch, and I’m glad he’s on our side.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of Major League Baseball to see what the Mariners saw.
Rodriguez began the year 6-for-44 with 22 strikeouts, but after that initial adjustment period, he caught fire. He hit .298/.347/.542 the rest of the year, never slowing down despite injuries to his wrist and back late in the season.
“Special, special player,” Astros pitcher Justin Verlander said. “Even during the first month of the season I think you could really see it. He wasn’t putting up the kind of numbers that he is now, obviously, but he kind of just had that ‘it’ factor. I think he’s going to be one of the best players in baseball for a long time.”
Hours after those words were spoken, Rodriguez put on a show in the Home Run Derby. He pounded 32 home runs to start off the first round at Dodger Stadium, the most ever by a rookie in a single round. His home runs traveled a combined distance of 2.54 miles, the longest distance of any competitor in the opening round.
In the second round, he dispatched two-time reigning derby champion Pete Alonso, becoming the first player ever to beat Alonso in a Home Run Derby.
Rodriguez eventually lost to Juan Soto in the finals, but there was no question who had owned the night.
“I feel like it was a dream I had as a kid and I was able to fulfill it,” Rodriguez said. “I just had a great time. Having all those players around there, being able to meet a lot of the players I looked up to throughout my whole career, my whole childhood and everything, it was amazing. It was a surreal experience and I feel like it couldn’t have been any better.”
Watching from his home that night, Kissner couldn’t help but share in the excitement. The Mariners decided not to renew Kissner’s contract after the 2018 season, a year after he and Toledo signed Rodriguez. After stints working as a scout with the Mets and Phillies, he left baseball earlier this year and now works as a police officer for the Juneau police department in Alaska.
After 22 years in the game, Kissner needed a break from baseball and didn’t pay much attention to the first half of the season. It was Rodriguez, with his performance in the Home Run Derby, that reeled him back in.
“I watched him in the Home Run Derby and I was like, ‘Holy smokes,’ ” Kissner said. “No previous Home Run Derbies to fall back on, no previous experiences. He looked like he knew he belonged there.
“And he was having fun. Like, I look at some of the players in the Home Run Derby, and you can tell there’s a level of stress. For Julio, he was in it like it was a playground. It was like pure enjoyment, and not an ounce of stress on his face. And for me, it was so fun to be a fan and watch him in that. And it was like, ‘Holy cow, I was involved in signing that guy.’”
Just over a month later, the Mariners awarded Rodriguez one of the largest—and most unique—contract extensions in baseball history. Depending on various options and bonuses, the deal assures Rodriguez will be in Seattle between 13 and 18 years and will pay him anywhere from $210 million to $470 million.
If it reaches full value, it will be the richest contract in MLB history.
“That was like a dream moment,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever you come from Loma de Cabrera, you never really expect that. Like whenever good comes to you and happens it’s like, ‘Dang, it’s really me.’ You know?”
Between the contract extension, the Home Run Derby and leading the Mariners back to the postseason, Rodriguez experienced a number of highlights in his rookie year.
For Rodriguez though, the biggest highlight had nothing to do with anything he did. Rather, the moment he said he’ll remember most from this season revolved around his longtime friend and spring training catch partner: Ichiro.
“One of the most special (moments) to me was seeing Ichiro getting (inducted) into the Mariners Hall of Fame,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like his speech, it really touched me and it was a really cool moment to me. I was really into it and I was happy. I was happy just to see him, a legend like that, and the way that he gave himself to the city of Seattle and the team. It was pretty amazing to see and the way that people reacted back to him, seeing people crying just seeing him out there. It was probably the coolest part of this year.”
In so many ways, that encapsulates Rodriguez. Given an opportunity to highlight himself or his accomplishments, he instead highlighted those of another. Even as he’s become one of baseball’s brightest young stars, he still passionately supports his teammates and marvels in reverence at the game’s greatest players, just as he did as a teenager.
“He’s always got a smile on his face, which is the best part to see,” said Mariners righthander George Kirby, who also played with Rodriguez at Double-A. “He’s just a kid, man. He really, really enjoys playing ball and doing that for his job.”
When the Nationals won the National League pennant in 2019, the Mariners became the only active franchise to have never played in the World Series. As various reports highlighting that fact began to circulate on social media, Rodriguez found one and decided to make a statement.
As he scrolled through Twitter, he found a Tweet from Bleacher Report that read “Mariners now only MLB franchise to never appear in a World Series” with a sad face emoji next to it.
Rodriguez quote-tweeted it. “That’s about to change,” he wrote.
It was a bold statement for a player who was 18 years old and had yet to play above High-A at the time. But for Rodriguez, living up to those words provided a source of motivation that continues to fuel him to this day.
“I feel like since I found out the Mariners had never been to the World Series, I honestly kind of, like, took that to heart,” Rodriguez said. “Just like man, I’m part of this organization and I’m trying to change that.”
In his first MLB season, Rodriguez already brought the Mariners closer to that goal than at any time in the last two decades. With Rodriguez powering them, the Mariners returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, ending the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports.
It was an awe-inspiring season, for both Rodriguez and the Mariners as a whole.
If all goes according to plan, it was only the beginning.
“I haven’t seen anybody have those intangibles on the field at 21 much less off the field,” Frazier said. “He’s the complete package. As long as he stays where he’s at mentally now, year to year, I think we’re gonna be talking about this guy for a long time.”