In many ways, Michael Saunders exemplifies the 2010 Seattle Mariners. The talented young outfielder came into the season oozing promise, but things didn’t quite go as planned. He came into the campaign ranked as Kevin Goldstein’s second-best prospect in the organization, but in 100 games he struggled, hitting .211/.295/.367 with 10 home runs. Saunders, who celebrated his 24th birthday in November, remains a big part of the Mariners’ future, but much like the team, he is faced with the challenge of turning things around in 2011.
Saunders talked about his baseball upbringing north of the border and his brief time as a big-leaguer during a late-season visit to Fenway Park.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself as a player?
Michael Saunders: I was born and raised in British Columbia, Canada. I played my baseball over there and then came down to Tallahassee, Florida for one year of junior college. Then I started my professional career with the Seattle Mariners organization.
As far as who I am as a player, I just try to play hard and bring something to the table, whether it’s in the outfield, baserunning, or at the plate. That’s it, really. I’m actually not all that comfortable talking about myself as a player.
DL: What was it like to come up to the big leagues for the first time?
MS: I guess I never really imagined myself playing here when I was growing up. Being from Canada, I thought that maybe I’d just to play there, but gradually, as I was getting older, I got the exposure of playing with the national team and traveling all over the world, and seeing how different countries played the game. I got to travel to Curacao, Cuba, Taiwan, China; I got to go Latin America and South America. Everyone brings their own style to the game and that made me fall in love with it. From there I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in baseball.
I ended up getting drafted by the Mariners and playing four years in the minors before finally getting the call to come up, which was basically a dream come true. It was kind of surreal. I had my family and friends in town, and I couldn’t have painted a better picture.
DL: When did you begin to realize that you were going to play in the big leagues one day?
MS: I had success all the way through high school, and I had some success with the national team, and basically as soon as I got drafted I said to myself, “Okay, I have a chance here.” Going through the minors, I just tried to take it day by day and tried to make sure I got better and better, knowing that hopefully one day I’d get the opportunity to actually represent the Mariners in Seattle. It kind of went from there.
DL: What is life in the minor leagues like?
MS: It’s not as glamorous as a lot of people think it is. There is a lot of bus travel and a lot of time away from family and friends; you’re at the ballpark every day. You make a lot of sacrifices. Then again, you’re also playing a game for a living and it’s something that you love. Being able to come to the ballpark every day with a smile on your face is great, and something that I would never trade for the world.
DL: How did you find out that you were getting called up?
MS: It was a Friday night and we had just played a night game in Tacoma. I was back in my apartment and I actually had three of my good friends from back home coming down for the weekend series in Tacoma. I got a call at about 11 o’clock telling me to come back to the stadium, which was about a five-minute walk from my apartment. The call came from my manager, Daniel Brown.
I knew that something was up, either I was getting traded or I was getting called up. Sure enough, I got out there and he brought me into his office and sat me down—the coaching staff was in there waiting for me—and I asked, “What’s going on?” He told me that I was heading to Seattle the next day, that I was getting called up, and wished me good luck.
As it turned out, my friends who were coming in to see a weekend series in Triple-A got to be there for my first game in the big leagues [July 25, 2009]. Seattle and Tacoma are nearby, so it was a nice easy drive for them.
DL: What do you remember about walking into the Mariners clubhouse for the first time?
MS: I had been around all of those guys in spring training, but when I got in there, there was Ken Griffey Jr., a guy that I had idolized growing up, so when I saw him and how nice the clubhouse is, I kind of took it all in for a minute. Basically, I thought about how all of the hard work had paid off and I finally had gotten to where I wanted to be. It was a really good sense of achievement and like I said earlier, a dream come true.
DL: Did you know, or care, which number you going to be wearing?
JS: I had no idea, but it’s the same number I have now, which is 55, and I really like it and hopefully will be sticking with it for the rest of my career. But really, that’s the last thing I was thinking about. I was nervous and anxious driving to the ballpark, and I was mostly thinking about things like, “Am I go to be in there today?” and “What’s going to happen?
When I got there I talked to the coaching staff and they told me what I would be doing, and then I saw my name in there, which kind of relaxed me a bit. Then I got out on the field, with 30,000 people—and it was the first time I had ever played in front of a crowd like that—and the butterflies started coming back.
The biggest thing I was worried about was actually [playing] the outfield. It was like, “Just hit me that fly ball and don’t mess it up; don’t drop it.” and once I got that first fly ball, I started to relax again. I still get butterflies and a little nervous to this day, but it’s nothing compared to what I had that first day when I stepped onto the field.
DL: What did it feel like in the batters’ box that first game?
MS: I knew, just having my friends and family in the stands, and playing in front of 30,000 people… let’s just say it was nice to just get the first one over with. My first at-bat I was facing a lefty and swung at three curveballs, and popped up to the shortstop. After that I relaxed and just took it as another game.
DL: Outside of making your big-league debut, what is the most memorable moment of your career thus far?
MS: I obviously haven’t been around long enough to have done much, but in my first game I had a home run robbed in right field which would have been my first hit. I was robbed by [Chris] Gimenez, the catcher for Cleveland, who was playing right field that day. We joke about it a little bit, to this day, when I see him. So far, in my very short career, that would be the thing I remember most. That and my first hit, which was a single up the middle against Cliff Lee, who used to be my teammate. I’ll always remember that as well.