Julio Rodríguez’s crazy 2021 was perfect practice for the new MLB star
By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Julio Rodriguez could probably upgrade you to first class.
While these days the effervescent outfielder travels from town to town with his teammates on the Seattle Mariners charter, his 2021 season was a whole different story. As a 20-year-old prospect, Rodríguez has spent most of the last year lighting up a baseball field or racking up commercial air miles.
In an incredibly rare occurrence for such a hyped prospect, Rodríguez spent three stints preparing for the Dominican national team at two Olympic qualifiers and the Tokyo Games in Japan. This led to an extremely busy travel schedule which, over the calendar year, included at least 22 flights, 100 flying hours and over 40,000 miles flown.
Through it all, just a year out of his teens, Rodríguez dominated. In 74 games for two Mariners affiliates, he posted a 1.001 OPS, sandwiched around a 10-for-24 performance with a home run in Tokyo to help the DR team clinch bronze, the nation’s first medal in an Olympic baseball competition.
“Julio is a different kind of person,” said 2021 Olympic team general manager Jose Gomez. “He’s just a baseball addict. The personality is just…it’s amazing, man.”
Typically, top prospects such as Rodríguez are not allowed by their major league clubs to play in international competition during the minor league season. The instability can be difficult for young players to adjust to and moving around can be a pain.
But Gómez and his front office applied for Rodríguez anyway, adding him to a long list of affiliated players they hoped would be allowed to join the DR team for their first Florida qualifier the first week of June. Because 40 MLB players weren’t allowed to play in the Olympics or Olympic qualifiers, the Dominican roster turned out to be a mix of former big leaguers, like José Bautista, and career mates playing in the league. stranger, like Jumbo Díaz. .
“We thought it was very, very, very unlikely that Julio would be allowed to play,” Gomez recalled. He and his colleagues planned their entire roster for qualifying in the hope that Rodríguez – along with other top Dominican prospects including Wander Franco and Ronny Mauricio – would not be available.
But Rodríguez was determined to participate.
“I always wanted to play for the Dominican team,” he told FOX Sports in May. “I always wanted to be able to represent this team, but at first I wasn’t sure the Mariners were going to allow me to do that.”
But once Rodríguez made it clear to his agent, Ulises Cabrera, how much he wanted Seattle’s leave, the Mariners made the decision to allow him a week off to join his compatriots in Florida.
“When [the Mariners] told me they would support me, I knew I had to [be on that team,]”recalls Rodríguez.
And so he went, traveling as far as he could within the continental United States, from Everett, Washington, to Port St. Lucie, Florida. There, unsurprisingly, Rodríguez shone, helping the DR team to a second-place finish and a place in the next qualifier.
At that time, Gómez and team skipper Hector Borg did not expect to have Seattle’s permission for the next round or Tokyo’s roster, should they qualify. But in Florida, Rodríguez forced everyone’s hand.
“I remember he came to me after the last game,” Borg said. “And it was like, ‘Borgy, I’m going to be on this team, I’m going to come to the Olympics, and we’re going to win a medal.'”
During the post-match press conference that day, Rodríguez proclaimed that he would join the team in the next set of matches.
“We didn’t have permission from the Mariners yet,” Gomez said. “But once Julio said it a bit, I think they realized how important it was to him and let him join.”
So Rodríguez, after returning across the country to Everett, then traveled to Puebla, Mexico for the final qualifier. Team DR won the event, earning a place in Tokyo. But Rodríguez had little time to celebrate because, while in Mexico, the Mariners promoted him from High-A Everett to their Double-A affiliate in Arkansas.
He spent the next few weeks in Arkansas — and made a quick trip to Denver for the 2021 Futures Game — before joining the DR team in Tampa for a few days of practice before their trip to Tokyo.
“He was the last player to arrive because the Mariners didn’t want him to lose too many shots,” Gómez recalled. “I picked him up from the airport myself. He landed and wanted to go straight to this Dominican restaurant in Tampa, but right after that we had to give him all these COVID tests so he could take the protocol in Japan.”
In Tokyo, facing pitchers a decade his senior, Rodríguez thrived as the Dominican team knocked out Korea in the bronze medal game to etch themselves into the history of the national sport. For a country with such a vast and rich baseball history, the Dominican Republic will long remember the summer of 2021.
Rodríguez’s trip back to the United States was not so pleasant. After the Olympic team spent one last night together in Los Angeles, he boarded a plane to join the Mariners’ Double-A branch in Arkansas. But when he landed and took out his phone, he noticed something was wrong.
“I was like, ‘OK, let me get an Uber,'” he recounted, that trademark smile stretched across his face. “But when I put the address, it said almost two hours. That’s when I realized I was in northwest Arkansas, where the Royals team is, and that I was supposed to be in Little Rock.”
“Yeah, it was my fault,” Gómez admitted with a laugh.
Rodríguez finally found his way to Good Town Arkansas, took just one day off, then quickly went 2-for-4 in his opener. Show must go on.
“I never saw him get tired all summer long,” Borg said. “He has this youthful energy.”
The whole experience speaks volumes about Rodríguez’s uniqueness and the confidence the Mariners have in their young superstar. Most teams would have played it safe, banning their franchise from risking injury in games beyond their reach in the future, but the Mariners let Julio be Julio.
And now they are reaping the rewards.
“Maybe I’m biased,” Borg said. “But I think his stay last summer helped him adapt to the big leagues more quickly. He was always going to be a star, but playing those important games got him used to it at the time.”
“Obviously in the minors you play hard every day, but every time you have that treasure in front of you…it’s just different, man,” he said. “It was a unique thing for me. I don’t think I will be able to play in the Olympics anymore.
“But being able to have all that pressure, having to perform, no matter what – that’s why [the Mariners] allowed me to go and put myself on this stage.”
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He is an Orioles fan living in New York and as a result leads a lonely existence most of October. If he doesn’t watch baseball, he almost certainly rides a bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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