M's Batista striking the right notes
Introspective, philosophical and unafraid to learn as well as teach, 36-year-old journeyman pitcher Miguel Batista has been an important new ingredient in the Mariners' clubhouse mix this season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Today | vs. White Sox, 7:05 p.m., FSN | M's RHP Miguel Batista (12-8, 4.13) vs. RHP Jose Contreras (6-14, 6.24).
Saturday | vs. White Sox, 7:05 p.m., Ch. 11 | M's RHP Jeff Weaver (4-10, 5.64) vs. LHP John Danks (6-10, 5.22).
Sunday | vs. White Sox, 1:05 p.m., FSN | M's RHP Felix Hernandez (8-6, 3.86) vs. RHP Jon Garland (8-8, 4.63).
Monday | @ Minnesota, 5:10 p.m., FSN | M's LHP Horacio Ramirez (7-4, 7.38) vs. RHP Matt Garza (2-3, 2.05).
Tuesday | @ Minnesota, 5:10 p.m., FSN | M's LHP Jarrod Washburn (8-10, 4.16) vs. RHP Scott Baker (6-5, 4.53).
A quiet pregame moment recently found de facto teacher Miguel Batista huddled in the Mariners clubhouse with his latest student.
On many occasions, it's the younger pitchers doing the listening to the team's most senior mound member. This time though, it was Jose Guillen Jr., the 7-year-old son of the Mariners right fielder, sitting enthralled as Batista schooled him on the finer aspects of playing a soprano saxophone.
Talk to Batista about the statistical aspect of his game and he simply shrugs. He knows that he's already attained a career-high 12 victories with six weeks to go in the season. That his penchant for limiting opponents to three runs or fewer per game is finally, at age 36, earning him the respect as a dependable starter that had eluded him in his seven other major-league stops.
But ask Batista about passing on what he has learned to others, be it theories about a certain pitch, a workout routine, or even the sax, and his eyes light up. The boy who once listened avidly at his grandmother's knee to her teachings about their Dominican Republic ancestry and heritage never tires of striving to be the best person he can, or of helping those around him do the same.
"When I die, I don't want people to remember me by saying, 'He was a great baseball player,' " Batista says. "I want them to say, 'He was a great man. A great human being.' That's how I want to be remembered."
Recently divorced, with two children (Miguel, 6, and Esmeralda, 4), Batista was looking for ways to spend his non-baseball time in Seattle and chose a series of two-hour, private tutorials on the saxophone at the University of Washington. Batista became a big fan of Seattle native Kenny G in the 1990s and chose the sax when he decided to take up a musical instrument a few years back while playing in Toronto with the Blue Jays.
"He's actually a very serious student," says tutor Michael Brockman, the university's head saxophone professor and the artistic director for the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. "He wants to build his skills as quickly as he can. We don't talk baseball at all. We talk music mostly, and he's very into it."
Such non-baseball hobbies, his introspective nature and a blossoming career as a fiction writer haven't always served Batista well in other clubhouses. His former teammates in Toronto once dubbed him "The Riddler" because of his philosophical attitude and habit of answering their questions with his own.
Seattle might be the perfect compromise for a man of Batista's many talents — and not simply because the team's above-average infield defense can suck up all the ground balls he yields. The Mariners clubhouse is loaded with more Latin American players than most major-league teams, meaning Batista — despite an above-average command of English — will automatically seem less of an enigma because of language and cultural barriers.
Batista has also found a kindred spirit in Ichiro, whose work ethic and philosophical nature have led to some interesting conversations between the pair. Like Batista, Ichiro has his own workout routine he adheres to religiously and isn't afraid of seeming aloof to others for setting himself apart in the clubhouse.
"Me and Ichiro? Yeah, we have some good conversations," Batista said. "We've had a lot of talks. We have a lot of the same point of view when it comes to things.
"He's very committed to getting his job done. He has his own way."
Batista's "way" is one the Mariners were hoping could rub off on young pitching phenom Felix Hernandez. It's one of the reasons they signed Batista to a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract last winter.
The two have lockers just a few feet apart and are constantly seen together. When Hernandez lost a pair of games last month, abandoning his mound focus after a couple of pitches didn't go his way, Batista was one of the first to take him aside afterward.
"For me, he's a very nice person," Hernandez said. "One of those players who wants to help. He's a good friend. We talk about a lot of things. He's studied the game a lot. I think those things have kind of helped me."
Batista has drilled into Hernandez the importance of setting a routine away from the mound and following it. Even when the two play catch, it's with the end result of pitching a better game in mind.
"On flat ground every day, we do it," Hernandez said. "He's always telling me to keep the ball down. Even when we play catch. And it helps me. It helps me keep the ball down during games."
Batista never really had an older player to guide him back in 1992, when he broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That team had "accidentally" spotted Batista at a Dominican tryout camp years earlier when he'd accompanied a ballplaying friend for moral support.
"Back in the days when I was coming up, things were different," Batista said. "Veteran players were guys you idolized, they hardly talked to you. Besides that, I was learning the language, and then I had to apply that to learn the mental part of the game.
"The hardest part of learning this game is the mental part. And how can you explain that to a young player when they don't even know the language?"
Batista did make sure to jump on any chances to hear from the game's better pitchers. During winter ball in 1999, he once lasted eight innings in a game that went on to become a combined no-hitter. His team's manager was so thrilled that he invited Batista to his home in Florida for a small gathering of friends.
One of the guests of honor was legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Batista naturally corralled him, and the pair talked for more than an hour.
"We talked about a lot of things, but then it got into baseball," Batista said. "He was telling me that there is actually a backbone to pitching — that is being aggressive and throwing strikes. A lot of people do it a different way, but it's all the same. You have to be aggressive and you have to throw in the strike zone."
The other thing Batista took from the conversation was Koufax saying "you have to manage your career to last." That meant caring for his body, a point reinforced to Batista by Julio Franco, the longtime Dominican hitter who played this season at the age of 48.
"[Franco] said, 'You don't get to be this good at this age unless you take care of yourself when you are young,' " Batista said. "And that's the same thing I try to teach to Felix and a lot of these younger guys."
Batista also takes full advantage of the experience he has gained. He is unafraid of selectively pitching around hitters, even if the result is a walk or two, so he can bear down and face others he's more likely to get out. He figures his experience as a Toronto closer in 2005 helped him gear up for high-pressure situations with little room for error.
Opponents have an .807 on-base-plus-slugging percentage off Batista with the bases empty. But that number drops to .728 with runners on, .719 with runners in scoring position, .648 with a runner on third and .628 with men in scoring position and two out.
Despite all of Batista's base runners allowed, he has yielded more than three runs in a start only twice since May.
Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves, only two years older than Batista, said one of the pitcher's biggest strengths is that he's still not afraid to learn as well as teach. Batista was relying too heavily on his cut fastball early on this season, but attained better results when he began mixing in the explosiveness of his 96-mph four-seam fastball more often.
"When you have the opportunity to go up to 95 or 96 and you don't do it, it's like having an extra bullet that you never shoot," Chaves said. "He's strong in the things that he wants to do, but he also listens to what you say. And if you suggest something he thinks will work, he'll do it."
Batista applies the same type of thinking to his saxophone lessons with Brockman, who once worked with Kenny G as a conductor for his string orchestra while the latter was on tour. The pitcher finally saw Kenny G live, in a concert in Santo Domingo last winter, and wants to learn to play his music.
Brockman knows this and has heard Batista play parts of some pop songs and movie soundtracks. But Brockman keeps him focused on learning the more basic notes, building him up to a level where he can attempt more serious music.
"He's built a fairly good feeling for reading the notes on the sheet music," Brockman said. "So, in many ways, he's a beginner. But he also knows a lot of music he's used to. And it helps because he knows what it's supposed to sound like."
Batista is often seen by his locker, practicing his saxophone. He has purchased an electronic box that, when the instrument is plugged in to it, enables him to hear the music he plays through headphones without disturbing his teammates.
"It's like anything else you do in life," Batista said. "For me, this isn't just a hobby. It's something I'm adding to my life to make me better. And whatever I do in my life, I want to do it the best way I can."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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