On May 4, 2012, Twins starter Carl Pavano delivered a sinker without enough sink to the inside half of the plate. Jesus Montero, the Mariners' catcher, braced his 230 pounds against his planted left leg, torqued his midsection and uncoiled. The ball tore through the damp Seattle air on a trajectory that entranced all of the men in attendance who had devoted their lives to baseball. As it passed over the retreating Twins outfielders' heads, it still appeared to be rising.
Montero knew it was a home run. Up in his box behind home plate, Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' general manager, knew it too. So did Chris Gwynn, a 10-year big leaguer whom Zduriencik had recently hired as his club's director of player development. "That baby's gone," Gwynn shouted to Zduriencik. "Way out."
It was not. This was Safeco Field. The ball caromed off the top of the wall in left centerfield, just to the right of the 388-foot sign. As he neared first base, Montero realized that the home run trot he had comfortably settled into had been premature. He accelerated for second, and when he secured the stand-up double that everyone knew should have been more, he grimaced and shook his head.
"He hit it—well, just about here," Zduriencik is saying 11 months later. Zduriencik stands next to a row of tall, circular bar tables that roughly sits where the left centerfield wall stood for the first 14 years of Safeco's home run--usurping existence. This season the fence is 17 feet closer to home plate in left center—Montero's fly would now land in an open-air patio—and at least four feet closer everywhere from just beyond the leftfield foul pole to right center.
Montero's shot last May, and the memory of scores of others like it, convinced Zduriencik and his staff that the Mariners' overly capacious home field, combined with the dense marine air of Seattle, while a boon to the pitching staff, was stunting the development of the organization's young, every-day players. Zduriencik, 62, knows what an elite young hitter looks like. He was a scout for a quarter century, and as the Brewers' director of scouting between 1999 and 2008 he drafted future sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Since becoming Seattle's G.M. before the '09 season, Zduriencik has steadily accumulated offensive talent that came with similarly high expectations. His big league roster features four 26-and-under players—Montero, second baseman Dustin Ackley, outfielder Michael Saunders and first baseman Justin Smoak—who as prospects ranked in the upper third of Baseball America's Top 100 list. At Triple A, Seattle has two players on the current B.A. list, catcher Mike Zunino (ranked 17th) and middle infielder Nick Franklin (79th). Overall, Baseball America ranks the Mariners' system as the game's second best, behind only the Cardinals' organization.
But there has been a troubling trend in Seattle: The highly touted hitting prospects who have reached the majors have not performed up to their billing, not even close. The Mariners' standing on the AL runs leader board has not changed during Zduriencik's four years in charge: last, last, last and last, to go with four bottom-two finishes in the AL West. The old dimensions, the Mariners' brass believes, did more than punish their young players' statistics. The pitcher-friendly park wreaked havoc on their plate approaches, even on their psyches, as they struggled to clear the faraway fences. "When you start altering your swing, trying to overcompensate, hit the ball farther, harder, then you get into bad habits," says Zduriencik. "Those are some of the things we saw."
The 26-year-old Smoak, who had an .849 OPS in parts of five minor league seasons but has an OPS of .676 in 298 games as a Mariner, concedes that Safeco's spaciousness could be discouraging. "You're not having a great day at the plate, you go up there for your third or fourth at bat with the game on the line, and you fly out to the warning track to left centerfield," he says. "And you know you got it."
Around the time of Montero's home run that wasn't, Zduriencik instructed his assistant, Jeff Kingston, to expedite a study of Safeco's offense-dampening environment. Kingston and three analysts spent months charting every ball hit in the stadium between 2009 and '11. They found that Safeco's dimensions suppressed home runs to left center and center by nearly 50% compared to the average ballpark. The club decided it was tired of being an outlier. It wanted a park that played fair.
With the new dimensions, the Mariners expect to see 30 to 40 more home runs at Safeco per season. (The 116 hit there last year were the fewest among the 14 AL parks.) That's 30 or 40 for the Mariners and their opponents combined, Zduriencik and Kingston point out; they did not tailor the reconfiguration to fit the skill sets of any of their young hitters. Still, the redesign came at a key moment for the franchise. With the physical barriers moved in, and the psychological barriers perhaps removed, the Mariners' virtually unmatched young talent is expected to blossom.
Outfielder Michael Morse has seen a team like this before. In December, Zduriencik acquired the 32-year-old slugger from the Nationals, and when he joined the team this spring he felt the same vibe he felt two or three years ago in Washington. Like the Mariners now, the Nationals then were coming off a string of losing seasons but were stockpiling prospects who would form the core of a team that won 98 games last season and is a World Series favorite this year. "It's the same kind of feel we had in Washington," Morse says. "A lot of guys with a lot of talent, but we weren't too sure of ourselves. Then we put it all together. They know they're good. I think that's the same kind of feel we've got going here.