Forum Spin Doctor
PEORIA, Ariz. - Richie Sexson's critics say he strikes out too much. His batting average is too low. He's not worth a $55 million contract. Well, the Seattle Mariners' big first baseman has a simple answer.
"They signed me here to hit 35 to 40 home runs and to drive in 100. And I've done that. Twice." Sexson said Thursday with a bemused smile.
He's got a supporter in Mariners manager Mike Hargrove. Hargrove, who was Sexson's first major league manager in Cleveland from 1997-99, suggested Sexson's critics would be smarter to pound sand into the surrounding desert.
"It's always amazes me watching people criticize a guy with 39 home runs because he's only hitting .240. C'mon," Hargrove said.
At 6-foot-8, Sexson is the tallest position player in the major leagues. Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland tutored Sammy Sosa with the Chicago Cubs in 1998, when Sosa chased record-setting Mark McGwire before finishing with 66 home runs. Pentland said Sexson is perhaps the strongest player he's ever coached.
"As for pure power, he's got as much as I've ever seen," said Pentland, who is entering his 11th season as a major league coach.
Last season, Sexson got off to a rough start - and so did the Mariners. He batted .213 in April and .198 in May, with just six home runs and 29 RBIs in 200 at-bats. That spawned calls that he and Adrian Beltre, another expensive acquisition, weren't cashing in on Seattle's huge investments.
The Mariners went 23-32 during those first two months.
Sexson stewed, disappointed at his start but adamant that batting average means little for a player paid for his power.
Then he started a run that ended what he calls the "most gratifying year" of his nine in the major leagues. He hit nine home runs in July, batted .304 in August and .365 in September. Seattle went 35-38 during the second half, not enough to climb out of last place in the AL West for the third consecutive season - but enough to create a belief that 2007 will build on the late-season success.
Sexson batted .264, just below his career average of .269. He had 34 home runs and 107 RBIs. He reminds critics that playing home games is tough in spacious Safeco Field, which has huge dimensions in left-center and center fields that are especially tough on right-handed power hitters.
"I know a lot of people are down on the season I had. But find another right-handed hitter who can do that in that in that park, and I would say thank you very much," Sexson said.
Sure, he struck out 154 times, second-most in the AL. But the Mariners are more interested that Sexson hit a team-record five grand slams. That he was just the second Mariner - with Alex Rodriguez - to hit 30 home runs and 40 doubles in a season. Sexson has 73 home runs and 228 RBIs in two seasons with Seattle.
"Obviously, it's easy to say, 'We'd like to have a higher average, like to have fewer strikeouts.'," Pentland said. "But you don't see too many 6-8 hitters in this game. His strike zone is bigger. He has more holes (pitchers can attack)."
Sexson spent his winter in his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., getting daily updates from friends and family about which team he was supposedly getting traded to.
Judging by how he spent most of Thursday's workout, he means it when he says he's "happy I'm still here."
He joked with teammates, including in Spanish to Beltre across the diamond during infield drills. He conspired with Beltre to steal coach Mike Goff's walkie-talkie. He playfully grabbed Arthur Rhodes' jersey front, to keep the veteran reliever from moving on to another field between drills.
Hargrove is equally glad Sexson's still here.
"I'd like to see Richie hit .300," Hargrove said, "but I'd rather see him hit 40 home runs."