This week, I had the exciting opportunity of speaking to Mariners catcher Michael Marjama. The 28 year old made his MLB debut last season, hitting .333 with one home run and one double in a brief five game stint. We had a great conversation on the road to the major leagues, teammate comradery, and aspirations for the 2018 season. Without further ado, here’s the interview.
First of all, tell me about being called up by the Mariners in September this year, in the thick of the playoff race. How was that for you?
MARJAMA: “I think first of all it’s a dream come true, it’s a culmination of years and years of hard work coming to fruition. After a long road and all the work in the minor leagues, to be able to be called up and to do it with the Mariners, and the group of players we have, it was a lifetime experience and it’s once in a lifetime. It really meant the world to me.”
How did you find out that you were selected to the major league roster, and what was your initial reaction?
MARJAMA: The last few weeks of the season in Tacoma, as a team and individually, weren’t as successful as the team would’ve liked and especially myself individually, coming over and learning a new organization personally, but also with the team, we didn’t really have the end results in wins and losses that we really wanted. He called me into his office and said, I know it’s been pretty rough this last couple weeks but I want you to know it’ll get a lot better because now you’re now a big leaguer. And it hit me at first as something you think isn’t real at first, and now that it finally came about, I was like “no man, this is real.” First thing I did was call my parents and all my family, those who supported me along the way, because the biggest thing for me was sharing this experience with everyone. As much as we like to take credit for our careers, but without family or friends who have surrounded supported me ever since little league, this never would’ve been able to come true. More or less, my first thoughts were to those who supported me along the way.”
On October 2nd, the final game of the Mariners’ season, you hit your first big league home run. How did it feel circling the bags after that?
MARJAMA: “My first few at bats, I grounded out, flied out. I kind of went in knowing it was going to be my last at bat of the season. I thought I’d just go out, be loose and confident, and just take some hacks, and not be too worried about anything. I got a fastball up and I was late, so I was able to get some barrel on it. Rounding the bases, it was a wonderful experience, having a lot of family there. It’s not so much about myself, but more of an obligation to the people around me who supported me on my journey. So, having my family there was just icing on the cake.”
What are some valuable lessons you learned over your minor league career, and what are your expectations or aspirations for next season?
MARJAMA: “Starting next year, it’s my job to go in, and win the backup spot in camp. The whole body of work from last year was great, and as awesome as it is being called up, the work doesn’t stop; If anything, it increases even more. Even in the minor leagues, there’s always people going after you, and there’s always new players coming. In order for you to stay in the big leagues, you have to perform. You have to be a guy who [others] want to be around, and you can contribute to the team. [Zunino] has done a tremendous job this past year and throughout his career. He’s got the starting job, so it’s my job to go in and help the team win. I’m going into camp ready to go, and ready to win the backup job. I actually just played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and some of the things I learned, that were kind of reaffirmed in the Dominican and minor leagues was getting used to being comfortable being uncomfortable, and embracing that, when we leave our comfort zones, that’s true growth happens. In the big leagues, there’s a lot of pressure, but that’s what makes it the best in the world — the people who live up to that, take the helmet, and run with it. My job is to come in and help the team win, and win the backup job, to where there’s no one else who comes to mind, and be the best teammate I can be.”
Speaking of Mike Zunino, what’s your relationship like with other players on the team?
MARJAMA: “It’s great. Having ‘Chooch’ (Carlos Ruiz) around, being able to pick his brain was unbelievable. He’s one of a kind, and there’s a reason why he’s been in the game so long. It’s stupid not to pick his brain and be a sponge, and write everything down, and listen to everything he says. ’Z’ (Mike Zunino) has been in the league for a few years now, so he’s caught a bunch of guys in big games. To be able to watch, listen, and pick their brains. The relationship we have is unbelievable. We have each other’s backs for anything we need.’Chooch’ has definitely showed me how to be a big leaguer — something I still have to learn. I’ve learned some great lessons from those guys, and it should lead to the path this year. The relationship we have is just fantastic.”
You mentioned earlier that hard work and being a great teammate is very important, but what do you think is the most crucial part of being a catcher?
MARJAMA: “To be a catcher, you have to make adjustments [and making those] adjustments right away. When you play in the big leagues, and minor leagues, everyone has the talent to play at that level. You see guys at high school, helping out local schools, and kids don’t really make adjustments right away. It might take them a week or take them a day to notice that they need to make an adjustment. And often times, the way we go about a scouting report, we like to attack a guy a certain way, and maybe the pitcher just doesn’t have it that day, maybe they don’t have a good feel for a certain pitch. You have to make adjustments. The biggest thing is having a solid relationship with your staff and teammates. By having that relationship, you can make those adjustments quicker.”
Speaking of the pitcher-catcher dynamic, how important do you think it is to having success at the big league level?
MARJAMA: It’s everything. If you look at any of the teams that have been great, and that have had success, a lot of them go down to having that relationship with the staff and the catcher — that trust factor. That develops over time and doesn’t happen right away. You have to know what to do, whether you give them a pat on the butt, or to really get into them, and say ‘hey, let’s go.’ Each guy responds different; we aren’t all the same, we have different cues to get us back on track. It’s my job to get to know guys and have them get to know me. What are the things they like to do? What’s going to make us successful? Something in Seattle we have that’s great is communication — we have a lot of good guys. The ability for our guys to talk and communicate and get on the same page. On a lot of successful teams, you’ll see a great relationship between the pitcher and the catcher.
I totally agree, team chemistry is crucial to success. Deviating a bit from that topic, If you could catch a bullpen from any pitcher, current or historical, who would it be?
MARJAMA: If you really want someone who changed the game, I’d say Nolan Ryan. One of the things he had was an attitude — that demeanor of he’s gonna go after you. You see that type of bulldog mentality. Some guys are really good at that, while others are more reserved and calm. Each guy has his own thing, but I think he’d be a really fun guy to catch.
Was he a model that you had when you grew up, or did you have a catcher that you modeled your game after?
MARJAMA: “For myself, I’ve only been a catcher for a couple years. I was a third baseman, so Evan Longoria was a guy who had the same roots in California and going to Long Beach, who I’d always looked up to. Also, growing up a Giants fan, I’d say Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent were always great and I looked up to them. As a catcher, I try to watch the greats and what to do. Now having Dan Wilson, who I worked with once or twice in Tacoma, I’m really looking forward to spring. He did a great job with the Mariners and his career speaks for himself.”
Last question here. Recently, you shared with the baseball world the story about your eating disorder in high school. How did you overcome it, and what is your goal for the social media campaign you kicked off?
MARJAMA: It started in junior high school through high school, and although it’s a long story, I had a lot of misinformation. I thought to be big and strong and lean, you had to work out a bunch. I thought if you didn’t eat anything, you wouldn’t gain anything back. When you inform yourself like that, you’re basically eating away your body. So, for me, I had to get the right information and see people who went through a similar thing go about their business. My goal now is to use the platform that I have to help kids, anyone — male or female, who’s struggling with something. To say, this guy went through it and here’s some of the ways he looked at things. To learn some great coping skills, and to gain perspective. What my body needs vs. what my body needs. I kept thinking, with my eating disorder, about what negative things I could eat, and how food was the enemy, instead of looking at what things could fuel my body and make me the best I could be. Now, it’s changing it to a positive side. My goal with the social media campaign is to get people aware of how good food can be and how it can fuel your body. Not so much looking around the negative connotation around food.
It’s very brave of you to reach the young people, because big leaguers are models for those people. They look up the them. That’s great what you’re doing. Thank you so much for answering the questions.
MARJAMA: “Of course!”