M's Chone Figgins isn't happy with his season, but isn't ready to apologize for clashes
By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter
The night's game is still 3 ½ hours away, and Chone Figgins is already making a whole lot of noise.
Figgins is in an indoor batting cage at Target Field in Minneapolis. Any Mariners just arriving at the visitors clubhouse from the team hotel can hear a "thwack!" sound echoing through the corridor every few seconds as Figgins puts his bat on some underhand tosses from hitting coach Alonzo Powell.
This is the Figgins everyone in Seattle was told about last December when he signed with the Mariners for four years, $36 million: the hardworking, veteran on-field producer who shows up early and lets his play do the talking.
Instead, they've seen a player who has struggled after switching positions in the field and batting order. A player who has twice publicly questioned decisions by manager Don Wakamatsu, most recently on July 23, when they clashed in the dugout after Figgins was benched for a perceived lack of effort backing up a throw.
Figgins insists he's the same quiet, focused and emotional player as always. But it has been a year of adjustment: both for a struggling Figgins and for impatient Mariners fans still getting a handle on exactly who he is.
"I understand that I haven't done what I've done in the past to help us get to the point where we can be a winning team," Figgins said over the weekend. "And I'm the one that has to look at myself in the mirror to prepare myself, to keep pushing, to keep getting better and to finish strong and for us to try to win."
And Figgins said he looks in the mirror with critical eyes.
"I'm just as hard on myself when things are going well," he said. "I tell myself not to get comfortable, ever."
But Figgins isn't willing to apologize for sparring with Wakamatsu. He still won't discuss what happened.
Figgins shrugs when asked whether Seattle fans have the right impression of him.
"I'm the same guy," he said. "Nothing changes. I've never really been an outspoken guy. I've been this way since I was a kid. I'm not a very talkative person. I never have been."
Until, that is, somebody messes with his playing time or does something he finds disrespectful. In June, Figgins criticized Wakamatsu for dropping him from No. 2 in the order to No. 9.
And the recent dugout flare-up wasn't the first time Figgins had been criticized for not hustling to back up a throw. In June 2006, Angels manager Mike Scioscia called out Figgins after a ball got by him and rolled another 40 feet before he picked it up.
"The errors, combined with Figgy not busting it for that ball, compounded that situation," Scioscia told reporters at the time. "We talked about it. That's not like Figgy."
Indeed, there have been only a handful of instances since his 2002 debut in which Figgins has been accused of not hustling. Figgins prides himself on coming to play and doesn't take kindly to suggestions he's dogging it.
"When it comes to baseball, I'm an emotional person because I want to win," Figgins said. "And I want to do well. Sometimes, it's just emotions."
Does he ever regret acting on those emotions?
"That's just my emotions," he replied. "I hate having days off. I don't want a day off. I never want to come out of a game. In Anaheim, when that happened, I was never happy. You can ask Mike Scioscia. Every time he said, 'You have a day off,' I was never happy."
Russell Branyan has said he thinks Figgins "is a bit misunderstood at times."
Figgins is closest with former Angels teammate Casey Kotchman, but also amicable with Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, Jack Wilson, and even Ichiro. He was also close with Ken Griffey Jr. and last week flashed two and four fingers at a television camera as a gesture of respect for his former Mariners teammate after a home run.
Hitting coach Powell said Figgins is "one of the first guys here every day. He's one of the hardest workers we have on the team."
Powell has worked at getting Figgins to swing for the tops of balls with "a downward plane" to produce more grounders. Figgins had been popping out early, something Powell suspects was from his switch to the No. 2 spot.
"There's a big difference between hitting first and second," Powell said. "A lot of times, when Ichiro gets on base, you're trying to give him an opportunity to steal a bag. Certain pitches, you're not going to swing at. And it takes away some of your aggressiveness."
Figgins agreed he was too patient in April and May.
"When I did get a pitch to hit," he said, "I was popping balls up instead of getting on top of them and hitting hard ground balls, hard line drives."
Figgins has gotten better since. By July, his line drive and ground ball rates climbed to season highs of 23 percent and 49 percent.
Figgins doesn't feel his extra fielding work converting from third base to second has detracted from his hitting. Perfecting the footwork has been toughest, though he is comfortable turning double plays.
And comfortable with his new team. He had a harder time adjusting to being traded by Colorado to the Angels as a minor leaguer.
"A lot of it had to do with having a choice of where I wanted to play," he said. "I chose Seattle because I wanted to be there. I still do."
A weekend report stated the Mariners had shopped Figgins to Atlanta. But a source disputed that, saying the Braves approached the Mariners and were told Figgins was not available.
For now, Figgins is here to stay
"You have to try to finish strong," Figgins said. "And that way, you hope it can carry into next year."
And help people forget what happened in this one.