BY John Hickey 05:57PM 03/10/2011

Figgins script vital if M’s are to improve

Mariner third baseman has an intriguing ritual of writing in the dirt.

Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins wants to write a new script for his 2011 season with Seattle / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

PEORIA, AZ, – Fans with even a moderate interest in baseball can pick out the pre-at-bat preparation that Ichiro goes through.

The torturous ankle squat just before coming out of the on-deck circle. The deep knee bends. The meticulous adjustment of his left sleeve.

It’s so ingrained in the Seattle psyche that the Mariners based one of their ad campaigns around it a few years ago.

Not all ritual at-bat preliminaries can be so easily committed to memory. Take for example the Mariners’ No. 2 hitter, Chone Figgins. What’s the deal with him?

Every at-bat for a decade dating back to his time in the Angels’ minor league system has seen Figgins use his bat to scrawl a quick something in the dirt, then just as quickly erase it with his foot.

What that something is, Figgins won’t say. It looks like it might just be a straight line or a semicircle. He won’t tell the media what he does or why he does it. He won’t even clue in members of his own family “who have been asking me about it for years,’’ Figgins said told sportspressnw.com.

Of course you could ask opposing catchers or home plate umpires for clues, except that they don’t know what Figgins’ little missive is, either.

“I scratch it out as soon as I write it,’’ said Figgins, who is batting second and hitting .286 this spring to date. “There’s no way they can see it.’’

Whatever the mark(s) in the dirt are, the ritual is deeply personal to Figgins and not something he’s at all interested in sharing.

“Lots of guys have their rituals – Ichiro, Vlad (Guerrero), Manny (Ramirez), Nomar (Garciaparra),’’ Figgins said. “This is mine. It’s just me. It’s something that helps me prepare for every at-bat.’’

For the first half of the 2010 season, the ritual was more like a curse. Figgins, new to the Mariners, new to batting second and new to playing second base, got off to the worst start of his career. He averaged .200 for the first month, was at .211 after two months and it took a furious finish – a .322 average in September – to get his final average up to a career-worst .259.

No matter what he tried, nothing Figgins did in the first two months of 2010 seemed to help. He could have been writing Shakespearean sonnets on the ground of the batters’ box and it wouldn’t have improved things.

There’s an old saying that nothing is so terrible that it can’t at least serve as a bad example, and that’s the basic attitude Figgins’ takes going into this year. When he gets into the box and does his little scrawl, it won’t say “attack.’’ But it might as well, because that’s the mindset he’s taking into the 2011 season.

“I’m going to be more aggressive, be more ready to attack each pitch,’’ Figgins said. “I’d always done that before, but last year I was patient.’’

Wait a minute. Aren’t hitters in this day of sabermetrics and moneyball and OPS supposed to be patient? And No. 2 hitters should be, more than most, in order to give the leadoff hitter, in Seattle’s case Ichiro, a chance to steal second base.

“Yeah,’’ Figgins said. “But there’s being patient and there’s being patient with a chance to crush the right pitch if it comes.’’

Oh? What’s the difference?

“I can’t tell you,’’ Figgins said. “There are guys who are going to read this that I wouldn’t want them to know how I think about that.’’

Nice – a little twist on the “if I told you I’d have to kill you’’ response to a question, and it does underscore the serious manner in which Figgins, normally the most cheerful of guys, takes his job. His job is scoring runs, and that’s an area in which the Mariners were simply abysmal in 2010.

Figgins scored 62 runs, the fewest he’d come up with since being limited to 71 games because of injuries in 2003. Seattle as a whole scored 513 runs, the lowest total in the league and the poorest production for a Seattle team in a full season ever – by a factor of 43 runs.

It was enough to cost manager Don Wakamatsu – with whom Figgins had a celebrated dugout shouting match in June – his job, and it put general manager Jack Zduriencik on the spot for 2011.

“It was a disappointing season all the way around,’’ Figgins said when asked about the Wakamatsu mess. The manager lost his job about six weeks after the June 24 contretemps in the Safeco Field dugout, when Jose Lopez and Jason Vargas, among others, had to get between Figgins and Wakamatsu, who wasn’t happy with Figgins failing to back up a throw. “It’s what happens when you don’t win. This game is about winning.’’

Figgins had always been a winner. The Angels were a sub-.500 club in 2003, when Figgins got his first extended playing time, but for the rest of his career in Anaheim, the Angels never won fewer than 89 games.

So for the Mariners to go 61-101 in his first season in the Pacific Northwest grated at Figgins. To be clear, it still grates at him. He says his 2011 motivation will come off 2010’s disappointments.

“I learned just how much I don’t like losing,’’ Figgins said of 2010. “I learned that even when it’s tough, I’m not going to quit. Not ever.

“The last month or two of the season might have been the best finish of my life. I know .259 doesn’t look that good, but it looks a lot better than .190 or whatever I was in April.’’

He’d like nothing better than to prove it this year.

Twitter: @JHickey3


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