By Mike Citron
53-year-old Andy Van Slyke is in his first season on the Mariners’ coaching staff, having been brought in by his former teammate of several seasons, manager Lloyd McClendon. Andy serves as the Mariners’ outfield and first-base coach. A three-time All-Star, Van Slyke played thirteen seasons in the Majors (1983-1995), mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, and finished his career with a .274 batting average. He was a high-percentage basestealer, swiping 245 bags while being caught just 54 times. Always entertaining and energetic, Van Slyke sat down with The Grand Salami for a few minutes in August.
GRAND SALAMI: It’s your first year coaching in Seattle. How’s the season gone from your perspective?
ANDY VAN SLYKE: It’s been good. We have a very young team in many aspects [but we also] have good veteran leadership with Cano at second base. It’s a nice mix. Personally, I didn’t know what to expect coming to Seattle. You never know how young players are going to react in their second, third, and fourth years in the big leagues, so there were a lot of questions coming into the season. We’re playing very well and it’s very exciting for me personally, because when you have young players, they tend to ask more questions.
GS: I understand that you contacted Lloyd [McClendon] shortly after he was hired to manage the Mariners, expressing interest in being on his staff in Seattle.
VAN SLYKE: I played with Lloyd and I’ve coached with him, so I understand how he works. He’s a very competitive guy. I’ve had a long history with Lloyd McClendon. After he got let go as the manager in Pittsburgh, I knew he would be a manager again someday, and given the right circumstances I knew he could do a fine job. It was an easy decision for me to make [to join Lloyd’s staff], I’m just glad it’s the decision he made.
GS: What do you recall about Lloyd as a player?
VAN SLYKE: Very competitive, very intense. He didn’t like to lose. That’s what you’re looking for, a guy that likes to show up at the ballpark and beat the other team every night. When that’s genuine, when it comes from the heart, it’s contagious.
GS: You won five Gold Gloves as an outfielder in your playing career. In your opinion, what makes a good defensive outfielder?
VAN SLYKE: More than anything else, you’ve got to have a passion for defense. The fact is, you’re not going to make big money by playing defense in this game, you make money by putting up offensive numbers and by putting up numbers on the mound. But you win championships with defense. That’s what I’ve tried to communicate to the outfielders we have here, that it’s a commitment to work every day. You just can’t go out there and expect to be a good outfielder, you really have to handle the ball just about every day. When you do that, you take the hard plays and make them look like average plays. And then sometimes you make the extraordinary play and you know you’re getting better. I think that’s happening here this year.
GS: How much improvement have you seen from the young Mariner outfielders?
VAN SLYKE: We’ve made strides. We were really young in the outfield before we traded for [Austin] Jackson and he adds a lot to our outfield defense. [Dustin] Ackley hadn’t played much left field before this year. When you play a new position at the big-league level there’s always a learning curve. He’s excited about getting better. When you give a young player a little bit of a vision of what they’re trying to accomplish, you like to see them run with it.
GS: What makes a good first base coach? To the average fan, most of them probably aren’t really sure what you do out there.
VAN SLYKE: Coaching first base, I’m looking for little things, tips I can give the players to help them out. As a player, you can’t really see everything. As a coach, I only have to watch, so sometimes I may pick up something that the player doesn’t notice that can help us. There’s a term called “Playing to the Scoreboard,” and you run the bases based on the scoreboard. There are times when you can be aggressive and there are times when you have to be careful and go base to base. You can be aggressive based on the outfielder or based on how the ball is hit. There are little things that you’re trying to remind the baserunner of to help him go 90 feet more than he might do on his own.
GS: Seattle’s in a pennant race this year for the first time in ages. What’s it like for the coaches to be in a pennant race?
VAN SLYKE: It’s the same for the coaches as it is for the players. It’s always nice to show up at the ballpark when you’re contending. If you’re at the All-Star break and you’re 15 games out, you pretty much know that your season’s over. The fact that we’re in the Wild Card race makes it exciting to show up at the ballpark every day.
GS: As a player you were traded from the Cardinals to the Pirates on April 1, 1987, right before the beginning of that season. Is it true that you didn’t believe you’d been traded, that you thought it was an April Fools’ joke?
VAN SLYKE: That was a big year for me, my fifth season in the big leagues. During spring training I was playing every day, batting third. So when I got to the ballpark that day I saw the lineup and it only had eight names in it, with the third spot in the batting order left blank. That was strange. So we took batting practice and [Cardinals manager] Whitey Herzog told me I’d been traded to Pittsburgh. And I did think it was some kind of joke, because I thought there was no way the Cardinals would trade me—in my mind I was the most important player in the organization! So I got traded to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates had finished in last place the previous three seasons. I thought I was going from the penthouse to the outhouse.
GS: Your son Scott is having a nice season this year for the Dodgers. You must be very proud.
VAN SLYKE: Scott’s really endured a lot. He’s been sent up and down eight or nine times with the Dodgers and he finally stuck this year. It’s a testament to his will to do what it takes to play at the big-league level. To learn four different positions on the defensive side of the ball is a big asset to his team, and that has really helped him stay in the big leagues. I’m not sure he’d be in the Majors right now if he only played one position. He’s sort of a manager’s trump card—he can play different positions, he can be used in a double switch, and he’s dangerous at the plate.
GS: How do you think you’d feel if the Mariners were facing the Dodgers in the World Series one of these years and Scott was on the other side?
VAN SLYKE: Well, we did play against the Dodgers in spring training. But if it ever happened in the World Series, I’d say I hope Scott has a great game and loses (laughs).
GS: We’re seeing more father-son combinations in the game than ever before. Do you think it helps Scott as a player that his dad played the game and perhaps understands better than other dads what he might be going through?
VAN SLYKE: Maybe there’s a little bit of an advantage when your father has played the game. I just try to remind him to be the best professional he can be and the best Dodger he can be. That’s probably the best advice I can give him.
GS: What are your favorite cities to visit on the road?
VAN SLYKE: I enjoy every city we go to. I love to go out and see the different cultures of our country. During the All-Star break I went back to St. Louis and realized how much I missed it. When I’m in Boston I’ll go out and see the city. When I’m in New York I’ll go down to the financial district where one of my other sons works and wander around there. I really enjoy the travel part of the game. When that gets to be a grind then you won’t see me coaching anymore.