CLINTON — Newly appointed Clinton LumberKings Manager Mitch Canham closed down Eagle Point Park Lodge by opening fans’ minds to more winning Monday.
Canham put on the No. 11 green alternate jersey with the black home hat for the first time at the annual Hot Stove Banquet.
“I’ve never had that experience,” Canham said. “When I was drafted, the Padres gave me a uniform, but you get that overwhelming feeling not only of joy but of responsibility. It comes with a weight you want to put on yourself. It’s go-time.”
Canham and Seattle’s Director of Player Development, Andy McKay, are just as adamant as the fans are to put a winning product on the field following a dire 2015 season.
“I look forward to understanding what this community is all about,” Canham said. “We’re going to push everyday — at home or on the road — to make you guys proud.”
McKay echoed Canham’s sentiments but from more of a Seattle perspective.
“Winning baseball games in Clinton is important in Seattle,” McKay said. “What I can assure you coming to the ballpark, you will enjoy watching this team play. If you are not proud of the team you’re watching, I want to hear about it. The message has been received loud and clear, and I like that, because there’s passion.”
Clinton finished 2015 with the worst record in minor league baseball at 46-93. The LumberKings were third-to-last in the Midwest League with a .239 batting average and their pitchers were second-to-last among league teams with a 4.31 earned-run average.
“We were 30th in baseball in winning percentage in minor league baseball from the bottom to the top,” McKay said. “And, that’s not OK. We’re not happy about it. Winning baseball games in Clinton, Iowa, is important to the people in Seattle.”
One way McKay and the rest of the Seattle minor-league staff hopes to fix that is approaching the Major League Baseball Draft differently.
McKay explained during his brief keynote speech that the organization — which hired 14 new front-office staff members this offseason — will focus on adding more college baseball players to its arsenal.
The Mariners’ first pick in last year’s draft (at No. 60) was a high-school player — Nick Neidert — out of Georgia. Three of their next four picks, however, came out of the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 (then known as the Pac-10) is exactly where Canham played his college ball, and to be more exact, at Oregon State. Canham learned a thing or two about winning in Corvallis, Oregon.
Seattle’s first pick in the 2014 draft, Alex Jackson, also was drafted out of high school. Jackson, a San Diego native, started the 2015 season in Clinton for 28 games and hit .157 before quietly finishing the season in Everett.
“We’re fans of college baseball,” McKay said. “We’re fans of good players. We’ll be drafting more college baseball players than we have in the past. We believe college players are a lot more prepared to help a team.”
McKay says the organization will still draft high school players but says they believe in college baseball.
McKay wasn’t interested in making a move at first. He gave the Mariners an opportunity to talk, but he turned the tables around so that he was interviewing the Mariners.
“I prepared a book as to what my visions were for the Mariners,” McKay said. “So, the very first part of the book was winning minor league baseball games was critical of creating winning MLB players. I think winning baseball games is a skill that has to be taught.”
The Mariners bought in, and McKay, who comes from the Colorado Rockies organization where he served as the peak performance coordinator, accepted his current role.
McKay also has head coaching college experience at Sacramento City College.
The first of 14 people McKay hired in the minor-league system was Canham. Canham was a catcher and even played last season in independent baseball. McKay first met Canham when the new LumberKings skipper was just a freshman at Oregon State.
“Mitch arrived on campus and made a strong declaration that we’re going to win a national championship here,” McKay said. “That was viewed as laughable ... not only did they win a national title, they won two of them led by Mitch Canham.”
Canham hopes to bring similar success to Clinton.
“I know how important it is to compete with all their heart,” Canham said. “I will take it extremely seriously when we’re out there representing the Seattle Mariners.”
Before Canham’s speech at the Hot Stove, he and McKay spent the day getting a tour of the town and Ashford University Field.
“I had no idea what to expect coming in, but I think they did a great job after hearing about the renovations,” Canham said. “Players spend a lot of time in clubhouse. That’s where they prepare for a game and reflect after. It looks like a strong environment to do that.
“I take away the environment needs to change and the community wants to see wins,” Canham added. “A lot of people in community just want to see not just wins but competitive baseball.”