Mike Stanton walks through the Marlins’ clubhouse looking like something the ancient Greeks might have imagined in marble. He is 6-5, shoulders broad, biceps bulging, the black bat in his right hand appearing as light as a chopstick.
He is a baseball prodigy, nothing less, on this his first Opening Day as a major-leaguer. All of those tape-measure home runs he hit in the secrecy of the minors formed the outline of near-Ruthian legend. An almost mythic aura both precedes and follows him, the promise of prolific power.
Something will be crushed here.
It will be the baseballs he sends flying prodigiously over outfield walls.
Or will it be Stanton himself, under the weight of expectations?
He just turned 21, and how he handles the burden of what he is supposed to become will, for me, be the most fascinating subplot of this 19th Marlins season and last in the old stadium, commencing Friday night here against the New York Mets.
Not many experts see the Marlins as a playoff team in the tough NL East, in a season that figures to be little more than a lengthy bridge to the 2012 opening of the new ballpark. Just think of Stanton as a pleasant way to help pass the time.
What the Marlins have, what we have as a sporting community, could be extraordinary. In terms of home-grown, team-drafted talent, Stanton has the potential to place himself in the company of what arrived with Dan Marino in 1983, or with Dwyane Wade in 2003.
That might be hyperbole.
Ah, but what if it isn’t!
When can you think big, and see nothing but good, if not on Opening Day?
This day (or in this case, night) is magical in baseball unlike in other sports, and part of the magic with this Florida squad is that four position players along with its manager are experiencing their first Opening Day together.
Only Stanton among them arrives with “chosen one” status.
Last season he teased with 22 home runs in barely more than half a season after his June call-up from the minors. Now, secure as the right fielder and cleanup hitter, he already is the biggest star on the team after All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez and All-Star pitcher Josh Johnson.
“I’m sure he has already heard about hitting 40, 50, 60 home runs,” manager Edwin Rodriguez said Thursday of Stanton. “But the expectations got to come from him, nobody else. I think the pressure kind of got to him last year. Mental toughness is going to be a big factor for him.”
The phenom has been cocooned and coached on mastering the game that starts within an athlete’s head. Naturally quiet, not given to boasts, he seems suited for the role.
Ask Stanton his personal goals. He knows you want a number.
“Just be the best version of myself,” came his Dr. Phil answer Thursday, and you got no more.
Ramirez, a veteran now on a young team, has counseled Stanton to not read the newspapers or listen to talk radio, “just focus every day and not worry about what people say. Just come to the park and be your best every day.”
First baseman Gaby Sanchez, also young but without the burden of Stanton’s illuminated, Brobdingnagian potential, roomed with Stanton during spring training and they spoke often.
“If he doesn’t think about it and just lets his ability go, I can’t even put a number on his potential. It’s unbelievable,” Sanchez says. “Talking to him, it looks like his head’s on right.”
Rodriguez likens Stanton’s talent to that of Texas’ Josh Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP.
“The ceiling on these guys — if you put numbers you are limiting them,” said the manager.
Part of what surrounds Stanton with a bigger-than-life aura is the nature of this sport. Baseball is different. There is more mystery involved, less advance indication of who’ll be great, or maybe beyond great.
Marino had a well-known track record throwing passes at Pitt, and Wade shooting baskets at Marquette. We had seen them play. Heard the Mel Kipers analyze them. Had an idea what we might be getting.
Stanton is just a kid who graduated high school in California in 2007, got signed by a scout you’ve never heard of, was selected in a draft you didn’t see (second round), and toiled 31/2 years on the unlit stage of the minors, sans TV cameras.
Besides, alleged phenoms are so often false advertising, right? Wasn’t Cameron Maybin supposed to be all that? Ex-Marlins manager John Boles once told me Preston Wilson could be a 50-homer guy. Anybody remember Harold Miner?
We can’t be certain, yet, if Stanton will meet his potential or fall short. We do know that early signs are very good, and that there will be no greater must-see minutes in any Marlins games this season than whenever Stanton is stepping to the plate.
The kid sent a message to his Twitter followers the other day. He probably was referring to his team. But for humility he could as easily have meant his own blossoming career:
“The end of spring is here,” he wrote, “the start of something great is near.”