Saint Louis alum League's body art brightens Mariners' bullpen
PEORIA, Ariz. — Brandon League is a walking art gallery.
The free-spirited surfer from Hawai‘i has a body adorned with some of the most elaborate and colorful tattoos in the game. He even has his name scrolled across his shoulders, an ink-into-skin replication of what will be stitched onto the back of his new Mariners jersey this season.
"It's body art," said League, a Saint Louis School alum who turns 27 next week. "I don't know how many I have. I count by how many limps and body parts I have."
The Mariners don't really care that he's a human canvas. What matters to them is how he paints the corner of home plate.
Seattle traded former No. 1 draft choice Brandon Morrow to Toronto in December to get League, thinking he will upgrade a bullpen that helped the Mariners make a surprising, 24-win turnaround last season.
Before he'd thrown a pitch for them, the Mariners gave League a $400,000 raise in January with a $1,087,500, one-year contract that avoided arbitration.
The consensus on the trade of hard-throwing Brandons was that each team believed their guy had underperformed, and that a scenery change would benefit them.
"It was two different clubs that needed two different things," League said. "The Blue Jays needed a starter. If you look at their bullpen, if they need to trade someone they could trade a couple guys in the bullpen and still be all right. It has Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Jeremy Accardo, Jesse Carlson, Shawn Camp. It's one of the best bullpens in league."
But the Jays' rotation is suspect, especially with Roy Halladay off to Philadelphia. So the Blue Rays took a chance on Morrow, an occasionally dominant right-hander whom Seattle had yo-yoed between starting and relieving in the majors and at Triple-A the last two years.
League was similarly yanked around by Toronto. The second-round pick in 2001 reached the big leagues three years later, and appeared in 20 games with the Blue Jays in 2005.
"I started in the 'pen (with Triple-A Syracuse) in 2006 and had 55 innings when I was called up after All-Star break," League said. "Instead of three innings every couple days, I was going back-to-back-to-back. Not having a schedule, my arm reacted differently.
"I had 45 innings in the second half. That was a lot of innings and irregular work. I kind of shut down in September. It was just weak."
League developed shoulder problems and, in 2007, pitched just 11 2-3 innings.
"The MRI showed a couple torn things," he said. "I rehabbed to get it strong and it was too strong. It messed up my mechanics the next year. It was not until July (2008) for me to get back where I was again."
He finally re-established himself last season with a 4.58 ERA in 67 appearances. He had 76 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 74 2-3 innings.
Seattle thinks similar efficiency this season will nicely bridge the inning or two between its strong rotation and closer David Aardsma, who broke out with 38 saves last year.
"His confidence level was regained last year," Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair said. "He's very confident in what he is doing now."
Adair watched League develop while as a minor league pitching coach earlier this decade in the Blue Jays' system. He said League has lowered his arm before delivering pitches, and that the Mariners are trying to raise it.
League's two-seam and four-seam fastballs are "explosive," Adair said, complemented by a slider and a split-fingered fastball.
"He still has the same talent level," Adair said.
Then the coach thought of his fun-loving Seattle bullpen. Throughout last season, Mariners relievers dragged warrior headdresses from the clubhouse out to the 'pen and performed wacky rituals before and during each game.
"His personality fits in great with this ballclub," Adair said.
Yes, less than a month into spring training, the offbeat, free-spirited surfer dude with more tattoos than most bikers already thinks he's found a home.
"I think it's a nice, laid-back group," League said. "There are some veteran guys, so you know things aren't going to get out of hand."