Around the Horn

Quiet offseason ends with another Mariner self-immolation

Greetings, baseball fans. There hasn't been a lot of activity here on over the winter—none, really—but Spring Training is here and the 2021 season looks like it'll get started more or less as usual after last year's COVID-19-disrupted parody of a campaign. It's not that there hasn't been material to cover or discuss during the offseason; just because Seattle General Manager Jerry Dipoto didn't go on one of his trading binges doesn't mean everything stayed completely static. But there were other things going ona critical election campaign, more pandemic drama, an attempt to violently overthrow the American government by cultitsand, frankly, your's truly wasn't all that motivated to write about Your Seattle Mariners. 

But the offseason is over. Spring games are scheduled to start this weekend. Thanks to continued pandemic realities, we won't be heading down to see games at the Ballpark by Elliott Bay for a while, but the team will still be taking the field and ostensibly competing for a championship nonetheless.

So what did happen since we last touched base here in October?

Not a lot, really. Players that were expected to leave the Mariners left, a few small additions were made, and one significant free agent was signed (we'll talk about all that in a future post). The league and the players' union continued to mistrust each other and thus came to no agreements ahead of the impending expiration of their collective bargaining agreement following the ’21 season. The minor leagues were radically restructured in a way that might make sense to some bean counters but is unfortunate for baseball generally.

Oh, and the president and CEO of the Mariners figuratively lit himself on fire and ran his mouth in public and on camera to force himself out of a job.

Kevin Mather had been at the top of the Mariners' org chart since 2014, replacing retired club president Chuck Armstrong and continuing the organization's long tradition of having myopic leadership at its highest levels. He was never particularly good at his job and a large portion of his duties seemed to be dedicated to putting out or obscuring the public relations fires he himself created for the team, including settling lawsuits brought against him for sexual harassment (incidents that bizarrely did not hinder him from earning promotions from club ownership). When he went in front of a Bellevue Rotary Club last Saturday and candidly said the quiet parts out loud about how the club manipulates players' Major League service time and how he personally resents paying staff, he didn't make a lot of news; I mean, we already knew service-time shenanigans were rampant and that Mather was an asshole. The news was that he said it on video and thus couldn't avoid bad press for it.

When you read the transcript of his remarks, you can sense that Mather was oblivious to his missteps, but it's all there—the insults, the whining, the cheapness, the dehumanizing view of young men who play baseball for a living. And hey, Kevin, you don't like the way people from elsewhere in the world speak English? Tell me, how's your Spanish? Your Japanese? Nihon-go wa wakarimasen desu ka? You ever gone to live in a foreign land for any length of time without knowing the language when you got there? English is not an easy language to learn if you didn't grow up with it, you entitled jackass, and no one needs to learn it just to accommodate you and your Scrooge-like miserly ways.

Mather's candid admissions came at a time when the union and the Commissioner's Office, who were nearly at each other's throats anyway, have to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement; the union side now has significantly more leverage, which no doubt cheeses off the other 29 Major League club owners, who might try to blame the Mariners as isolated actors when it comes to service manipulation but no one believes that to be the case. Mather's remarks come just as a young core of Mariner players was to start their time together as a big-league team, now freshly insulted by their employer in a rather counterproductive method of instilling loyalty. His snark happened as the game is suffering under the self-inflicted black eyes struck by its own commissioner, a foolish tinkerer who seems to actively dislike his sport, adding to the alienation of a fan base that only has so much patience in it.

Mather's gone now, though, so this fiasco may turn out to be a good thing in the end. (Emphasis on may.) If the Mariners choose to turn this PR bruising into an opportunity to really change, it could be a real boon.

The Mariners as an organization have never been about real success. Its concept of succeeding has been based on a rather modest goal of sustainable continued existence: Do a bit better than break-even on the balance sheet, squeeze as much revenue out of the meager built-in customer base that simply being a Major League team brings, and give the baseball people enough resources to provide plausible deniability for when its asked to account for its decades of failure on the field.

In another example of saying the quiet part out loud, former club CEO Howard Lincoln once infamously said that winning the World Series was not the goal of the Seattle Mariners. Instead, the goal was merely continued existence without going into the red, demonstrating the short-sighted smallness that has always plagued this team. The one time that the club altered its philosophy to include broadening its appeal and building a winner—aligning, not coincidentally, with the Lou Piniella years—it was still about continued existence. The M's needed out of the Kingdome and into a decent facility. Once that was achieved, they no longer needed to have broad appeal to keep on existing in a state of mediocrity. Sure, they tried throwing a bunch of money at then-GM Bill Bavasi to win games again that one time, but the lesson upper management learned from that was that such things aren't worth trying (when the real lesson to learn was never hire Bill Bavasi to be your GM). No, you don't risk anything. Just occasionally make some headlines with a big signing like Robinson Canó to pump up short-term interest (regardless of whether or not it makes any baseball sense to do it), pay just enough attention to the product itself to keep conversant with talking points for the press, but never think too far ahead or out of your narrow box of continued existence.

With Mather's departure, the M's can change their ways. If nothing else, it gets a destructive voice off of MLB committees—Mather sat on the league's Long-Term Strategic Planning, Finance and Compensation, Investment, Internal Audit, and Revenue Sharing committees—but the Seattle Mariners can choose to think bigger.

Rather than defining success by mere continued existence, the club can set a long-term goal to be a regional institution not unlike what the Cardinals are to the Midwest or the Red Sox are to New England. It can commit to the broad appeal philosophy, to building up the fan base rather than just squeezing every dime out of the diehard core. To making the game accessible to Northwest fans in more if not all tax brackets, to creating low-cost ways to follow the team beyond just the radio, to maintain the interest of new fans by leaning into the uniqueness of baseball instead of trying to dilute it, and, yes, to put a truly competitive team on the field.

Just think of what the Mariners could do for themselves by hiring a new CEO that not only meets what should be bare minimum requirements to be better than Mather by respecting the people that work for the team, but that can see beyond the next quarter's bottom line. That recognizes that more fans is better than fewer, that loves baseball as a unique thing not just as an abstract business, that has enough knowledge and evaluation skill to step in if/when a GM loses touch with his/her goals but still not micromanage. That knows that it should be a goal to win the World Series, that contention keeps interest and thus revenue flow. That wants kids and grownups alike all across the region to attend, watch, and follow the Mariners and actually acts to make it happen.

But this is Your Seattle Mariners we're talking about, so I won't hold my breath. I'll believe it when I see it.


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