BY Art Thiel 07:00AM 10/26/2012

Thiel: Mariners so foolish, anger seems futile

The ticket-price-increase snafu prompted an apology from the Mariners, but the franchise pathos goes beyond anger to sadness and pity.

Safeco Field? Nice park. After that . . . / Wiki Commons

The latest mis-step by the Mariners front office is so pathetic that anger seems futile. It’s like watching a kid falling off his bike into a puddle. Neither yelling nor laughing is the right thing, so pick him up, wipe off the tears and mud and send him on his way.

At a time when the franchise reputation is lower than the U.S. Army’s supply of horses and bayonets, the Mariners forgot to tell their most loyal customers, the season-ticket holders, that a price increase was on the way.

The courtesy heads-up is business 101. I’m told that even Boeing lets the government know when the price of military-airplane toilet seats goes up 50 percent to $10,000. But the Mariners bosses, in the fashion of so many of their hitters, whiffed. An apology was sent this week from Bob Aylward, senior vice president of business operations:

We apologize. The Mariners organization works hard to have an open line of communication with our Season Ticket Holders, whom we value and consider the backbone of our fan base.

However, recently we sent you a season ticket renewal notice without making it clear that there were price increases for many accounts. We had planned to have our account managers speak personally to all our Season Ticket Holders to explain the changes for 2013 and get your feedback. That didn’t happen in a timely manner.

Our goal was to provide you with personalized attention. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it right.

We recognize the financial and emotional investment you have made in Mariners Baseball. We are sorry for our miscommunication. And we pledge to do better.

By itself, the blunder is not a big deal. It wasn’t as if getting a heads-up was going to produce a price rollback.

But a blunt-force price increase coming after another lousy season and amid the open wound of their arena opposition that has some part of the Seattle sports community looking away in disgust, compounded the folly. And then having it come during October’s annual celebration of baseball . . .  the rolling debacle goes beyond anger to sadness.

Fergawdsakes, I and most everyone in town wishes success upon the Mariners. They keep fighting us off.

The episode’s timing coincided with the annual scab-picking that finds another 10 teams getting a little somethin’-somethin’ from the postseason while the Mariners are 11 years without, yet are capable of committing an E-franchise three weeks after their season ended.

Watching the World Series and the Detroit Tigers’ considerable midsection lineup of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young, the realization struck that the Mariners don’t have one guy like them on the 40-man roster, if not the whole organization. And then Pablo Sandoval of the Giants, 5-foot-11 and 250 pounds, in Game 1 pounds out three home runs in the most hitter-unfriendly park in baseball.

Move in the fences? How about letting out the pants?

I realize it was a freak occurrence for any team; hitting home runs by itself is not a barometer of baseball success. But in baseball, as in football, there’s a little bit of an eye test that applies. When Washington coach Steve Sarkisian stood on the pre-game sidelines in Baton Rouge in September and looked at Louisiana State and then at Washington, he knew right away the Huskies brought pillows to a chainsaw fight.

I mean, Dustin Ackley is a nice ballplayer, but he does not ripple the pond, much less make a splash. Same with every Mariners position player. The only scary dude, Felix Hernandez, plays every fifth day. For 10 years, the franchise player was Ichiro, master of the 60-foot worm-disturber.

It’s just weird. Since the days of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and even gnarly vets like Mark McLemore, the Mariners have been a dial tone. Even Doug Fister, the Tigers’ Game 2 starter who was a Mariner a year ago until he was traded for four potentially adequate players, had a steely resolve about him that became obvious to the world Thursday night when he was struck in the head by a line drive and still pitched six innings of one-run ball.

Yes, there’s more to baseball than looks. But the Mariners neither look nor act like a championship operation. But you knew that, knew that for so long that it’s hard to work up enough passion for a chuckle or a heckle. Just wipe the mud and tears, skip the anger and go to straight to pity.


  • maqman

    Obviously Nintendo is only good at imaginary games and not real ones. They should sell the team to Apple, they’d find an app to fix it.

  • pity? Beyond that now. Now they produce apathy. Or not, who cares.

  • Michael Kaiser

    I know I seldom present a soft-touch (but just so you know, SPNW is really the only local sports coverage I follow, so at least you are loved), but I think perhaps you are letting them off a bit easy, or missing what probably was really going on here. This was only a “blunder” in the sense it blew up in the Mariners’ face. What occurred here was a variation of the slime that one sees almost across the board these days, businesses trying to nickel and dime folks to death, while also, whenever possible, extracting extra revenue from these parties by, essentially, sleight-of-hand, often times involving “unique” billing methodology. If part of the Mariners’ plan had been to make this price increase well-known to fans, it would have been, the same way the Mariners make anything front and center to the fans that they think will benefit the Mariners. Typically, though, in today’s society, the sheep have decided just to keep grazing, and so these things are going to get worse and worse. And, yes, it goes without saying that only the most arrogant and blind would even contemplate hoisting a ticket increase on the public following the recent Mariners’ track record. But then again, the Mariners have, essentially, always had a free pass in Hooterville to be the pathetic franchise they have been–from top to bottom with about a five-plus year interlude when the Mariners brought in, first and foremost, the anti-Seattle, Lou Piniella. A man, a winner, and someone who, to put it mildly, was not passive-aggressive about demanding excellence and getting it. Even his “failures” in Chicago, for example, were better than almost anything the Mariners have ever seen.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Well written article, by the way. Captures the depth of the Mariners’ woes, attitude and presence-wise.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the love, Michael. Tell your friends.

      You know, I don’t think I’m ready to go there on the deliberate calculation. I do think dynamic pricing is a slippery slope, but I think the failure to alert was due to sloppiness rather than deceit. The ticket-price increase at this juncture, remains unfathomable.

      • Michael Kaiser

        You could be right. I always default to believing the worst. It is one of my strengths.

      • FnuLnu

        Has Art Thiel ever been accused of being naive?

        How about, would sales reps working on a commission for the M’s (or at the P-I) ever be tasked with informing customers that a price increase were to occur while pursuing their main mission of asking folks to buy their product? What likelihood would a customer (season ticket holder) be notified of the price increase by a sales rep unless the ST holder specifically asked about it?

        Further the sales reps under Alyward’s scenario would be asked “what about the 2013” payroll? (Answers to which they can’t possibly be able to provide).

        That’s the fallacy in Alyward’s “apology” letter – which is basically an apology for getting caught.
        No way would a sales rep be expected to be able to explain such matters, a letter would be required.

        Historically, the M’s sent the season ticketholders a letter in late September which contains the invoice, the ticket plan(s) which has often followed strong leaks in the press regarding (1) where the payroll is going and (2) whether or not plans have gone up. Instead in late September (before Baker heard of it), they sent an email with a link to a milquetoast message from Wedge and a link to their accounts.

        Many folks waited….and waited…. for the letter from the geriatric crowd (Armstrong, Lincoln, Alyward, Adamack) in the M’s front office who control the M’s communication with the season ticketholders. Not some lowly sales rep.

        Even in the 1994/95 off-season, during the middle of the strike, when they foolishly sent out invoices for renewals (a similar PR disaster with ST holders) it was accompanied by a letter.

        This time they were being sneaky and got caught.

        • art thiel

          FnuLnu, I see where you’re going but I don’t know if the grim task would have fallen to sales reps, typically the least experienced, to deliver the bad news after a bad year. You’re right that the top execs should have delivered a signed explainer to every account holder, and it didn’t happen. You ascribe it to deliberate deceit, and while possible, I don’t think the Mariners were so naive that they thought they would get away with it. Hell, some media members ARE season ticket holders. And the fan base is plenty surly enough to rat them out.

          I lean toward incompetence, a screw-up. I realize that’s hard to believe, since they’ve been pushing season ticket renewals annually for 35 years. But they’ve also been after a World Series for 35 years.

  • One note of minor correction: bayonets are still widely used in the military. The Marines spend a significant amount of training on them, as does the Army. Other than that, I’m in complete agreement. The bigger problem I see for the Mariners is the majority of their fans have become apathetic.

    • art thiel

      Maybe the Mariners should equip their bats with bayonets. Frankly, I think they would get more use of them than the Marines in a world where cyber war is the front.

  • effzee

    I just want the ones running the organization to genuinely care about watching an entertaining, competitive product as much as we do. I do not have the opportunity to sit down face to face with any of them and look into their eyes, so I must rely on you here.

    From your exclusive sit-down a couple weeks ago, did you get the impression that they had any clue about the public perception of them, or the strange mix of hatred and apathy that the vast majority of the dwindling numbers of baseball fans in this city feel towards them? If so, do they care? Do they have any idea at all that they are among the worst at doing their jobs, ever? Are they concerned the tiniest little bit about how infrequently their franchise has participated in the baseball post-season? Do you honestly think the M’s upper management cares, at all, about the actual game of baseball, about sports in general, about the connection between super-star athletes and the community at large, about the feelings fans feel inside, about the way it gives a person something to look forward to in this crazy world when their team is worth rooting for?

    What I want to know is, do they care in their hearts, as fans of the game, and not just because it would make them a boat-load more money if they were winning? The evidence seems to indicate, beyond any doubt really, that they care only about turning the turnstiles and making sure that once they are there, the consumers consume to the max. It seems like the product on the field is irrelevant, to them.

    I understand that its just a business, and that there are all kinds of owners and front offices with all kinds of agendas. I also understand that they are probably beginning to understand the connection between winning and maintaining/growing their fan-base. But, I would like to believe that any one of them above Jack Z in the organization has a passion for succeeding at baseball for the simple joy that a well-played sporting event brings. I would like to believe that, but they won’t let me.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Very well voiced.

    • art thiel

      Wow, Effzee.That came from the heart. Well done.

      Since you asked for a deeper answer, I believe that many staffers, senior execs and some owners feel about as you do. But the Mariners seem to be run in the fashion of Japan’s teams, which are, without apology or deceit, mere advertising vehicles for their owners (Nippon Ham, Yomiuri, etc). Winning/losing is secondary to the success of the overall business.

      The irony is that the Mariners owner, Nintendo of America, has by deliberate intent kept its business interests completely apart from the baseball ownership by Hiroshi Yamauchi, its retired chairman. Nintendo does not cross-market with the Mariners. So as far as I can tell, aside from some stadium billboard/program advertising that was mostly due to Ichiro, the Mariners derive no business value from operating Japanese style.

      But as CEO, Howard Lincoln takes orders from Yamauchi, who for outward appearances, is disengaged from baseball interests and outcomes. He is interested in Japanese players, but my guess, and it’s only a guess, is that he demands the business be well-run. That can mean many things to many people, but he trusts Lincoln to do his bidding in running the business well. Yamauchi either does not know or care that fans such as you are so distressed about the condition of the enterprise into which you have invested emotion and cash.

      • effzee

        Interesting, I did not expect this answer. I was thinking more along the lines of do Howard and Chuck realize or care about the public perception of them, but it seems as if all of that is kind of beyond their control. I didn’t realize how much the owner’s philosophy affected the performance of the front office over-all. I guess I assumed that the people Yamauchi put in place were there to make a good baseball team in addition to running the business well, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Thanks for the reply, as always. Unfortunately, this gives me even less hope for the future of the product on the field, as it seems winning isn’t an emphasis for any of the people who make the really important decisions.

  • Wow. depressing article…but true. In this day-and-age with Facebook, Twitter and other social media that makes it easy for fans to communicate with their teams – I really really hope that someone in the front office is paying attention to what fans are saying and our concerns. After stupid PR move after stupid PR move and a few bad baseball decisions mixed in, I have to wonder if anyone up top in the organization is paying attention to us fans. Makes me sick and sad. It feels like having a parent that doesn’t pay attention to you… :-(

    • art thiel

      Well said, Nick. Major league baseball isn’t a grocery store, where you can flit from one to the next for the best deal. Fans are emotionally invested typically in their ONE hometown team. And if it’s owned by the tone deaf, emotional disenfranchisement is highly probable.

  • Also — good example of wasted resources we have. Mariners have seperate people serving as GM, President and CEO. I think most of us can agree the GM (Jack Z) is good but the President and CEO…?… yeah…no.. The Detroit Tigers = Winning team. Committed to winning. They have a GM/President/CEO that’s all the SAME PERSON! Maybe if we cut Howard and Chucks salaries we could afford a big-time bat.

    • Hammtime

      Yeah, I agree about having two separate roles of President and CEO. Honestly, what do Howie and Chuck do on a day to day basis of running a baseball team that is so consuming in effor that it requires two people?
      Seriously, what do they do everyday? Make decisions as to how much a beer should cost? How much to raise ticket prices? How to disenfranchise the fanbase?

      • art thiel

        Hamm, a lot does go into ops. The club employs several hundred full and part-time people. A lot of time is spent on the business of MLB, farm system and civic and charitable obligations. I know you don’t want to hear that during a pile-on, but it’s true.

    • Da Kid

      You’re partly right. Cut Howard and Chuckles. Permanently! They’ve run the team into the ground, and are busy digging for China by way of Hell.

      • art thiel

        Sounds like Chapter 1 of the Jaisun School of Hardball

    • art thiel

      Some orgs separate the jobs, some don’t. Some have three heads, some have one. There’s no right or wrong in terms of org chart. The issue is competency of jobholders.

  • Matt712

    In the spirit of Halloween, I’d like to suggest, with the recent new room on the roster (see Olivo, Kawasaki), the M’s bring in an exorcist, priest, rabbi, shaman – hell, I’d settle for an electrocuted David Blaine, because what we have here is a bona fide curse. The malaise from top to bottom is so bad that Art Theil himself has just thrown up his hands.

    And sadly, where the buck stops is on the field. Seemingly victims themselves, players – veterans with solid resumes, rookies with excellent prospects – come in and, for no apparent reason, cannot perform to thiers or anyone’s expectations, or even their averages. Only to then be mercifully cut loose and returned to glory with another team. This year, only Felix seemed to be immune until that chain with the cross around his neck broke in the middle of a game and his season proceeded to go to hell too.

    Is it a Godsmack for 2001? Is it a yearly installment plan of a deal made with the devil? If so, is there a baseball-edition Ouija Board with which we can read the fine print? We the dammed would really like to get to the bottom of this curse. It feels like we’re about there.

    • Michael Kaiser

      You have hit that so much on the head regarding players coming to Seattle, getting subsumed in this losing organization with its non-winning mindset, and gravitating, almost by natural law, to the mean. That is so much what this is all about. You can not blow the entire thing up and start over, but . . . .

      • art thiel

        As you have read, Michael, in this thread, there’s a whole lot of sports pain going on. I don’t think it’s hopeless, but most people have quit on the M’s because their lives are already filled with enough complication and despair.

    • art thiel

      You sound like Church Lady, Matt: Is it . . . SATAN?!

      This is not the first, last or only misbegotten sports franchise in America. Or have you forgotten the Ken Behring reign of error with the Seahawks? Choosing between cosmic and competence, I vote for (in)competence.

  • abecedarian

    “Mariners?” That name seems to ring a bell. Were they not some kind of organization that was relelevent oh so long ago?

  • mtk

    Which is more foolish: Mariners front office misdeeds, or, Mariners fans constantly tolerating/accepting said misdeeds and the non-competitive product the organization continually puts on the field?

    • art thiel

      MTK, half the fans have gone away, from 3.5M to 1.6M. Doesn’t that say something?

  • Bill Nelson

    It seems like the Mariners have gone full circle back to the early 1980’s .. I remember when Chuck Armstrong (I think) was trying to keep the city of Seattle from having the NCAA Final Four tournament from being held in the Kingdome. He thought it might interfere with a Mariners practice session !

    • art thiel

      That was ahead of the 1984 Final Four, and the main Mariners guy was Kip Horsburgh. But yes, I thought of that too.

  • Joe Fan

    Good article Art. The inability of the Mariners to get things turned around, both on the field and in the front office, is becoming somewhat alarming to me. When do things cross the line from this simply being disgruntled front office management who have something to complain about, to a situation where ownership feels unloved and unappreciated and thus left with a desire to look for alternatives in other cities? It is a slippery slope. I realize the team is probably fairly well “tied up” here in Seattle at Safeco from a lease standpoint, but it all still makes me a bit uneasy. I truly believe that this unhappy predicament will be settled once the owner sells to a well-healed, and enthusiastic local owner, and/or Lincoln and Armstrong move on down the road a la Stern in the NBA. Art, I’d like to see far more “pressure” applied by the local media focusing on the current ownership’s plans and on Lincoln’s/Armstrong’s need to retire. We need to force a change here for the good of all. I’m sick and tired of suffering through the endless stream of losing, mediocre seasons and ridiculously unsupportive front office group when it comes to the fans, the public at large, and our civic leaders.

    • art thiel

      Joe, don’t worry about the team moving. There are people of wealth within the ownership as well as outside with the means to keep it here. Think of it this way. Bad as it’s been, 1.6 million still showed up, and the market has proved itself frequently when given the chance to be excited. The worry is that the cynicism is getting so deep that some people will never come back.

  • Hammtime

    Eh ….it’s the Mariners – the poster boy for how to create fan apathy.

  • jafabian

    I would hate to work in the M’s Sales Dept. How can you sell the Mariner product when the continue to stumble over themselves?

  • 1coolguy

    The common threads are Armstrong and Lincoln – until they go, I’m never going to another game, as their miserable “baseball” acumen is displayed by what, 11 straight losing seasons?

    They got EXTREMELY LUCKY when they hired GILLICK, but didn’t figure out it was all Gillick and NOTHING about them. So they let Gillick go and with it the Mariners’ hopes. Gillick went on to the turn the Phillies into a powerhouse. When they may have picked up Billy Beane
    apparently they didn’t offer enough.
    The M’s have such a remarkably poor record under Armstrong and Lincoln all I can figure is they must have some very revealing photos of the owners stashed away – what other plausible reason is there for their continued employment? And after this long, I can’t believe the Japanese owner is pleased – crumby record and now no Ichiro.