BY Art Thiel 08:59PM 12/12/2013

Thiel: Mariners bet their universe on Cano

The Mariners actually did it — something Howard Lincoln, baseball experts and many Mariners fans say they shouldn’t. But really, what do they have to lose?

Jack Zduriencik, Robinson Cano and Lloyd McClendon are in for an epic ride. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Then-owner George Argyros stared at Roger Jongewaard, the chief talent scout, who recommended the club draft Ken Griffey Jr. ahead of Argyros’ preference, a pitcher named Mike Harkey.

“OK,” said Argyros, irked, “but if this doesn’t work, it’s your ass.”

Twenty-six years later, at another pivot point in franchise history, I asked general manager Jack Zduriencik Thursday if he heard something similar from Mariners ownership in the last couple of weeks regarding the signing of Robinson Cano.

“They didn’t say it like that,” Zduriencik said, then he started to smile. “But I knew it. Isn’t it obvious? I mean, let’s be real.”

As laughter erupted from a circle of reporters surrounding him, Zduriencik’s suggestion was apt. Let’s be real:

The signing of Cano for $240 million is a bet of the farm, the orchards, the lake and the vast stores of the franchise’s essence — bobbleheads — in the club’s warehouses. All in.

The move is against everything Howard Lincoln has stood for in his 14-year tenure as CEO. The move is against everything that baseball’s conventional wisdom says about long-term contracts to mid-career stars. The move is against everything a disgruntled fan base has come to expect from a franchise now branded nationally as dysfunctional.

In a word: Astounding.

Even though Seattle fans have had more than a week to digest the deal, the magnitude hit home Thursday when Cano and his his well-dressed coterie of agents, family and, of course, rap mogul Jay Z The Deuce  (“I told him,” said Zduriencik, “that I was J. Z. before he was Jay Z”) gathered in the Safeco Field interview room for introductions.

The deal really happened.

The Mariners outbid the Yankees — by three years and about $65 million — for one of their own, a superb hitter and second baseman and the best player on the free agent market this winter.

For Lincoln and the rest of ownership, for Zduriencik and for Cano, it’s their asses.

Even Cano and his posse had a hard time believing it. By the count of the Cano’s primary negotiator, Brodie Van Wegenen, some or all of the entourage made four trips from New York to Seattle in 12 days to see if the place and the people were real, or a media fiction. They tasted the water, smelled the air and even had cake — birthday cake, because it was Jay-Z’s birthday — and lived to tell about it.

They also checked the financial records.

Turns out the Mariners’ ownership was loaded. Since 1992, they always have been loaded. Armed with six weeks of good baseball in 18 years, they muscled a beautiful stadium out of the city, county and state. Despite four only postseason appearances in 37 years, none including a World Series, they managed to make money every year, purchase their own regional sports network and withstand withering, published criticism from from former employees who said, essentially, that they and the fans were Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie rich with double-talk from the bosses.

Wow, the agents must have said. What a scam. Where do we sign?

They first had to winnow the field of suitors. Van Wegenen said there were five contenders, then three, and finally, the Mariners, because they were the ones to go from seven to 10.

“I think length was very important,” Zduriencik said. “You could have stopped at a seventh year and probably wouldn’t have got it done. You could have gone to eight and probably wouldn’t have got it done. The fact the ownership allowed us to go to 10 years was a big, big factor.”

Duration was manageable because few of the owners and executives are likely be around when the deal turns south at the midpoint. For the Mariners, they were fairly candid about it. On the front end, the Mariners probably have a slight bargain for Cano’s services. On the back end, when Cano will have a hard time bending over, the deal is hugely in favor of the player.

But by then, judging by the business history of baseball, there will be worse deals. And Cano will be the problem of a new generation.

For the past five years under Zduriencik, the Mariners have attempted to do baseball the right way — investing in scouting and the minor league system, nurturing young players whose contracts remain under club control.  The smart way, at least the way Mariners did it, provided squat in the area of baseball results.

So they decided to exercise the only available option — go stupid. It is, after all, the American way to buy one’s way out of trouble.  And nothing is more American than baseball.

For his part, Cano’s research included a phone call to Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ homegrown, superstar pitcher. Unsurprisingly, Hernandez, who harbors a fantasy of someday pitching in the postseason, put on his straw hat and sold Cano in the manner of Dr. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.”

“He told me what was great about this organization,” Cano said. “He said they’re going to make you feel like family. They’ll take care of you. And that played a big role in my situation. You always want to be with people that treat you right.”

For the Mariners fan who has always been puzzled by the affection Hernandez has had the for the woebegone baseball team, well, now there a second player over which to puzzle. But it isn’t all that mysterious, considering that almost half a billion dollars in combined contract valuess will purchase a fair amount of loyalty.

For Zduriencik, the deal is the culmination of his plan to ask ownership to go for it once he had the young players in place for contention. Emerging from a a 91-loss season, he somehow deduced that this was the moment.

“We had elite pitching,” Zduriencik said. “We didn’t have an elite player on the field.”

Now he has both. And a backside in the breeze.

Lo and behold, he also has a team that went from moribund to interesting. Holy Percy Harvin, Clint Dempsey and Chris Petersen.

From left, Jose Cano (Robinson’s father) agent Juan Perez, Jay Z and Mariners executive Bart Waldman. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    At least management seems to understand how the Cano contract changes things for them. The time to win is now. If Cano plays at an All Star level for half the contract they can count themselves lucky. Now they need to give him protection in the lineup and someone in front of him who gets on base.

    My biggest concern is that the club will have a fire sale of the players they called up last season. Sports Illustrated last season said the M’s were a team on the rise based on their farm and after that story was published they nose dived. Wouldn’t surprise me if they become contributors elsewhere.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think they’re quitting on the young guys yet. But they still need a quality third starter to push Walker back to four. Somebody may have to go besides Franklin, who seems out of a job.

      • jafabian

        Out of all the call ups from last season I thought he was the one with the most potential. It bothers me they gave up on him so quickly. I understand the club wanted to make a big splash of an offseason but I’d rather have wins than All Star players. Remember in 2002 when no one liked the team that Billy Beane assembled in Oakland and when they finally gelled they ripped off 20 wins in a row and passed the M’s for the division lead? I felt last years club might have been going in that direction, assuming the players continued to develop.

  • Guy K. Browne

    I’m not sure much has changed yet, the sentiment among players who aren’t being overpaid is still, “I’ll only go there if I have no choice, and when I have a choice, I’ll go somewhere else”. A pitcher that goes by the name of Price made sure that we understood this fact very clearly.

    • art thiel

      One signing doesn’t undo a decade of misdeed.

  • Michael M

    This is one of those momentous Seattle sports days/weeks where I really miss the buzz, the excitement; miss the sports section being relevant. And I miss working with you, Art.

    • art thiel

      You’re right, Mike. This has been an infusion of excitement in sports rarely seen. I appreciate the good thoughts, my man. I try to keep my gaze fixed on the horizon.

  • RadioGuy

    “’He told me what was great about this organization,’ Cano said. ‘He said they’re going to make you feel like family. They’ll take care of you.’”

    Which family? The Bundys? The Corleones?

    • one174

      Art said it. The Marx Brothers

      • bugzapper

        George, who are tonight’s contestants?

        Groucho, meet the Mariners from Seattle, Washington. They are America’s #1 dysfunctional sports franchise. They need a right-handed power hitter, but would settle for a new dishwasher, because they really have a mess on their hands.

        Well, Mariners, welcome to You Bet Your Universe. You look like a nice couple of stooges. Say the secret woid, the duck drops down and you divide $240 million. That’s enough to buy 533,333 Whirlpool Built-In Stainless-Steel dishwashers, 63,158 1953 DeSoto Firedomes or one power hitter. Try a DeSoto before you decide.

        OOPS! Wrong Marx. What I really meant was,

        “From each, according our needs; to each of us clowns, according to our ego’s needs.”

        • art thiel

          Golf clap for you, bugzapper. Well played.

      • art thiel

        “The secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” — Groucho

        The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
        Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/groucho_marx.html#McV83sqZJkRpW7V2.
        The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
        Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/groucho_marx.html#McV83sqZJkRpW7V2.9999

    • maoling

      My vote is for The Addams Family…they’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky.

      • art thiel

        No Uncle Fester jokes, please.

    • art thiel

      Everyone talks as if “family” is this magical thing. No. Many families are dysfunctional. And as we have learned this week, the Mariners fit right in. But $240M means you can eat out a lot, avoiding the dinner table.

  • giorgio547

    Just wait until everyone hears Robbie’s brilliant “No respect” exit interview from the Big Apple via Mitch’n the Morning. Mariner Madness will earn every dime Howard squeezes out to his staff to muzzle their new towering intellectual…

    • art thiel

      Trying to decide which I like less: An athlete talking about no respect, or a sports broadcaster saying, “Lemmetellya sumpin’”. . .

      • giorgio547

        Exactly why you tower (pun) over the rest…

  • 1coolguy

    “Tom Hicks is a fool” To quote Howard Lincoln after Texas signed ARod to his 10 year, $250m deal.
    What does this make you now, Howard?

    • art thiel

      A member of the club.

  • bugzapper

    “For Lincoln and the rest of ownership, for Zduriencik and for Cano, it’s their asses.”
    That’s your line, not theirs. Where were their asses when they were supposedly “sitting on the hot seat” the last three years? Sitting on their wallets, and ours.
    They may not be making asses or hot seats like they used to, but trust me…this bunch will always find a way to make asses out of themselves. They’re done making an ass out of me.

    • art thiel

      The Mariners-style asses and hot seats are rare, perhaps found nowhere else besides Wall Street and the old Kremlin.

  • notaboomer

    good one, Art. Happy Festivus!

    • art thiel

      Ale for this man, bartender!

  • Will

    OK, so management bought a Ferrari … that certainly doesn’t make them better drivers … tho they could become more dangerous and reckless and ultimately YouTube fodder.

    • art thiel

      Weren’t you getting tired of looking at the Flintstone car?