BY Art Thiel 09:00AM 08/25/2014

Thiel: In McClendon, Mariners have one right

The Mariners have been in managerial dither since Lou Piniella. In Lloyd McClendon, they seemed to have found a guy who manages up as well as he manages down.

Lloyd McClendon, a good man for the job. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

When Mariners bosses announced Nov. 5 that Lloyd McClendon was the new manager, I offered up a shrug that could have been measured in megatons. Here is some of what I wrote:

“Unqualified for the world’s worst occupation  — a single mother with three kids and no income — Lloyd McClendon had to settle for second-worst: He’s the new manager of the Seattle Mariners. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, which puts him one-up on his new bosses, but either he didn’t have Eric Wedge’s phone number, or Wedge signed a confidentiality agreement to stay mum . . .

“That doesn’t necessarily mean the roster for 2013-14, still subject to much change, will be hopeless, only that McClendon will be helpless to influence the seasonal outcome. If the Mariners manager was granted influence, Wedge would still be here.”

So, um, Lloyd? When you were a major league player, did you ever foul a ball off your foot? Hurts like hell for a minute, but you step back in and take your cuts. That’s how I feel about that column now.

The column was much more about the Seattle circumstance than McClendon’s qualifications. But now a lot of people, including me, are intrigued by the Seattle circumstance.

With 33 games left in the regular season, the Mariners at 71-58 have matched their win total from a season ago after three victories in Boston over the weekend — the first time in the franchise’s turgid 38-year history they have swept the Red Sox in Fenway Park.

The Mariners are a game up on the Detroit Tigers for the American League’s last wild-card playoff spot, and return home Monday for three against the worst team in baseball, the Texas Rangers.

“This is it,” McClendon told reporters before Friday’s game. “It really is.”

He was referring to the stretch drive to the playoffs, a time when no starting players get games off and all eyes are upon the out-of-town scoreboard. Personally, I believe such engagement awaits the Labor Day benchmark, because it’s not only tradition, but I believe that premature curiosity will spell the same doom that befell the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when Indiana Jones knew to tell Marion to keep her eyes closed until everyone melted.

But if fans want to risk it now, well, it has been 13 years since this happened in Seattle, so I can’t expect everyone to keep up on Old Testament protocol.

Even though it is reasonable to say that a manager’s influence on game outcomes is typically overrated, McClendon’s contribution to this situation can’t be diminished.

Keep in mind that he took over after Wedge, trying to leverage a contract extension beyond 2014, did his own meltdown in the final days of a 71-91 season, the Mariners’ eighth loser in the past 10. Wedge lambasted ownership in public and announced he was quitting before the season ended, even though he stayed on the job.

A month after McClendon’s hire, Wedge and other former Mariners baseball executives went on the record in the Seattle Times with a scathing denunciation of the front office and ownership, calling the Mariners “dysfunctional” and full of betrayers and micro-managers.

Five days later, the Mariners stunned all of baseball by outbidding the New York Yankees for the free agent services of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano. While it was certainly a worthy hire, the 10-year contract for $240 million — $65 million more than the Yankees offered — was seen by many as more evidence Wedge was right to suggest the Mariners might be street-rat crazy.

Into the storm ambled McClendon, who is proving to be the calm at the center. McClendon spent the previous eight seasons in Detroit as the hitting coach for Jim Leyland, one of the game’s most respected managers who retired after last season at 68.

When McClendon was passed over to succeed Leyland, the Mariners made him their eighth manager, counting two interim guys, since Lou Piniella left in 2002. No team in baseball has churned managers faster than the Mariners. A franchise consumed by remorseless dithering had made another hire that seemed inconsequential.

After a mediocre major league playing career of eight seasons as an outfielder/first baseman with three teams and a career .244 batting average, McClendon managed the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2001-05 to a 336-446 record, never winning more than 75 games in a season. But the franchise was run on the cheap; the talent never was there, the primary cause of 20 consecutive losing seasons.

Fired by the Pirates, he was snapped up by Leyland, building a new staff in Detroit. The Tigers over the next eight seasons would play in four American League Championship Series and two World Series.

It’s clear that McClendon has adopted Leyland’s cool steadiness. In contrast to the edgy Wedge, who sizzled and popped amid five-game losing streaks — and finally blew last season when, at 45, he suffered a minor stroke, from which he has recovered — McClendon has a serenity about him that belies the pressure.

When Leyland retired, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz offered an appreciation of Leyland that mirrors how McClendon has guided his mostly young team through the tumult of the off-season, an eight-game losing streak in April, a perpetually maligned front office and the waves of cynicism surrounding the team.

Said Schwartz: “I think the hallmark of (Leyland’s) managerial style would have been the same hallmark if he would have been a ship’s captain. He would have been up at the helm, probably smoking a cigarette. It would have been like 20-foot swells, hurricane coming in and he wouldn’t even bat an eye. Everybody on the crew would have looked up and said, ‘Hey, things are going to be OK.’ That’s why I have so much respect for him.”

In watching and listening to McClendon in his first five months in Seattle, he is honest without being cruel, cool without being dull, and passionate without being overwrought. He is that rare man who knows himself and uses that knowledge to lead, free of bullying or intimidation.

“I think players appreciate your honesty, but it is a two-way street,” McClendon told mynorthwest.com’s Shannon Dreyer. “You have got to be able to give, in order to take. I give my players a lot. When I ask, I think they are willing to give back.

“I liken it a lot to a deposit into a bank. Sometimes you are going to need a withdrawal. I give them a lot so when I do go back and ask, say, ‘I need you to pick it up,’ I can withdraw a little bit.”

The withdrawals have paid off. The Mariners have seen in-season growth from position players such as Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, and pitchers Tom Wilhelmsen and Erasmo Ramirez. He’s not without error — his backing of rookie Abraham Almonte as starting centerfielder was a bust — but he has kept everyone from going over Here We Go Again Falls until their abilities caught up with his belief.

As importantly, he has managed up. He seems to have struck a rare tone with GM Jack Zduriencik, new president Kevin Mather and the much-vilified CEO, Howard Lincoln, to leave him alone until he raises his hand. He raised his hand in June, saying he needed more right-handed hitting.

By July 31, the Mariners added four right-handed hitters — DH Kendrys Morales, CF Austin Jackson, RF Chris Denorfia, all via trade, and rookie SS prodigy Chris Taylor via callup — who are producing far in excess of their relatively small cost.

None of the foregoing is offered as assurance that the Mariners in September will be successful. After a half-generation of failure, the scar tissue is too thick and tangled. But as the weekend series in Boston suggested — shortfalls by starting pitchers Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young were mitigated by 20 runs from the oft-maligned offense — there is a resourcefulness with this team that is measurable and growing.

Growing up in Gary, IN., McClendon was a legend in Little League ball. In fact, “Legendary Lloyd” was his nickname. His Gary team reached the 1971 Little League World Series, where McClendon hit five homers in five at-bats. His other five at-bats, he was walked intentionally.

If McClendon gets the Mariners to the playoffs, even the single-game, wild-card ordeal, the nickname should be dusted off, varnished and permanently affixed.

Because he beat the doomsday odds in Seattle. Instead of a scapegoat, the Mariners hired a manager.


YourThoughts

  • Tian Biao

    Don’t worry, Art, you were not alone in thinking that ‘Legendary Lloyd’ wouldn’t make a bit of difference. i don’t think very many people saw this coming; i certainly didn’t and neither did any of fellow long sufferers. Nice job of fessing up though!

    • art thiel

      I think there’s a reference to blind squirrels in here somewhere, but it doesn’t matter. Enjoy the enjoyment.

  • ksmyth

    I believe I called McClendon an “empty suit”: in my blog before spring training began. He’s been a lot more than a breath of fresh air. You’ve described him perfectly.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, ksmyth. I think many of made a case against McClendon because of those who hired him were the same people who whiffed so many times before.

      • Effzee

        Yep. Even a blind bat finds a squirrel every now and then.

        Wait.

        What?

  • jafabian

    I thought last season Wedge got the younger players on the right track in becoming professional baseball players and didn’t like the Cano signing after grooming Nick Franklin to be the 2B. But Lloyd has done a masterful job at managing the lineup and had done a better job on using the pitchers, especially the bullpen. I keep waiting for this team to falter and they keep surprising. Lloyd should be the AL Manager of the Year.

    • art thiel

      Still gots a month to go. No laurels yet. You’re right about Wedge contributing, but he was mishandled by the bosses.

  • Jaybird32

    “He was referring to the stretch drive to the playoffs, a time when no starting players get games off and all eyes are upon the out-of-town scoreboard. Personally, I believe such engagement awaits the Labor Day benchmark, because it’s not only tradition, but I believe that premature curiosity will spell the same doom that befell the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when Indiana Jones knew to tell Marion to keep her eyes closed until everyone melted.”

    Magic right there Art!

    I keep watching these games with one eye shut, and temper my excitement… been a fan since 1980… but these guys are growing on me.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Jay. Be careful with the opened eye. I don’t want you to say, “It’s boo-tiful” before you asplode.

  • Tim

    Love the personality description. I couldn’t put it in words like you, but he’s incredibly cool. With our pitching, road record/confidence, and bats finally coming alive, I must ask, why not us? Who would be confident facing us in the playoffs?

    • art thiel

      It’s been prelude until now. Lloyd has to be concerned that his rotation might not hold up to the standard of the first five months.

      Thanks for the good words.

  • RadioGuy

    I was as dubious as anyone when Mac was hired, happy that at least it wasn’t Bobby “The Human Torch” Valentine but less than impressed with Mac’s record in Pittsburgh (although, as mentioned, the Pirates were a K-Mart in a league of Macy’s and Mac’s players there DID like him…they just weren’t good enough).

    What Mac has done in Seattle should earn him serious Manager of the Year consideration no matter how the rest of the season goes. Wedge was okay in bringing along the youngsters slowly as MLBers but didn’t seem to have it for the next step. Mac has led by being that quiet leader who gets results by not shouting but letting players know that it’s “Now Time” (to borrow an old Seahawks marketing slogan) and that they’re expected to get it done.

    Being 13 games over .500 going into the last week of August with an offense that’s underperformed most of the season may be as miraculous in its own way as the Seahawks taking a flier on an undersized quarterback with their third-round pick two years ago. In either case, who knew?

    • art thiel

      I’d say he rates some votes. Melvin too. Mac understands baseball and people very well. Everyone should have him as an uncle.

  • Dubious

    A whiff of optimism before impending doom? I’m curious, Art. Why hasn’t anyone talked about the Safeco lease expiring after the 2018 season? Does anyone think that Lincoln and Nintendo won’t cash in on this opportunity to sell to the highest bidder (including out of towners) when they have a perfect opportunity?

    • art thiel

      There are rights of first refusal within the ownership group. Doesn’t mean it will happen, but a move? Nah.

  • Da Kid

    Yea verily, Franchise. I actually agree with you on this one. Even a blind Hermes the Diddler (Lincoln) finds a blind Argus once in a while.

    But let’s not get too cockney-eyed about three lighter-than-air slugfests in Fenway, old bean. Everybody hits in that band box, and the first game had the weary Sox coming off a long road trip. Just like the M’s last night in their latest, hapless 2-0 shutout loss to a rookie with a 7+ ERA. (That makes 15 shut-outs this season. What’s the team record for such ignominy?)

    In summation: Lloyd = Cool. M’s = Better. Lincoln = Lucky. Thiel = As astute and chastened as a confessed sinner on Sunday morning.

    • art thiel

      Hermes and Argus. A YouTube comedy sensation, as I recall.

      Regarding shutouts in a season, the Seattle mark is 19. I have every confidence the ’14 lads can shatter it.

      True about the Fens pillbox. But they have played there many times without stringing together the deeds of the weekend. This remade lineup can actually win a few games when the pitching doesn’t. Adding four RH bats (incliuding Taylor callup) was a big deal.

      And I leave to your judgment the business of sins and confessions. You are richer in both.

  • notaboomer

    leyland rocked b/c he didn’t take shit from the likes of barry bonds:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9DHA2dJ7uQ

  • Bayview Herb

    what hole did Tijuan Walker fall into. I haven’t heard his name for a while. Is he still on injured reserve?