BY Art Thiel 02:49PM 01/29/2016

Thiel: Mariners’ new plan: Paying attention

Remember all those strikeouts, and times caught stealing? If the new “mental” coach, Andy McKay, gets some buy-in, the Mariners this season will look as if they know what they’re doing.

Jerry Dipoto’s tranformation of the Mariners is more than shuffling the deck chairs. / Alan Chitlik

As much turmoil as the Mariners’ 40-man roster has seen under new general manager Jerry Dipoto, so the scouting and personnel departments have been upended. As one newcomer, director of player development Andy McKay, put it, “There’s been a tremendous amount of turnover. I’ve spent the majority of my time creating a staff.”

The tumult was reminiscent of the weeks, and even much of the first two years, after Pete Carroll took over the Seahawks.  Not only that, listening to McKay and Dipoto talk at the annual media luncheon Thursday, it sounded as if the hires, the plan and the execution came from The Book of Pete.

Culture. Communication. Character. Consistency. Goals. Team above all.

Not a single advanced metric in that mound of nouns. Nary a deviation from Carroll’s approach that has produced four 10-win seasons in a row, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship.

Carroll can claim none of those emphases as unique to him. He does get credit for implementing many of the ideas taken from UCLA hoops coach John Wooden and force-feeding them into a crusty NFL. As will Dipoto when it works in even crustier MLB.

The ideas have been around sports a long time. It’s just taken a long time to bubble up to the top.

McKay might be the most intriguing Dipoto hire among the many new faces, including players. He’s the guy in charge of getting the most out of each player in the club’s employ. For longtime followers of the Mariners, this news should be accompanied by herald trumpets.

No team has quit on so many of its players over so long a time, only to see them blossom elsewhere.

In an era of increasing parity, despite the absence of a salary cap, MLB has been unable to drag the Mariners into the playoffs for 14 years. Not only is it the longest baseball drought, it is second only to the NFL Buffalo Bills (1999) in all of major American pro team sports.

That is a Berlin Wall-level of resistance to success. McKay’s job: Tear down this wall.

“What I’ve found is, a lot of people do it in different ways,” McKay said. “It’s just about getting more buy-in. It’s not about being the smartest in the room. It’s about getting the most people in the organization to believe what you believe.”

That may not seem profound to some. But having been around the Seahawks facility in Renton, it is remarkable how many players slap the wall above the doors every day they enter the indoor or outdoor practice fields. They are touching signs that say, “I’m in.”

It’s not an empty gesture. Players and coaches do it as a learned, positive habit, even when they think there’s no one around to impress.

McKay’s job is saddled with the awkward nickname, “mental coach,” which for some us connotes a coach “going mental,” a pejorative that has outlived its usefulness but not its recollection.

“He has a mental skills background, which is a great advantage,” Dipoto said of McKay, who was a Sacramento junior college baseball coach for 14 seasons before managing a team in an independent pro league for four years, then joining the Colorado Rockies for three seasons as peak-performance coordinator. “But it won’t define him as our farm director. He’s a good baseball man who’s had a long career understanding the need — the art — of unlocking a player’s mind.”

The time will come in sports when any distinction between mind and body will be greeted with the same bewildered look as “mental coach” is by some now.

“You can’t separate the two, the mental and the physical,’’ McKay said. “It’s a misunderstanding. To say someone’s a mental coach, you’re already contradicting the basic concept, which is that your physical breakdowns are always preceded by mental breakdowns.’’

McKay won’t operate from a distance. Instead he will be in uniform and in the faces of as many players as he can visit, from rookie league to Safeco Field.

“I would like to be as hands-on as you can possibly be,’’ he said. “I’d like to be out there for early work. I consider myself a coach.”

Carroll has offered up a derisive term that he has heard from skeptics about his methods: Airy-fairy. McKay probably has heard similar things. But Thursday he simplified the goal of his teachings to two words any boss, teacher, parent or spouse can understand.

“You can whittle mental skills down to the basic concept of paying attention,” he said. “So when (as a player) I’m doing a drill, my mind is completely consumed with that drill. You teach it through textbooks, you teach it through classroom settings.

“Most importantly, you teach it by your coaches bringing it to life, by constantly reminding those players and bringing your focus back to the present. If you can train that way, it should translate into performance.”

As Seahawks QB Russell Wilson always says, “Stay in the moment.”

The concept of clarity of mind and immediate purpose is especially important in baseball, where there is so much more idle time between plays, and so much monotonous routine in the days, weeks and months of a season.

I can’t get out of my mind from the 2015 Mariners season when Robinson Cano, of all people, strolled in from third base to home after a walk, thinking he had been forced in when, in fact, the bases were no longer loaded. The tag may have been the worst out in Cano’s mostly illustrious career.

The Mariners seemed plagued by unforced mental errors last season. Expanding that to include areas of game judgment, the Mariners were fourth in MLB in strikeouts and second-worst in steal percentage. No wonder one-run deficits seemed like Everest.

A mere drift last season toward the major league average in those categories, and the Mariners would have won at least a half-dozen more games.

Speaking of wins, Dipoto wasn’t bashful about offering a 2016 target. Even if it’s a standard one for most teams, it’s rare for a Mariners boss to creep out to the edge, knowing the abyss is full of his predecessors.

“We’ll start the season with the idea that we’re going to get into the mid-80s (wins),” Dipoto said. “If you can get into that 85-, 86-win zone, and let the chips fall where they may, it’s amazing how frequently you’re going to wind up winning a lot more games than that.”

McKay offered up the road map for players.

“The sooner you can get on board with it and start believing what we believe,” he said, “the cumulative power will be there and it will translate into wins.”

Somewhere, Carroll is dabbing at his eyes and smiling.


  • Sam Base

    The Mariners have specialized in turning diamonds into rocks and opportunities into disasters. If Dipoto and his newly assembled team of baseball visionaries can turn THAT around then he and Pete Carroll will own this town. And rightly so.

    • 1coolguy

      Lincoln just may make this yet again, a bridge too far.

      • art thiel

        Something tells me he has no choice but to let them be.

        • bugzapper

          For what, the first three months? If there’s anything we know about Big Town Car it’s that he just can’t handle sitting on the bench.

          • art thiel

            Things change. Losing can do that.

          • ulc

            For sure, but I also think he must feel some of the sentiment that fans have for (or is that against) him?

            The only question I have is why he’s still running the show? Is he that much of an egoist, is he really that obstinate, that stubborn? Or as Pete might say, “What’s your deal?”.

          • art thiel

            He’s the rep for the majority owner, Nintendo of America. He’s the boss. NOA knows he’s making them lots of money,

          • ulc

            Yea, yea, yea I think I understand; money trumps everything. It’s “challenging” to support a team that has been losing for so long and is blatantly consumed with bringing in money. I know professional sports is a huge business, I get it. But the Mariner’s seem so soulless, so uninteresting. I gave up caring about them after Dave Niehaus passed away. I used to enjoy listening to him spin his tales regardless of how the team performed… but those days are over. Now, I am indifferent. If I had to go a bit deeper, I might have the mindset of – show me, enough talk – show me.

          • art thiel

            You have no obligation to apologize for your indifference. You earned it. Mariners have to win you back.

          • bugzapper

            It hasn’t changed anything since 2001!!!

        • 1coolguy

          Let’s hope Art, let’s hope.

    • art thiel

      Then they will take five loaves of bread and two fish and feed five thousand.

  • 1coolguy

    I am very, very interested in seeing the M’s succeed, yet, as with most, I am a Missourian on this one: “Show me”. As the ownership is the exact same, I must have my doubts.
    Best thing that could ever happen to the M’s is Allen buying them. Now there is a guy who knows how to create a winning organization!

    • art thiel

      As I said above, you’re entitled to keep both eyebrows cocked.

      • bugzapper

        One eyebrow being cocked also known as being “Spocked.”

  • jafabian

    Former M’s blossoming elsewhere is a long-standing tradition. Look at the A’s in the late 80’s when they had Hendu, Mike Moore, Rick Honeycutt, Gene Nelson and Matt Young on their roster and won with them. It’s way past time to stop the bleeding on that. Color me disappointed at how many former M’s were in the postseason last year. 85 wins and a top 10 ranked farm system will do wonders for the organization.

    • art thiel

      You’re entitled to every bit of skepticism. But there is a plan here, and proof that it worked in football. We shall see.

    • bugzapper

      A couple dozen years ago I threatened to make a t-shirt that read, “Congratulations World Series Mariners!” because so many of our cast-offs were in it. Just not us. I’d need a 6XL shirt to fit all the names today. In small print.

  • Paul Harmening

    Mr. Thiel;
    Oops, Sir Lord Thiel, sir.

    Hub of the Northwests sports nation scribes wheel. Jock of jocks and King of all the little scribe kings and sports talk jockeys. (You were a basketball player once upon a time, as well as the (deceased) PI sports writer grue right?)

    AND —NOW, IN THIS COR—NER, (sez the bow-tied, tuxedo’d Michael–) ——- SEA—-HAWK scribe; MAR–IN–ERS scribe; SON—-ICS (opps-they died ex scribe); SOUND—ERS (you tried) scribe———–here is——the one——-the only————-

    Art, I am having a little fun here. Royal Brougham, (did I spell it correctly?) I have insider sources saying he is smiling upon you.

    May I present an offering to you. One that you might consider forwarding to Andy McKay based upon this another one of your countless scriptural smoken lockdown artifacts?

    First of all, before the offering, Sir Thiel: “–May the Big Bird fly over your critics with little bombs of sulfuric white ammonia droplets splashing upon their intrepid little bald heads. (one of Johnny Carson misquotes).

    Now, you know I’m an old white guy in the last stages of some serious dementia. Hey bar-keep Joe, I’ll have another one of those that Jim Moore is having. Keeps those demons away. Ahh, while your at it big bird, drop those little gems over the Go To Guy’s critics heads too, ok? You may want to draft a huge flock for that.

    From Art To Andy McKay;

    Andy, may I suggest you paint the locker room black. (sing it Stones). That will represent times past since “2001, A Space Odyssey.” (farewell Dave, err “–Mr Z to ground control. (opps again, he’s drifted off into space) – “ground control to Mr D–” I’ll have another one of those Joe.

    Okay Andy McKay, turn on your strobe lights and let the fiery flames of 3 worded quotes coming out of those blacken walls begin: May they ignite us onward towards the World Series. AND HERE ARE THE FAMOUS 3 WORDED QUOTES:

    Onward (baseball) players – Marching (on) towar: (145 year old Hymn): Against all odds: (U.S. Hockey Team vs Russia): We shall overcome (MLK):

    (The remainder in alphabetical order please)

    Always add value: All is well: Appreciate the moment; Be your best (Joel Olstean $$): Believe you can (copy cat Olstean again, $$$): Believe, achieve, receive; (TellAhVison preachers etal): Can’t stop now (Clinton’s, Bill Cosby): Change is good (Obama): Destiny is mine: (George McFly): Do it (now), (Nike, Jordan): Dreams come true: (Walt Disney): Focus and win (Dr Wayne Dryer): Follow your guts (Marines): Go for it (Rocky Balboa): Have a party (Johnny football): Hope to triumph (Trump): I am great (Ali, Ravishing Rick Rude, Rick Flair, etal): It is possible: [Keep it fun (and) Compete, compete, compete (Pete Carroll)] Keep the faith (Apostle Paul): Ride or die: (Sally Ride): Seize the day (Alexander the Great or Shakespeare?): Stay the course: Winners Never quite: Losers never win: Yes you can: Make Pete proud: & Remember the Seahawks. (WHAT??? Get that last crap quote outta heah! They didn’t get to the Super Bowl this year).

    So there ya go Big Andy. Whadda think? Oh, and one last thing, when it’s all over and done,


    GO M’S.

    • art thiel

      Paul, thanks for your willingness to disclose you are Sarah Palin’s speechwriter.

      • Paul Harmening

        Well, there ya go! I forgot to say “you bettcha”

    • bugzapper

      Wow! You’re all so hopey-changey! God bless mama gun-totin’ bears and their cling-on paper daily Constitutionals! Selig heil and stay Deeeeemented!

      • art thiel

        You left out “hockey moms.”

        • bugzapper

          I don’t do hockey. Hockey moms? Not that I know of.

    • 1coolguy

      Scary – get back on your meds pal.

    • Trygvesture

      Guessin the beer has been enjoyed thoroughly and in quantity before you posted this.
      Although the off the charts manic tone brings to mind other substances that are abused, sadly.

      • art thiel

        Was that a Derrick Coleman joke?

      • Paul Harmening

        You, sir, must be from the land of sky blue waters, that is if you’re really old like me. I must admit, I have done some of my best writing when conjuring up memories of what it was like then, cracking open those wonderful cans of those German golden Glukstite suds of yesteryear rated at 20%. Unfortunately, nurse Ratchet forbids any such activities as those on at these facilities.

        Those other substances you made reference to, well, you’ll have to contact the pharmacist here at the nursing home about those. They give me a little paper cupfull of those every morning, and then I get to use my computer afterwards. They think I’m harmless.

  • Team Achievement

    “Somewhere, Carroll is dabbing at his eyes and smiling.” Me too. Excellent article! I’ve been saying it for months. Compete Pete like beliefs and concepts have arrived at Safeco. We are saved, we are saved. I have tears in my eyes listening to 2016 thinking that has already been modeled in Seattle by the Seahawks. Embrace the moment. Savor it.

  • Tman

    From Paying Attention to Can’t bear to look..8 weeks, 10 Weeks..June?