BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 06/27/2019

Thiel: Stanton wants fans to keep faith, but how?

“I want the fans to believe this is going to be a championship team in the next few years,” said CEO John Stanton. It would help if there was something to back it up.

Local guy John Stanton knows all about the Mariners’ dubious ownership history in Seattle. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

The Mariners are upon a minor anniversary, one unlikely to inspire the sentimental fetes for which the club’s marketers are locally renowned. On July 5, 2018, the Mariners beat the Angels 4-1. Their ninth win in 10 games improved the record to 56-32, two games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West.

Since then, as you may have heard, the Mariners have plummeted so fast that NASA has offered to supply a heat shield for re-entry through mediocrity to a dull, but safe, thud in baseball’s cellar.

From that height, the Mariners lost seven of the next nine. Through Aug. 5, they would lose 15 of 22 to fall 7½ games back and render the season inert. When the 33-41 mark after July 5 is added to 2019’s 37-47 record after Wednesday’s 4-2 win in Milwaukee, the Mariners over the past 12 months a have a winning percentage of .443 (70-88).

That includes a 13-2 start to 2019 that increasingly looks as inexplicable as a rhino horn on a cat.

The one-year anniversary drips with irony, since general manager Jerry Dipoto had his contract extended by ownership July 6, followed by same for manager Scott Servais July 20. At the time, Servais gushed about the team’s prospects.

“We’ve had a great first half,” Servais told reporters the day his extension was announced. “I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead of us in the next two and half months. We’ve put ourselves in a great position.

“We’ve talked about bringing playoff baseball back to the Pacific Northwest. We’ve got a shot. It’s not going to be easy. And that’s the focus I want on the remainder of this season, not on this contract, but how good can we be.”

Servais found out.

He wasn’t quite on a par with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s 2007 forecast that the iPhone was never going to get any significant market share. But the words will find a place in local infamy. (Hey, I may have written one or two columns where a prediction failed to work as I foresaw.)

The topic of credibility came to mind not only because of the anniversary, but from something majority owner John Stanton said. In an interview with the Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish published this week, Stanton mused about how he squares up the Mariners’ “step back” strategy for long-term success with a fan base that is historically starved for success.

“I don’t want to say we expected (the poor play), but we certainly knew it was a strong possibility when we announced the step-back policy,” Stanton said. “The alternative was we didn’t say it was a step back, did a bunch of things that were baffling to people and then lost credibility. Credibility is really important to me with our fans.

“Some number of fans are passionate, and they will be here through thick and thin, and have been for 30 years. But others won’t. I want the fans to believe this is going to be a championship team in the next few years. And to be here, or watching it on television, when we are.”

It’s good to hear that Stanton wants to be credible with fans, something his CEO predecessor, Howard Lincoln, didn’t prioritize. The fact that Dipoto was up front in October about plans to dump a lot of veterans in exchange for prospects, making 2019 something only a vulture could enjoy (my expression, not his), was good, but really the mandatory minimum that needed to be done.

As the team with the longest active absence from the postseason among the four major North American sports, futility transcends all the changes in players, managers, general managers and bobbleheads. More than perhaps any other MLB ownership group, this group has to break form with a tepid past.

Because of all the incompetence and treacheries that have gone before him, Stanton can’t just want fans to believe in a future. Down the road, he has to act.

The Mariners’ first ownership group (1977-81), led by entertainer Danny Kaye and five local businessmen, was underfunded and overextended. They sold to George Argyros (1981-89), an Orange County real estate developer who cared nothing about Seattle and everything about turning a profit. He sold to Jeff Smulyan (1989-1991), an earnest radio mogul from Indianapolis whose secret agenda (with assent from other MLB owners) was to pull the franchise out of Seattle to Tampa.

Then in 1992, Nintendo founder Hiroshi Yamauchi of Japan was surfaced by then-Sen. Slade Gorton to cash out Smulyan. Baseball owners, filled with xenophobic fear of a non-American owner, fought the sale hard until shamed nationally into submission.

The team’s only run of success — four playoff appearances in seven years — happened under Yamauchi’s tenure. But in the 21 years before his death in 2013, the eccentric billionaire never saw a game in person and never gave more than a cursory few remarks about MLB ownership.

He appointed Nintendo of America’s lead counsel, Lincoln, to look after his baseball interests. Lincoln had neither baseball nor retail experience. When NOA inherited the team, its interest was mostly in countryman Ichiro and asset appreciation.

Stanton knows the dubious ownership history well. As a born-and-raised lifer here — the first such majority owner in club history — he’s lived it. He’s been a part-owner since 2000, and actively engaged in youth and independent-league baseball.

But besides the second-half collapse, last year on his watch was a sexual harassment scandal from years past, which included club president Kevin Mather, that tainted the front office. After a single season, Dipoto fired his ballyhooed director of high performance, Dr. Lorena Martin, who is suing for wrongful termination. And Robinson Cano embarrassed himself and the franchise with an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Whether Stanton could have done something to avert any of these misdeeds is hard to say. But he’s the guy now saying he “wants the fans to believe this is going to be a championship team in the next few years.”

Acceptance of that desire is a matter of faith, not facts. At best, the faith wanes.

If and when the time comes that the Mariners do contend, Stanton and his partners need to honor the indulgences of the disaffected with a player-payroll checkbook that is nearly as infinite as the baseball sordidness that preceded the moment.


YourThoughts

  • Kevin Lynch

    Houston…we have a problem. Jerry DiPoto forgot to stir the oxygen tanks before engaging trade mechanisms and we’ve taken a little step back…actually, we blew out the right side of the Mariner module. Anyone got any duct tape?

  • Guy K. Browne

    So, the “step back” worked for some teams in the past 5-10 years, the rest of baseball took note, “hey, we could do that!”… So now, there are so many teams implementing the step back that the Mariners aging and rickety veterans that were supposed to be trade fodder to help restock the farm are now swimming in a huge pool of aging/rickety veterans whose teams are hoping to do the same. Since price is dictated by supply/demand, this ever growing pool of assets are becoming worth less every day; lots of teams selling, very few buying. The probability that the Mariners will get anything of value (that would push them into contention mode) at the trade deadline is becoming a very low number. How is any of this supposed to engender a belief that the Mariners outcomes over the foreseeable future is going to remarkably improved? What would be novel is if the Mariners developed a cutting edge strategy that is ahead of the curve rather than implementing a ploy that seems to have run it’s course. In the meantime, if they want to engender a sense of optimism, everyone gets in free until the team makes the playoffs. That would at least pay the fans back for squandering millions of dollars (collectively) to watch terrible baseball. Faith in a free ticket… hallelujah.

    • Guy K. Browne

      I would add that if the Mariners had achieved any level of success in the past 10-15 years, made the playoffs a few times but just couldn’t get over the hump, this process would be a whole lot more palatable. I know the current ownership group didn’t control any of that, but neither did the fans, and yet the fans have been expected to pay major league ticket prices, pay nearly 2.5 times the going rate (relative to prices outside the stadium) for beer and hot dogs. It can be a little tiresome to hear “believe in what we’re doing, and then give us more”.

      • Kirkland

        When Lou Piniella left after 2002, a lot of people thought they should have gone after Dusty Baker, who had just taken San Francisco to within a game of the championship and was available. Instead, they hired rookie manager Bob Melvin. That showed they were looking for a yes-man (as a friend called it then) over someone with an assertive personality, despite his track record. Things haven’t been the same since.

        • Guy K. Browne

          I remember that, and I totally agree. Lou left because in 2001 he wanted to add some specific pieces for the pennant race and to get to the world series. Management balked and that was that, Lou couldn’t manage an outfit that wasn’t wired to win. It wasn’t just Bob Melvin, every manager and GM after 2001 was a series of “yes men”. That isn’t the fault of the current ownership group, but they do unfortunately have to live with that legacy.

          • art thiel

            As Piniella told me for my book, Out of Left Field, CEO Howard Lincoln wanted “total, total control.”

        • Brig Boring

          Melvin has won three manager of the year awards since the Mariners thought he wasn’t the man to replace Lou. Maybe he wasn’t that much of a yes man.

          • Guy K. Browne

            My take? It was his first managerial job, no way in hell he was going to rock the boat. Membership into the fraternity requires an initial shot at managing a team, Mariners gave him that opening, he wasn’t going to blow it.

          • Brig Boring

            So, they replaced him with Mike Hargrove who found it so distasteful working for the Mariners that he quit while they were on an eight game winning streak? I think Melvin holds the higher ground here.

          • art thiel

            Melvin is better now than as a rookie mgr in SEA.

          • Brig Boring

            He won 93 games in his inaugural season

          • Kirkland

            Oh, I agree. If I had a team with a managerial vacancy now, Melvin would be on my short list. I’m just saying that instead of getting a guy that consistently gets teams to the postseason, they went with a newbie. That spoke volumes.

            I will add that Baker has had trouble getting over the hump once in the playoffs. But wouldn’t we rather debate “Why can’t we win in the postseason?” than “Why can’t we win, period?” Especially in a sport which has fewer playoff slots than the others in this country?

        • art thiel

          Piniella told me that he knew exactly the kind of guy his successor would be, and he was right. Bad cop/good cop. But Melvin has proven in OAK that he is more than a competent manager.

      • art thiel

        Exactly, Your expression is unheeded by the organization, unless they offer tangible make-goods on their deliberately diminished product, such as reduced prices on tickets/concessions.

    • art thiel

      Your point about a diminished pool of quality free agents fought over by many clubs is one I also made recently, In fairness, I think Dipoto’s future team will be filled by players from offseason trades. The midseason trades of Bruce and Encarnacion produced little, as will any trades of Leake/Gordon/Seager.

      I’m not sure about creating an original cutting-edge strategy. The current trends evolved largely via widespread acceptance of new truths from analytics. It’s hard to go backward or sideways from better information.

      • Guy K. Browne

        I get what you’re saying about “accepted truths based on analytics”, but examining your assertion that the future team will be filled by players from offseason trades, what does Dipoto have to trade, that other teams would want, that will make the team better in the next couple of years (as they seem to be promising)? When the farm is gutted, and the so-called big league team is losing nearly 60% of their games, where does the improvement come from?

  • Effzee

    What a scam. I’m not sure why its okay to expect fans of a major league franchise to pay full major league prices to watch the process of trying out minor league players in the big leagues to see if they can play or not. Isn’t that what the minor leagues are for? If there are really that few baseball players who can play at the major league level then its time for contraction, starting with the M’s. This is a *bleeping* charade.

    • Steve Buckholdt

      These are my sentiments exactly. Thank you.

  • Husky73

    Oh boy, I’m going to step out on the ledge here. I watch or listen to almost every game, but I have been watching the Mariners extra closely for about 10 days (man, the Orioles are bad). We know that the M’s are not as good as they pretended to be (13-2), but I feel that they are not as bad as they played in May. Their everyday lineup of Healy (injured), Gordon, Crawford (lots of errors, which is why the Phillies gave up on him), Seager, Santana (lots of errors, but drives in runs), Smith, Haniger (injured), Vogelbach (a surprise, especially with the number of walks– he gets on base) and Narvaez/Murphy (a good catching duo) is not the Yankees or the Dodgers, but is major league level talent. They just beat an excellent Milwaukee team twice. Adams and Elias are fair in the bullpen (the rest are terrible…Gearrin is the new Ayala), and the rotation of Gonzales, Leake, LeBlanc and Milone is probably 3-4-5 MLB quality. It’s feasible– perhaps a stretch– to think the M’s could finish third in the division ahead of the Angels and Oakland. Where the Mariners have miserably failed, is not in jettisoning veterans and payroll (why is King Felix still on the roster? He should have been tearfully released.) but in developing and bringing up young talent that makes an impact. For example, in just the last few years,the Dodgers have brought up Muncy, Seager, Urias, Buehler (anyone? anyone?) and Verdugo. The M’s have nothing to compare. How many years have we said, “Well, there’s no help in Tacoma?” My (wandering) point is not to blame Stanton, Dipoto or Servais, but to blame those who are scouting, drafting, signing, acquiring and coaching the young prospects.

    • Guy K. Browne

      For sure Stanton/Dipoto/Servais aren’t to blame, they paid Lambo money for a Pinto, and probably knew that going in. But to ask the fans to “have faith” is a monumental ask. Something has to give…
      Imagine any restaurant that serves up mediocre (at best) food while charging gourmet prices, and then asks their customers “hey, yeah the food is crap but just stick with us for a few years and continue to pay $$$$ while we find the right kitchen staff to make this place really gourmet, then you’ll really enjoy your meal, please believe us.”

      • Husky73

        Guy….good post. I understand. However, I have hope, and I prefer Mariner baseball to no baseball in Portland and half a team in St. Petersburg and Montreal. I’ll hang in there with heart over head.

        • art thiel

          John Stanton thanks you.

      • art thiel

        Ah, but the service is good, the view and location are excellenyand you get free bobbleheads, hats and other assorted trinkets. Lots of restaurants would survive that way.

    • ReebHerb

      Gearrin is tough to watch. His deliberate style gets me rooting for the other team to hit him hard and make him go away so we can watch baseball.

      • Husky73

        Hitters have a hitch in their swing. Gearrin has a hitch in his delivery.

      • art thiel

        As with many in the ‘pen, he’s filler.

    • art thiel

      You’re not too far out on the ledge. The return of Seager, the move of Santana to RF, the improved play at SS, and the catching combo are healing some of the defensive woes. Some good starts from LeBlanc, Leake and Milone have improved the patchwork rotation. But a forecast ahead of the trade deadline is futile because Dipoto still may dump more veterans for prospects.

      If the M’s are going to tank, then tank.

      • coug73

        Let’s not suck at tanking!

  • jafabian

    There has to be accountability among M’s ownership that they have failed their fan base since the 2001 season. Instead they preach patience. It’s disappointing to see how the organization has developed multiple All-Stars and HOF players yet have so few post season appearances. They’ve even some of the best managers in MLB and have seemingly drove them away.

    I support the moves that were done and believe that they’ll become at least comparable to the A’s in a few seasons but the skepticism should be more than understandable. Though it’s been denied I believe the trades of Jay Bruce and especially Edwin Encarnacion were mandated by ownership for cost reasons. Dipoto could have netted more of a return if he waited closer to the trade deadline and it that’s true I question just how committed management is to becoming a successful franchise or is there a line in the sand somewhere?