I didn't really expect this, but there's a great deal of lament going around regarding the now-confirmed departure of Eric Wedge. Larry Stone wrote his column the other day on the issue, and cited the fact that pinning the blame for all of this on Wedge is nonsensical.
And that's true.
So you go up one level, to Jack Zduriencik. While my stance has varied and now leans slightly towards him seeing this thing out, the majority opinion of the writers on this publication is that Jack Zduriencik should be relieved of his duties as well. And if you leave the merits of Jack's accomplishments out of the argument (bear with me for a moment), there are those who don't see what that accomplishes.
Both Wedge's and Zduriencik's firings are completely justifiable, but most would agree that the failings of the Mariners organization do not fall entirely on their shoulders. Many believe this thing is rotten to the core—or, more accurately, festering at the very top, with Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong, and organizational culture they've created.
Then, once you go all the way up to that level, you find a very odd mix of opinions. Almost all would agree that they are not doing a good job, because they control the overall product and right now the product is not good. But the reasons, and the methods for fixing it are varied. Many have said they don't want to win. That's combatted in two ways, and I'm going to partially ignore the first because times and people change: 1.) The Mariners have won with them before and 2.) Of course they want to win. Winning means money, of course, and they're not trying to lose on purpose.
Again, it's this second complaint I have the biggest problem with. Not because it's wrong, but because it's flawed in its static nature.
Everyone in sports, almost unquestionably, wants to win. It is the entire point of sports. All of them. For nearly every athlete and associated professional, executive, what-have-you, the base-level desire exists to have your team perform better than its opposition. Of course. I do not believe that Howard and Chuck prefer to lose, and are not paying players enough because turning a profit is a higher priority than winning baseball games.
But do I question if they want to win enough? Absolutely.
Look at the people in the picture up top. Well, don't look at Jack Zduriencik. Not relevant here. Look at Chuck, Howard and Felix.
Do you believe that the man on the left and the man on the right have the same competitive fire, the same drive to succeed in winning baseball games as the guy just coming off throwing a perfect game? No, of course not. Almost no one does, even among baseball players. But even just acknowledging this is the first step towards beginning to develop an understanding for why certain Mariners fans don't believe Howard and Chuck want to win enough, or at least wonder if they don't.
Where other teams have the traditional owner, we have them—and many of those other owners simply seem to want it more (more on that momentarily). Heck, Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong of 2007 seemed to want it more.
I've written before on this organization's lack of transparency, and the last few weeks have stood as a strong example. Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln won't even stand behind the product he's delivering. Here's Howard Lincoln informing the media that Bill Bavasi would return for the 2008 season, after a bad slide meant the M's would win only 88 games and miss the playoffs. A pretty detailed and focused explanation there.
Without a word from Lincoln, here's Armstrong on Zduriencik this year: "Yes, Jack will be back." That's it.
Now, admittedly, some of that may be due to timing as they want the manager situation officially resolved first. But, of course, they control the timing. Leaving people out to dry upsets them and there are other ways to do this.
But let's go back for a second, to other owners. And I say owners here because Chuck and Howard operate as owners—they control the product.
The Detroit Tigers signed first baseman Prince Fielder not because it was something their general manager wanted to do, but because it was something their owner, Mike Ilitch, passionately wanted done. Moves like the Fielder one are risky, yes, but instilling that intense passion for winning and commitment to raising expectations as high as they can go has the potential to do some wonderful things:
Now, on the other side of it, it can do some awful things as well. You don't need to look outside the Mariners' own division to see it either. Angels owner Arte Moreno was instrumental in the organization signing players to two of the worst contracts in the history of baseball. As a result, they may not be able to keep—or at list sign soon—a guy who's look like he may end up being one of the best players in the history of baseball.
For another example on the impact of competitive ownership, you don't have to look outside Seattle—but outside the sport of baseball.
Consider Starbucks' Howard Schultz. If you were to describe the type of guy you'd want to buy the Mariners, it would be Schultz before he did what he did to the Sonics. He's a local businessman who made a fortune building what many would deem to be a great company—and he did it primarily through an excellent culture centered around superb customer service.
And what did he do when he took over the Sonics? He ran the organization's most iconic player right out of town because he didn't like him, because he himself felt disrespected. On why Schultz soured on the Sonics and the NBA:
It started with Gary Payton, for whom Schultz felt an immediate disdain. Schultz thought Payton was selfish and self-absorbed and that the people with whom he surrounded himself were unethical. When Payton failed to show up on the first day of training camp in 2002 to make a point, it sealed his fate: Schultz was going to trade Payton.
And that's why it's important to not only be competitive, but to be aware of what you're competitive at. This doesn't go just vertically, with varying degrees of competitiveness, but it can go sideways too—with control and ego being key factors. Howard Schultz was, undoubtedly, a passionate owner who desperately wanted to win. He sat courtside at Sonics games and was passionate to the point that he'd often stir there petulant when the Sonics struggled. But the bigger problem were the times when Schultz's ego was bruised, when he wanted respect and wanted to be the man.
And, unfortunately, you start to see problems there with the Mariners. A superb and revealing article by Jason Churchill over at Prospect Insider offers some interesting nuggets. For one, he said he's heard Pat Gillick will not, under any circumstances, return to work for Howard Lincoln (you wonder why). There's also this:
I’m told Zduriencik is on a very short leash, which is always an absolutely terrible situation for any organization. This likely means he does not have full autonomy over personnel decisions. It strongly suggests Chuck Armstrong has a hand, or two, in all baseball decisions. This is the absolute worst scenario for the Seattle Mariners.
Armstrong has been around baseball for a long time, and has undoubtedly picked up a vast trove of baseball knowledge—but by profession, he's a lawyer. Making personnel decisions, making choices on talent and setting the direction with regards to what prepares this team to win isn't something you want in his hands. He's hired people for this, and he shouldn't get in their way.
And that, really, is the paradox of all of this. If the Mariners' front office does passionately want to win, and them stepping in on personnel decisions is an example of that, maybe they should take a step back.
Can this organization win with Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong at the very top? Yes, technically, because it has happened before. But to do so they must want to win enough to realize that competing to win baseball games on the field can't happen if they're competing internally with the men they hired see to it that they do indeed win.
It's a challenging paradox, and if they'd explain exactly what's going on, maybe we'd all question them less. I expect, or at least hope, we'll see something from Howard soon. But until then, it's hard not to worry about the direction of the franchise and wonder about the process that's led to the product we see on the field right now and in the future.