The Seattle Mariners have an untraditional ownership structure. That, we all know. Nintendo of America—a company, not a person—has majority ownership. The 45 percent of the team not owned by the company is divvied up among more than ten other people, with their names and their respective stakes almost entirely unknown.
For many fans, this is a point of frustration. At the forefront, there are questions of accountability. Everyone wants someone to yell at or, short of that—they want to know those running the team care. They want to know there are people at the very top as happy as they are when the team wins, and as crushed as they are when it loses.
But for those hoping for a change, that someone from the ownership group will step forward to be the public face of the franchise, they shouldn't expect to see that anytime soon.
"Baseball is a community asset, they bought [the team] to keep it here. They didn’t buy it because they wanted the spotlight," said Mariners President Kevin Mather in a recent interview with Dave "Softy" Mahler of KJR 950. "They kind of like it that way, and until they tell me different, that’s the way it’s going to continue."
While the big ownership change that certain contingents had been hoping for doesn't appear to be on the horizon, the culture change most desired may well be here regardless—with that 30-minute interview Mather gave to KJR being the latest in a string of evidence pointing in that direction.
That interview with Mather, who replaced Chuck Armstrong as Mariners president a year ago this January, marked the third time in the past four months he's spoken with members of the media. And if there had been a question about the former CFO's passion for the game, if some had wondered whether he's one of us, he's gone a long way towards quelling that.
Like those of us around here, he just wanted competitive baseball in 2014—and ended up getting a lot more during the first year on the job.
"Lo and behold, three o’clock on the last Sunday of the season, Oakland wins a game and we’re eliminated, and I literally walked into the back corner by myself and took a little ten minute break because I got a little emotional." said Mather, who has described on multiple occasions his habit of walking the ballpark concourse on game nights. "We came a lot closer than I thought. I thought we had some great first year experiences and we’ve got some more work to do."
He isn't afraid to lay out the work that needs to be done either, whether it's past, present or future. Last September, before it was announced that Chuck Armstrong would be retiring, I wrote on why the Mariners should be more transparent—not simply that it'd be neat for outsiders to know more, but that a commitment to explaining one's self can lead to actions that are more explainable.
At the time, the news of the day was that the Mariners had secretly extended Jack Zduriencik and, for the most part, refused to comment. They cited a policy of not commenting on front office personnel decisions, despite having done so previously (and now since).
in contrast to how this had been handled in the past, it was interesting and refreshing to hear Mather speak so candidly—in an October interview with 710 ESPN's Brock & Salk—on the decision to extend Zduriencik. I use a block quote because everything here has substance to it:
That was a bigger deal than I expected. I took the job in February, everyone knew Jack was in the last year of his deal. It was never a topic of discussion between Jack, myself, our ownership. It was business as usual. I was extremely impressed by the longterm decisions Jack made. Every decision we had to make—whether it was a player acquisition, whether it was a personnel decision—they were all longterm, looking three, four, five years down the road. We want to be competitive three or four years down the road.
In August, we go to lunch, literally the topic of discussion was A,B and C, and at the end of that I said "Does your wife like it in Seattle?" [He said] "She loves it here. I said "why your contracts up this year, why don’t we talk about getting that extended?" And he said, I’d love to do that. It was literally a very casual, very automatic decision. Obviously, Jack came on board in 2008 and this rebuilding process has taken longer than it should. It took too long, it was frustrating and if things hadn’t progressed like they had this year, thankfully they did, and we didn’t have to go a different direction, and I’m excited to have Jack on board.
It was in that interview when he first proclaimed that payroll would be going up in 2015, later doubling down on that in the interview with Softy, saying it'd be "well in excess of what we spent last year at $107 million" while noting it was up to Zduriencik on when exactly that'd be spent.
Now, I don't want to necessarily overstate his role. As he put it to Softy, "my job as the president of the club, to provide resources for winning," before adding "we need to put a winning product on the field and everything else takes care of itself."
While it's easy to overstate the role, so is it to understate it as well. For those who don't know, Mather is now the liaison between the ownership group and the baseball side of the organization. While ownership controls the pursestrings, he's the individual with the most sway in convincing them to loosen them.
His depiction of his first transaction as Mariners president, as told to Brock & Salk:
My first real event as president was, Jack’s on his way to Arizona, we’re looking at another pitcher—and if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, you can never have enough pitching. I get it, I now get it, as we’re cobbling together our staff. You can never have enough pitching, we were looking at adding a starting pitcher—the starting pitchers out there were expensive, longterm, Jack said "I don’t want to go there." We looked at another bat to go behind Cano in the lineup, they were expensive, they were longterm.[...]
I went to our ownership, with Jack kind of prodding me up, and he said "let’s shorten the game." So, the first decision, we’ve got young pitchers, we’ve got Wallker, Paxton, Maurer at the time. We were thinking, let’s shorten the game. So the first decision, the first thing I really tried to sell to our ownership is, let’s take the ninth inning off the board. Everybody else has got an 8th, 7th, 6th—defined roles in the bullpen. You shorten the game for our young starting pitchers, they don’t have to go a third time through the lineup. Our owners said "Sure, that sounds like a great plan" and next thing I know Fernando Rodney is signed to a two-year deal.
While this illustrates the influence Mather has in lobbying on behalf of Zduriencik and his staff, don't look past the realization in the beginning of this. The Nelson Cruz signing and Kyle Seager extension are the big moves of the off-season, but the team has also made pitching depth a clear priority this winter, having added six pitchers—a varying mix of starters and relievers—to the organization just since the season ended. Might not be a coincidence.
But I want to go back to an idea I mentioned above, that a commitment to transparency has the power to influence decisions. You can look back at the last time the previous president was readily transparent on an organizational belief. It was when Chuck Armstrong followed a letter to the city and county opposing the proposed SoDo Sonics Arena with public comments that Chris Hansen would "rue the day" he built his building there, because the site, "in [the Mariners'] view, simply does not work."
The Mariners, justifiably, were skewered. Sometimes the love that comes as a result of transparency is the tough kind, and the ensuing backlash is likely why the Mariners have softened their stance.
"[What we're asking is,] is this the right spot?" Mather told Softy. "And if it is, if that’s what we say, then we’ll be great partners. I can assure you we’re going to be great partners."
That's a tough statement to back away from—something Mather hasn't really been afraid of. In that same line of questioning on the Sonics, he didn't hesitate to say, on the traffic concerns, "we plan to draw three million fans in the very near future."
It's apparent Mather has a clear vision of the future. When asked, he'll gladly expound upon them with words and phrases the optimists around here use.
"We’re not going to sell our soul this year," he told Softy. "We want 90-95 wins for the next five to six to eight years" In another segment, he posed this hypothetical: "Alright, we didn’t make it one of the last seven years, but let’s examine why we didn’t make it and let’s make sure we fix it so it doesn’t happen two out of the last seven years. Focus, focus, focus."
For the first time in a long time, Mariners fans get the sense there's someone at the very top of the organization with a plan for getting the franchise to where it needs to be, and the power and resolve to execute it.
Now, trust me, I know—quotes are only quotes. Though they can hint at future behavior, only the results matter. But while the sample size is small, if you want to evaluate Mather only on results, you won't be disappointed.
It's been a good first year for Kevin Mather, and it's near impossible to not be excited about where he steers this next.
If you'd like to listen to the full interview with Softy, a 30-minute session that was planned to go about ten, you can do so here: