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The new Mariners’ culture: what’s changed?

A look at Year Two in Jerryland

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MLB: Spring Training-Media Day
Of course he’s the world’s greatest boss, it says so right there on his mug
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. Note: This week, as part of a larger SB Nation season preview series, we will be focusing on “what’s changed?” for the 2017 Mariners. We’ll be examining each major aspect of the team—pitching, offense, defense, and the minors—throughout the week, but we begin with a general look at team culture.]

I worked in a failing public school system for multiple years, and while it was often a miserable experience, it also taught me a lot about how to assess leadership. I worked for principals who had held their jobs for decades, for first-year principals wanting to create an entirely new culture, and for schools that had been taken over by the state and run by for-profit companies because they were doing so poorly. I saw a lot of failure during that time, much more than I ever did success. Here’s what I learned about failing organizations:

  • Failing organizations have a leadership team that constantly shifts the blame to people lower on the hierarchical chain in order to save face and present an illusion that things aren’t as desperate as they really are.
  • Failing organizations encourage unhealthy competition between workers; i.e., announcing test scores in a public forum in order to praise one group while shaming another—who does this knowledge serve? How does it make the lesser group better?
  • Failing organizations are marked by poor communication that leads to chaos. Workers are overwhelmed with a flood of information that they don’t know how to prioritize, or left without information they need to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned (which they often only find out about last-minute, because communication problems).
  • Failing organizations have a workforce that is tired, stressed, unhappy, and unfriendly.

Most everyone has worked terrible jobs in their lives. I worked the graveyard shift at Denny’s for a summer, and there were many times I would have happily swapped another day at the middle school I worked at in North Philly to be cleaning strawberry shake up off a table at four a.m. (I won’t tell you how the shake got on the table. I think you can get there.). There are terrible jobs, and then there are legitimately toxic work environments that impact the rest of your life. They make you feel bad, physically and mentally; they make you different, even—smaller, and meaner.

From everything that’s come out about it, it’s safe to assume that the Mariners organization, under Jack Zduriencik, was a toxic workplace. Former manager Eric Wedge voiced his displeasure with the team in a 2013 article for the Seattle Times, citing the team’s “total dysfunction and lack of leadership.” In that same article, former Jack Z bosom buddy Tony Blengino described Jack Z’s leadership as cabalistic and dictatorial:

“He began operating much like the Wizard of Oz, wielding his power from behind a curtain,” Blengino said. “Intimidating, manipulating, and pitting people against one another. Berating them for no particular reason. He set out to eliminate any type of disagreement, accumulating yes-men who meekly go along with his program.”

Under Jack Z, the team went through two managers, 14 coaches, and a score of scouts and operations people. Obviously, employees who’ve been fired—as are the cases with Wedge and Blengino—won’t have particularly warm things to say about their previous employer. That’s human nature. But the constant turnstile of employees under Z’s regime suggests that the problem stemmed from the top, and got shifted to the bottom (see: Organizational Dysfunction Bullet Point The First). Couple this with some of the toxic player personalities who were brought on at the time—see Josh Lueke, Milton Bradley, Chone Figgins, etc.—and the picture that’s painted is of an organization that was incapable of managing its human resources from top to bottom, that was constantly begging fans not to look behind the curtain. It’s a picture that looks an awful lot like what I saw in Philly, when a principal once forced me to teach a group of beginning ESL students the Preamble to the Constitution because there were people from the newspaper coming and he thought it would make a good picture.

Long-term exposure to a failing organization erodes your trust, causing a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where you become so inured to failure that it becomes an expectation, a baseline, the status quo. It’s hard to trust Jerry Dipoto and his staff after seeing so much failure—who is this handsome slickster who wants to sell us on a monorail? It’s tempting to retreat into the child’s pose of pre-established defeat. But for every instance in which Jack Z’s was a failing organization, Dipoto’s is a successful one. Let’s go through it point-by-point:

  • Accepting responsibility for failure. At the SABR analytics conference in Phoenix this past week, Dipoto talked about the missteps he’s made in drafting. It might seem like a small thing—oh, Jerry regrets passing on Chris Sale, what an incisive bit of self-observation—but to admit to a mistake in such a public way shows a willingness to take responsibility and learn from one’s errors. Also, when management sets the tone for the rest of the clubhouse by willingly and openly acknowledging one’s mistakes, that allows others to feel free to own their mistakes, increasing accountability and communication among the workforce. At the media luncheon last year, VP Jeff Kingston admitted, “Where we failed as an organization was in our consistent communication to the players,” naming Mike Zunino and Chris Taylor as two specific players most harmed by the team’s haphazard jumble of instructions. The ability of stakeholders at the highest levels of the organization to admit to making mistakes signals a move from “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and instead tosses the curtain aside, in the spirit of free and open communication. Speaking of which...
  • Consistent, coherent communication. As Kingston’s quote indicates, communication in the organization was not running smoothly from point to point in the pre-Dipoto era. We may joke about the prevalence of “C the Z” or “Keep Fighting” or “Whatever It Takes,” but these organizational precepts—clearly and concisely expressed—reflect the value placed on consistent messaging throughout the organization. We’re already seeing the effects in the organization; this Saturday, Tyler O’Neill was up to bat with the bases loaded, and worked an RBI walk because he didn’t get a pitch he liked. O’Neill is a dyed-in-the-wool slugger, and it must have killed him to keep that bat on his shoulder. But he’s had “C the Z” and “PTPA” (Productive Team Plate Appearance) drilled into him for long enough that he knew to stand up there and wait for a pitch he liked, and if he didn’t see it, to take his walk or do whatever he needed to do to score at least one run. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have gotten his name on the clubhouse leaderboard for PTPAs, which leads to...
  • A degree of healthy competition, with oneself more than anything else. Yes, there’s a chart in the spring training clubhouse this year that keeps track of PTPAs, and players vie to be in the lead. Yet even though this appears to track an individual accomplishment, what it really measures is how much you help the team; success is defined by your contributions to an overall effort, even if that contribution results in a sacrifice fly or getting hit by a pitch for you. The competition is focused on the team, and less on the individual. Meanwhile, the players who are actually locked in competition—for a fourth outfielder spot, for a backup infielder spot—went fishing together, per Boog Powell on the latest Cactus League Report. Taylor Motter, also fighting for a job, has similarly warm things to say about his teammates and how much he’s enjoyed meeting everyone. To a man, every spring training interview so far has gushed about the culture of the team, bringing up the final point:
  • These players are happy. A mariachi band following Leonys around for his birthday, something he would later describe as a great memory and something he would never forget. A rookie from AA ball performing a piano solo accompanied by another rookie from A ball beatboxing for the whole team. Team outings to escape rooms and golf and dinners. Dress where you’re from day. The M’s Games. Scott Servais has built a culture where players are excited to come to work every day, where they start every day with a morning meeting share that is guarded more closely than the ingredients for Chartreuse. The overall message is: you’re here, you’re valued, you’re important, we see you and appreciate who you are. And when that’s the message, when workers feel seen and valued and like they have the tools for success, the results will be spectacular. I’ve seen plenty of failure, but I’ve seen success, too, and it shares many of the hallmarks we’re seeing in year two.

Think about the best boss you’ve ever had. Jerry Dipoto is that boss. Things have finally changed for the better for the Seattle Mariners.