Fixing the Mariners: Facing up to a Bad Case of Dry Rot

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Image by vhines from Pixabay

Where would the Mariners be this week if chairman John Stanton had fired Kevin Mather in 2018?  That’s when it became publicly known the club was sued by three female employees, two of whom accused the club president of sexual harassment. They accepted financial settlements.

The players would be at Arizona spring training playing and talking ball, not hearing things like this from staff ace Marco Gonzales: “Sometimes a common goal can guide (a team),” he said Tuesday. “Sometimes a common enemy can do the same, if not greater. I think that’s the boat we’re in right now.”

Or this from manager Scott Servais: “I got to say I was very angry. I was embarrassed. And I’m frustrated, and I’m frustrated because I know how hard we are working as a group.”

Or this from general manager Jerry Dipoto, about holding a team meeting to apologize to players, “frankly to address the stigma that’s now associated with our team, which I don’t think is the way we see ourselves.”

The way many people, inside of baseball and outside, see the Mariners is as a hapless loser of an organization with a toxic culture that indulges a senior executive like Mather, who blithely belittles a dozen of the company’s only sources of revenue; uses racial dog-whistles; discloses an industry custom that is a restraint of labor; brags up a financial truth the club never wants disclosed; and claims the beleaguered city government, crushed by a pandemic, racial unrest and police-funding cutbacks, should “do something” about the ballpark’s neighborhood that he says is dangerous.

Among other deleterious topics.

Here are two hypothetical questions: What if season-ticket holder Eric Hess had not discovered and posted the video of Mather’s Feb. 5 talk with the Bellevue Rotary that exposed him? How long would the infection from “the common enemy” have been allowed to spread in the franchise to an even worse outcome?

We can’t know those answers. We can learn of the rot that causes them to be asked.

I say “we” because even though sports franchises are privately owned, they are civic institutions subsidized by all of us taxpayers. Done right, they are immense sources of community pride and passion that are needed more than ever in a time of national bleakness and division.

Instead of pride and passion this spring, the Mariners have a third public scandal under Stanton’s watch that involves claims of badgered employees, including the complaints from Dr. Lorena Martin. The former high-performance director proudly hired by Dipoto in October 2017 lasted a year before being put on leave, then fired. She sued, claiming discrimination. Only this week did we learn via the Seattle Times that her claim was “resolved” via a private arbitration agreement. No details were provided.

It’s resolved between the parties. But it isn’t resolved in the public mind. Especially now that there’s reason to speculate that Mather might have been running a good ol’ boys shop. The Mariners claim an MLB investigation said Martin had no case. You’ll pardon me if I think that’s like the FAA asking Boeing to do the final inspection on a plane it just built.

I trust neither the Mariners nor MLB to provide honest answers as to how a guy with Mather’s views held such power. Nor do I trust Stanton, the majority owner and now temporarily the president and CEO, to lead an examination that may need to discover whether he’s part of the problem. With the possible exception of throwing large coin at team-building genius Theo Epstein, Stanton can’t lead a search for Mather’s successor, given that he either a) didn’t know who Mather was or b) did know who Mather was.

The Mariners need to hire an outside party with no dog in the hunt to independently investigate and understand how Mather was allowed to climb for 25 years to reach the top, and who abetted him. The fall, we know.

Public goodwill is eroded in the club on multiple levels — I fully expect that NASA’s Perseverance rover will find Martian microbes that know the Mariners have been absent from the playoffs longer than any team in the top four North American pro team sports. So eroded that I would think many, if not most, beleaguered club employees, sickened by the fiascoes, would welcome transparency and a plan for a path forward.

I called a veteran public relations executive to ask what is possible, and agreed to anonymity for candor. “They have to do things that they haven’t done in two decades-plus,” the person said. “They need to go deeper. If that was (Mather’s) thinking, who else thinks like this within the organization? Trust is blown in the community. They have a steep hill to climb out of in the short term, but also long term.”

That short term includes convincing two young superstars in the bud, Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, both disparaged by Mather, that the organization is a good one, in ways more persuasive than merely saying so. Dipoto seemed to understand the peril of the moment. While Kelenic and Rodriguez haven’t even played a major league game yet and have no contract leverage, if Dipoto’s step-back plan works, it won’t be too long before he needs to hire veteran talent to surround the phenoms. Vets with choices likely will avoid a place that may look from the outside as if it’s one space-laser short of Crazytown.

“Many of [Seattle’s top prospects] were brought up in our minor league system that stresses community, truth-telling, and doing the right thing,” Dipito said. “And they watched a circumstance where we as an organization didn’t do the right thing. And we have to be accountable to them.”

Even through Zoom Tuesday, the discomfort among Dipoto, Servais,and Gonzales was palpable. They so want this to go away. “Some of those words were hurtful personally,” Gonzales said. “But he’s not close to us. He’s not here throwing the ball. He’s not here swinging.”

The common enemy is gone. But no one can say for sure if the problem left with him.

This article is published with permission from SportsPressNW. Follow Art Thiel on Twitter at @Art_Thiel

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Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Working with young athletes might be as hard as being a Seattle baseball fan. The team mediocracy is a management problem and a “it’s about the Benjamin’s” moment. Good teams have a mix of stars and young talent. We wasted $$ on Felix for 2yrs. because of the fan base – we are about to do the same with Russell… Management of a sports team is about making good decisions quickly and continual rebuilding, as shelf life is part of the equation.

  2. In making big changes, timing is crucial. Things have to get bad enough to ripen for change. Are the Mariners now approaching melt-down, and therefore serious change at the top? John Stanton comes from the cellular world and likely can manage some major changes, but I wonder if the owners and the fan base will stick with a new regime.

  3. There’s a hard core of baseball fandom – I’m part of it – that cares less for management bungling and win-loss numbers, and more for access to a game they love. Sitting in the seats, out in the ballpark, digging into a bag of popcorn, watching a unique sport – that’s the payoff. That said, two decades plus of failure, of falling out of contention by the end of August, can test even the rabid. The M’s may be teetering at that precipice, but opening the seats again as the pandemic fades will likely save them in 2021, but if the August/September collapse comes round again, all bets – some hard core included – are off………

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