We’ve seen Crashes

October 23, 2008

Please forgive the sports fans in Washington State if they are less shaken by recent Wall Street events than people elsewhere.  This is the epi-center of disaster as announced by Mount St. Helens twenty some years ago.  The only good news a sports fan has had in the men’s sport arena is that Clay Bennett left town with the Sonics.  (The Seattle Storm stands alone as local fun and exciting team.)

Sports fans here are familiar with the feeling of the bottom dropping out of things.  The way we look at it the stock market still has 60% of its former value, what’s to complain about? That’s not a crash, more like fender bender. Heck, the Huskies football team has not won a single game since mid season last year. If you combine all of the wins of the football teams of Washington, Washington State and the Seahawks you get two, both of which occurred it seems like months ago.  That and one of those wins was against an intramural team.

In some ways the Mariner season was a foreshadowing of the Market crash.  The ownership spent extravagantly on players with no intrinsic value.  Our general manager speculated that our single power hitter, Richie Sexon, was going to come back after a miserable season to the form he showed the first year of his contract. The general manager believed that Richie’s performance continue to improve, failing to recognize that all cycles must end and Richie was closer to receiving social security than a home run crown.

Some teams have a retro game where the players wear uniforms from a by-gone age.  The Mariners had a retro season where we got to relive the pleasures of watching the team during its expansion phase.

The Mariners announced there new general manager in the newspaper today.  The announcement began with the most dreaded words in the team’s forlorn history:  “Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong decided.”  I couldn’t read on.

There is a rule that a team may not make announcements during the world series.  This is viewed as a distraction from the game apparently.  There are two exceptions to the ban on announcements: (1) the league gives its approval; or (2) the announcement is not significant. It is not clear which of the two exceptions applied to the Mariner announcement. Maybe both.

This proclamation did not rate coverage by the New York Times, and you have to hunt for it on the sports web sites.  In terms of substance and understanding the reasons for the selection, these announcements are a lot like reading the transcript of a presidential debate.

Being as how this guy is from Milwaukee it’s a little like the Pilots or a small piece of them is returning to Seattle.  But who wanted the Pilots back?


Obama and McCain could learn from the Mariners

June 27, 2008

I’ve met three kinds of Mariner fans: philosophers, baseball fans and front runners. The front runner is a Seattle sports fan desperate to feel the joy of winning. A baseball fan enjoys the intricacies of the game, and the philosopher finds lessons in it all. (There is a fourth category — the picnicker — who attends the game because of the ambiance of the stadium but this phenomenon is transient so I have not included this group.)

In a good season all three kinds of fan find satisfaction. There have been many, many seasons where the pleasures offered by the Mariners to their observers have been too subtle to detain the front runner. The attendance records of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s give us some measure of the number of people in the other two categories: Roughly 5,000.

This season has been noteworthy because the team has culled from its audience not only front runners, but its woeful, error prone and too often half-hearted performance has distanced many baseball fans. They have though provided grist for the philosophers.

It seems to me that our presumptive candidates for the presidency are having Mariner moments. To me it is entirely appropriate that the selection process and most of the presidential campaign occur during baseball season. Then the hard hitting last weeks of the campaign and the sudden death election occurs during football season. Baseball season though is the time to observe and reflect on the candidates.

McCain is having the same experience as the Mariners at the beginning of this season. Before the season the Mariners thought that they were one player away from the playoffs, and they went out and got him: Erik Bedard, pitching ace.

McCain felt that he was one domestic policy away from the brass ring and stayed out to get it: Energy and the environment. He stayed out of the Senate and avoided every vote that came up in the area. Now he has an environmental and energy “vision.”

The problem for McCain occurred when he took the field. Little things popped up that seemed to spoil the moment. He went to Iraq to show his commander in chief qualities and forgot who was fighting. This reminded me of Jose Lopez looking between his legs to see the ball scooting toward center field.

The Mariner defense was supposed to be good this year and McCain was strong on war and the military. Just early season jitters or a harbinger of things to come? What happened?

The errors became infectious and others around him started making them, obscuring his “vision.”

Then, like the Mariners’ starting pitching, the “vision” started to falter. McCain, who had historically opposed off shore drilling came out for it as a cure for spiraling gas prices. When a government report said that this would not have such an effect, he said that it would help “psychologically.”  This is a bit like Bedard not making it through the third inning.

The Mariners’ season collapsed and McCain’s is just barely begun. Hope he has better luck than the home team.

There’s a little bit of Richie Sexon in Obama, who electrified crowds with talk of change and new direction and populist involvement. He was a power hitter. Richie Sexon, a power hitter,  was told that he also needed to hit for average. The team was going nowhere if he could not hit over .200. So Richie changed his stance and his approach at the plate. He became patient instead of agressive and sure enough his average did climb . . . about fifteen points. He started getting walks which was good, but he lost his power. Now he is pretty much foundering.

Obama is moving to the right, trying to convince people that he is “strong on security” and that he will not overthrow the world as they know it. Richie would tell him not to change his stance too much in trying to hit for average.

Mariners fire batting coach.

June 12, 2008

The Mariners’ unerring executives took the first step in rooting out the team’s problems. It is clear that the executives hired superb baseball talent and have infused the team with inspiration. Obviously though no one has explained to the players how to use the equipment. The equipment getting the least use has been the team’s supply of bats. Some one needs to tell the players how to use them. Now that we’ve fired the guy that was supposed to do that, things should be fine.

But let’s not stop there. The bat boy is supposed to take care of bats and obviously is not doing his job. He’s got to go. The Mariners don’t need a bat boy; they need Batman.

Another problem is that attendance is down. We should fire the ticket people at the gate. They are not scanning enough tickets.

Good first step Mariners. Keep it up!

The Mariners: It’s captain can’t tell which way the wind’s blowing.

June 10, 2008

Recently I have been writing about conscienceless scammers who profit off the hopes of the innocence.  These are people who take money from others knowing that their hopes will inevitably lead to despair.  This brings the Mariners to mind.  Having now sunk into the familiar mire of inadequacy, the team is a touchstone for reflection rather than an opportunity for exultation.  (Mariner fans tend to be a rather reflective lot, finding pleasure in subtle aspects of the game rather the coarse, fist raising rush of victory.)

I have heard an endless stream of suggestions about what the manager should have done and what players didn’t do, but this is just nervous chatter from fans fearful that we have begun another decade or two of bleak futility.  People tend to fixate on the symptoms of a problem. The Mariners organization, however, has been uniquely resistance to addressing the reason for its malaise.

A dispassionate observer would view the problem as systemic.  Question: what has been a constant from the Mariner’s hopeless performance in the 1980’s through changes of ownership to their current trampling of expectations.  Answer:  Chuck Armstrong.  He is an academically successful, socially able, business oriented non-baseball person.  He came to the Mariners from Stanford without any meaningful background in baseball.  A biographer would would not focus on his ability to lead a baseball team, but his remarkable ability to ingraciate himself to the boards of directors that have shifted with time and change of ownership.

In recent years, since moving to Safeco, there has also been success in business.  To a substantial degree Safeco’s draw assures business success independent of the team’s woeful fortunes.  This of course is transient, as the sparse crowds at Jacobs Field show.  The “Jake” was the first of the neo-historical fields that proved to be fan magnates.

Item two: Howard Lincoln, hired during the team’s Renaissance period in 1999, and another non-baseball man.  To me the term “non-baseball man” means a person whose uncompromising fealty is owed to the board of directors, who measures success solely by the bottom line.  In corporate jargon this person has no sense of the “customer” or the customer’s relationship with the product, except indirectly through measurements of the revenue stream.

Lincoln is the poster child of non-baseball baseball executives.  Revenue measurements are never an adequate substitute for a real sense of the corporation’s business and they have betrayed Lincoln.  The revenue from the field gave Lincoln a smug complacency which he exhibited in an interview in which he indicated that his goal for the team was that the Mariners be good enough for high attendance.  This drove Lou Pinella crazy.  As Art Thiel’s book point’s out Lincoln’s ego did not leave room in the organization for Pinella.  When Lincoln felt that he had a documented breach of the chain of command, Pinella was history.)  Lincoln refused to do the small  things that that required budgetary tweeks but would put the team over the top and assure continued success.  Remember Pinella’s continual dirge about the lack of a left handed bat?  With crowds flocking to Safeco, Lincoln maintained the status quo into oblivion.  He did subsequently modify his rigid adherence to a budget but it was too late.  As if in penance, he now flaunts this new “flexibilty” in a kind of random grab of free agent superstars.