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October 18, 2008 at 8:55 PM

The right pick

Over the next 48 hours or so, we should learn who the next Mariners GM will be. There will be explanations galore about why that GM was picked over the remaining three finalists. And frankly, there will be no right or wrong answer. At least, not an answer we can grade that way for at least a few years.
But the one thing I’ll be disappointed in as an explanation from the team is that the hire was made because it was his or her “time” to be a GM.
Sorry, that’s not going to fly. Not this time. Not this year. These four candidates for a first-time GM job bring too much to the table to be voted in with such a flimsy rationale. Is it Kim Ng’s “time” to be a GM simply because she would be the first female GM? No more than it’s Tony LaCava’s “time” after years of paying his dues as an understudy with five different organizations. No more than it’s Jack Zduriencik’s “time” after doing something no other front office assistant has ever done — winning Baseball America’s Executive of the Year Award earlier this year.
And what about Jerry DiPoto, who put in years of on-field work before earning accolades off it? For sheer ability to work long hours — it’s rumored he only needs four hours of sleep per night a la Donald Trump — DiPoto may have earned the right for this to be his “time”.
So, let’s get over such ideas and move on to something more concrete.
I’ll get this out of the way right now. I don’t believe Ng has the same experience level at hands-on player evaluation that the other candidates possess. And when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe that she is as good a pick as the other candidates based on what I perceive the team’s needs to be. It would be easy for me to cozy up to my readers in a warm and fuzzy way and say it’s time for the Mariners to be more progressive and make a statement to baseball minds everywhere, but I’m not going to do that. Simply because I don’t believe a grand PR gesture is what this team needs. So, I’m not going to take the easy route and tell readers something I don’t believe just to score some points with you.
That said, my thoughts may not be the right ones.
Had the Toronto Star followed my line of thinking a decade ago, I would likely never had been hired as a baseball writer. The skillset I brought to the table as an excellent news writer for several years was easily outdone by the more traditional skillsets that my competitors for the job had. There was much grumbling after I was hired. The only reason I got the job was that the paper’s sports editor, Steve Tustin, saw something in my other skills that he felt could transcend the ones being pushed by the longstanding sports writers applying for the job from across North America.
And in the end, I’d like to think I proved him right. Certainly, there is enough of a track record 10 years later to suggest he made the right hire. But I was lucky. Someone was willing to look beyond the obvious advantage my competitors had.
Same with that paper’s baseball columnist, Richard Griffin, who came to the Star out of the PR world. A newspaper the Star’s size (more than double that of the Times) hiring a longtime baseball PR flak as a columnist was next to unheard of. But another editor saw something others did not and made a great hire. Together in Toronto, Griffin and myself wreaked havoc for years. We were as good of a tag-team as found on the sports beat of any newspaper.
But it would never have happened had somebody applied the same criteria to us that I am now applying to this GM search. Thing is, the paper could afford to take a chance with us without having to worry about it derailing its operations for years to come. Not so for the Mariners. The stakes in this case, with a GM ultimately determining the direction of the entire franchise, are much higher.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not making the final call. It will be up to Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln. They are the ones getting the up-close-and-personal look at all four candidates. They are the ones who will be able to honestly answer whether or not they are making their hire for the right reasons. This isn’t as easy as the U.S. Presidential debate. Based on what I’ve seen in the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain, I have no reservation whatsoever in making the statement that Obama looks like presidential material. He went head-to-head with his opponent (as did his handpicked vice-presidential candidate) and I’ve got to admit that they sold me. I don’t vote because I’m a Canadian citizen and I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m just saying that with the Presidential race, I feel I’ve been exposed to more of a firsthand view than I have in this GM race. I can say that Obama has shown enough for me to feel it may be his “time”.
I can’t make that call on these GM candidates. I have friends of all four telling me how great they are, but really, so what? If I could see all four debate one another, I’d be able to make a more informed call on this. But I don’t get that luxury. Only Lincoln and Armstrong do. And in the end, believe me, it won’t all come down to experience. There will be some intangibles and subjectivity in play.
From my subjective, outside viewpoint, I believe that either LaCava or Dipoto will be the best choice. Both have the years of hands-on experience in player development and talent identification that the Mariners desperately need. And both have the needed people skills — from what I’ve been told — to help navigate this organization through what will be some difficult years ahead. They will not only be able to sell their plans internally, but to the public at-large as well.
Zduriencik certainly has the most hands-on talent evaluation experience of all the candidates, but might be a step behind both in that “selling the public” regard. Hiring a middle-aged first-timer will also require a bit of a sales job by the Mariners. This isn’t age discrimination on my part. It’s a recognition of reality. When Larry Stone and myself broke the story about Zduriencik’s inclusion in the final four, it took only minutes for predictable fan groaning to arise about how Lincoln and Armstrong had already found “their man”. In other words, a middle-aged, white guy and old-school baseball type. Given the man’s education, with a Masters degree, not to mention a teaching background, that’s an unfair stereotype. But it’s out there. If the Mariners want to give their front office a “fresh” look, it might be tougher to sell the public on that with Zduriencik.
The best candidate in this regard might be DiPoto. Everyone I speak to mentions his boundless energy and how it’s contagious among anyone he comes into contact with. That can be a real asset. It can also wear thin really fast if not controlled right. Sometimes, an eternal optimist can come across as somewhat evangelical and rub people the wrong way. Especially if a team is headed through tough times. There is no easy answer or way to predict how such a personality will fare when the going gets rough on-the-job. Yes, he’s a cancer survivor and that perspective would help him in dark professional times. But you just never know what package you’re getting.
The M’s might prefer LaCava as a toned-down version of DiPoto. LaCava is also a highly optimistic, very likeable person. He also has energy, though perhaps not as intense as what DiPoto brings. Over the long haul, in a sport that’s more marathon than sprint, the Mariners might prefer that package, given LaCava’s superior experience.
Or, they might see something in Ng that they feel will serve her well in the GM job. They may like the way her mind works, be impressed at how she processes thoughts, and feel she has the organizational ability that surpasses rivals with more hands-on talent experience. Ng isn’t exactly a newbie at player evaluation. But she simply has not been at it as long as others like Zduriencik and LaCava. That’s a fact, not a subjective observation.
And still, it won’t matter if Lincoln and Armstrong see something that we don’t. Like I said, I probably would not be a baseball writer today if someone had gone “by the book” in looking at the criteria to hire me. Lincoln certainly did not get where he is in the business world by playing it by-the-book and staying within the proverbial box.
But given that he and Armstrong are the only ones who really know how these candidates fare side-by-side, they had better be honest with themselves and Mariners fans. If they truly believe that someone’s credentials, traditional or not, make him or her the right candidate, then they should do what they feel is right. But they can’t take the easy way out here. They’ve already done that before and it backfired on them big time. They could have made the tough call and fired Bill Bavasi last fall after an 88-win campaign. But they worried about how it would look, firing a man after he’d appeared to respond to their “hot seat” with an unexpected second-place finish muted by a late-season collapse. Instead, they kept him on and delayed his eventual firing.
Same with Ichiro. The Mariners could have traded him for some prospects in 2007, but instead signed him to a five-year extension rather than risk upsetting their fan base. It was the easy PR choice. One year later, that choice is being debated like never before. Ichiro is still one of this team’s best players. But it’s questionable whether he’s worth $18 million per year as a right fielder.
The Bavasi decision likely set the team back a year. With Ichiro, he could still prove his worth over the life of the contract and hasn’t exactly embarrassed himself. But with this GM decision, the team absolutely cannot take the easy way out.
They should not hire the candidate because they hope to score brownie points with liberal thinkers, or distract fans from what a mess this baseball team is. Likewise, they should not be giving someone a Lifetime Achievement Award, or pick someone else because they’re worried about what their scouting director will think or about what others around baseball will think of them.
Any novelty aspect of this new GM, male or female, is going to wear off quick. This team is a disaster and the fixes have to start coming quickly or else we will all be in for a long few years. The new GM will have to hit the ground running. Any honeymoon will be a short one. So, when Lincoln and Armstrong make their pick, when they decide whose “time” it truly is, they had better be doing so for the right reasons. They had better be able to look at themselves in the mirror a year or two down the road if it all blows up. Because frankly, their legacies are hanging in the balance. It’s been a tough few years for fans of this franchise.
It will be tougher than ever imagined, on both fans and the Lincoln-Armstrong duo, if they don’t get this pick right.



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