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November 12, 2008 at 9:15 AM

Hale: “Play the game right!”

Good morning to all of you. What’s good about it? Well, if you like cold and rain, it’s great! Good football weather, as my coaches in Canada used to say. And come November, if rain and cold was all you had, it was a good thing for us. Better than snowstorms (real ones, not the flurries we get here that can snarl traffic for six hours). I’ll take Seattle’s weather any day. Anyhow, the weather here and just lousy airline service in general (we won’t name the carrier, but you can all guess) kept Mariners GM candidate Chip Hale from making an on-time connection from Tucson to Phoenix to Seattle. Hale didn’t begin his interview until early yesterday evening, over dinner with team president Chuck Armstrong and GM Jack Zduriencik.
The three then took a break midway through, Hale chatted with reporters, then went back to work.
Hale talked about how good teams are built with strong draft talent. No argument there. He then said that his own philosophies are not as important as the team-wide philosophy that has to be instilled in players from Class A ball on upward. And that he has to convey that philosophy.
Again, no argument.
So, what exactly does he think a good philosophy is?
“My thing is, play the game the right way,” he said. “I played under Tom Kelly in Minnesota and the thing he used to preach is ‘Respect the game.’
“I came through that system. We just did things the right way. Whether it was working on bunt defenses, taking infield, outfield. If we didn’t do it the right way, we’d keep on doing it again.”
Yeah, I know. Many of you think the whole “play the game right” thing is a tired cliche. That’s because it is. But it also happens to be true. The best teams each year usually play the game right. I noted this to some friends in Philadelphia a couple of weeks back and also on a radio interview in Spokane the other day. When I was watching the Phillies play the Rays at the World Series, it was such a different experience than watching the Mariners.
I’ve attended 40 World Series games, but these were my first since coming to Seattle in 2006, so I’d forgotten a bit about the difference from seeing live regular season games played by ordinary teams and World Series games in person. When you attend a World Series game, and can get a look at all the action at once, you can’t help but notice how every player usually does what they are supposed to do. They position themselves properly in the field. They hit the ball to the right side to get a runner to third. Execute the bunts in key situations. Hit the cutoff man from the outfield. Cut balls off in the gap. They play the caroms perfectly off the outfield wall. Steal bases when the situation calls for it instead of merely in the perfect spot. I’ll never forget Dave Roberts stealing that bag at Fenway Park to start the tying ninth-inning rally in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS between Boston and New York. Yeah, it was the ALCS and not the World Series. But that was the actual World Series that year, since the Cardinals weren’t all that capable of making the ensuing round interesting. Anyhow, the entire ballpark knew Roberts was going to try to steal off Mariano Rivera. And Roberts was able to do it anyway. If he didn’t, the historic Red Sox comeback from 3-0 down in the series would have ended 4-1 for New York. For me, that’s the base-stealer I care care about.
When I watch the M’s, I just don’t see all of the above happening enough. I see cutoff men missed. Infielders covering the wrong base. Bunts that can’t be gotten down in routine situations (forget suicide squeezes, I’m just talking about getting a runner to third with nobody out). Balls continuously pulled to waiting fielders.
It’s as if the M’s have forgotten the basics of how to play. When John McLaren announced last winter that he wanted his team to run opponents ragged, with one guy stealing 80 bags and another 50, and how his teams were going to take extra bases on singles and stuff, we all listened and silently wished him “Good luck!”
This team simply does not have that culture at the major league level. And Hale, to his credit, talked last night about how any manager has to tailor his philosophy to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his team. How he has to figure out, is it speed, pitching, slugging? What makes the team tick? Then, you devise strategies to maximize strenghts.
“As a manager, my strategy of managing depends on what we have,” Hale said.
I’ve long thought that part of McLaren’s problem was that he knew what past winning teams had done to get to where they were and he tried to mold the M’s in that direction. Problem is, these M’s couldn’t do many of the things McLaren wanted. Instead of taking what the M’s did best and trying to find a winning blueprint off that, he seemed — at times — to be jamming square pegs into round holes.
That’s an oversimplification on my part, naturally. McLaren wasn’t stupid. He knew baseball better than you or me. But I think the square peg, round hole analogy covers — in general terms — what his biggest trouble might have been. It wasn’t all the team’s fault. He does share some blame for what happened. And I think that might be the biggest where he was concerned.
Can Hale do better?
He said he thinks this is “a great situation” and that former Mariners like Bob Melvin and Bryan Price, his colleagues with the D-Backs, told him that as well. Hale feels this team has the talent to regroup and be competitive right away. We’ll see whether that’s true. For the record, he thought the Erik Bedard trade was a good one for the M’s and made sense. He compared it to his Diamondbacks dealing for Dan Haren last winter to try to push themselves over the top.
Neither team made the post-season, obviously. Though the D-Backs have Haren signed long-term, unlike the M’s, who have Bedard only in 2009.
GM Zduriencik told us that he’s presenting all candidates with a set of options on how this team can go forward. And he wants to know how they’d handle the team in each situation.
“I said ‘We’re a little bit open-minded as to where we’re headed’,” he said.
Interesting. Looks like they’re headed to a major rebuild. Unless folks like Hale — if they truly believe this team has the talent to regroup right away — talks Zduriencik into another direction. That’s my take, not Zduriencik’s.
On-tap today: Oakland A’s bench coach Don Wakamatsu interviews this morning, then Class AAA Portland manager Randy Ready gets his shot late in the day. Zduriencik has a season ticketholders luncheon to attend midday, which pushes the second interview back a bit.



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