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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

April 14, 2009 at 9:20 AM

It starts at the top

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Must be Mariners home opener time, because it feels like I could step outside and ski down West Dravus St. in Magnolia. A little chilly. Good thing our Geoff Baker Live! event at The Showbox SoDo is indoors today, starting at 1:30 p.m., though it’s expected to warm up by game time. Remember, you can show up there well before I do, since the place opens at 11 a.m. They have a full restaurant, so yes, alcohol is served there and yes, minors are permitted. We’ll start the actual live broadcast at 2 p.m. but I’ll be there a half hour before to start the on-site stuff.
Speaking of the home opener, I haven’t felt this much excitement in the city about the baseball team since I’ve been here. Granted, it’s not all that long since I arrived in 2006. But I’d expected today to feel like a wake of sorts, given how last season ended. Obviously, it’s been a remarkable transformation and I’m not really talking about the team’s 5-2 record, given how early in the season it still is. I’m talking more about the feeling on this ballclub and the way it was playing ball back in spring training before a single real game had been decided. This team is playing the right way, overcoming some offensive adversity — not to mention a late bullpen collapse in Game No. 2 — and standing behind each other.
Larry Stone gives you a more-detailed discussion about what’s gone on in his Times column today. By the way, Danny O’Neill also has a great baseball piece about Seattle’s Sodfather — that would be head groundskeeper Bob Christopherson. And not just a written story. Here at the Times, as you know, we’re committed towards the new realm of newspaper journalism as well, so naturally, O’Neill has video to actually show you what his newspaper words describe. A great read and video, the latter of which can be found in the box just to the right of the story.
Back to the improved feeling on the ballclub. There have been kudos thrown all around, to folks like Ken Griffey Jr. , Mike Sweeney, GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Walkamatsu. But two other men have been ignored so far in getting their due credit for this remarkable turnaround:
Team CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong, seen flanking Zduriencik on the left and right respectively in the photo above.
Now, I know I’m risking a blog riot by writing this, but seriously, accountability — which is what we’re really talking about on this team — starts at the very top. We’ve written as much this past year, taking what I felt were justified broadsides at both men for a lack of organization-wide accountability towards the fans who pay this team’s freight, in ticket sales, merchandising and tax breaks.
And believe me, both Lincoln and Armstrong felt the wrath of fan ire in 2008. That 12-month period may have taken years off their lives. No one wants to be questioned constantly about why their business venture was a total failure, an embarrassment to the city of Seattle. No one wants to hear jokes about being strung up in effigy, or lambasted daily in the media.
We’ve criticized Armstrong for nixing the Jarrod Washburn deal. Taken shots at Lincoln for being the invisible man at times in 2007 and 2008.
But it’s time to give credit where it’s due.
Both men have drastically changed over the past 10 months since the firings of GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren. This organization, I believe has undergone a most profound change from top to bottom. I have never seen Lincoln as open as he now is to discussing the reasoning behind some of the team’s moves, including the nixed Washburn deal, which he admitted this spring would have been handled differently had he and Armstrong correctly gauged where the economy was headed. Remember, the economy collapsed in October. The Washburn deal to the Twins was quashed by Armstrong in August.
This might not seem like a major concession from Lincoln, but it truly is. A year ago, he might have uttered some stock line like “We don’t discuss theoretical player moves” or some nonesense like that.
As for Armstrong, he has taken the brunt of fan ire and jokes the past year. But bringing Griffey back would not have happened without his lobbying and arm twisting. And to me, the biggest move of this off-season was not Griffey, a 39-year-old whose best on-field days were behind him. Might sell a few more tickets this week, but truly, the excitement over his return to Seattle has been eclipsed already by the ballclub’s improved play. And that could sell a whole lot more tickets.
That improved play would not have happened without the hiring of Zduriencik. Remember, the consensus was that the Mariners had to make a bold statement by hiring some “new waver” who was young and on the cutting edge. Someone like a Kim Ng. Instead, they hired the “middle aged white guy” in Zduriencik that many of you here and elsewhere in the blogosphere derided as being a typical Mariners move and another extension of the old boy’s club.
Well, it turned out Zduriencik really was on the cutting edge. A half-year after his hire and the team already has a department of statistical analysis. It has already made a “cutting edge” stats-based trade, in which defensive metrics were used to justify shipping off J.J. Putz and others for Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez. Just think, Chavez was a late throw-in as part of that deal and now some of you think he should replace Ichiro as the team’s leadoff hitter.
I can’t tell you how different it is to have a GM who actually explains the reasoning behind what he does. You don’t have to like all of Zduriencik’s moves. Don’t have to like that he’s targetted Phillippe Aumont for a bullpen role, or sent Jeff Clement to Class AAA. But at least you get an explanation for why the moves were made. In timely fashion. No more Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez mysteries. That’s a huge step forward for you the fan. That’s accountability at the top.
Lincoln and Armstrong, last September, promised an investigation into the inner-workings of the team’s clubhouse. My reaction at the time was a rolling of the eyeballs and a “yeah, sure” muttered under my breath. But surprise, surprise, the two men actually followed through. So many of the moves made this winter, from the hiring of individual coaches, manager Wakamatsu, Griffey, Sweeney, et al. have been made with clubhouse improvement in mind.
Zduriencik recognized the problem right away and obviously presented an action plan during his interview. And Lincoln and Armstrong signed off on it.
Does this erase all of the previous mistakes made by Lincoln and Armstrong? Of course not. But it takes some big men, intelligent men, to realize where something has gone wrong and to change their approach in radical fashion. Sure, they had nothing to lose. Better than being burned at the stake in the blogosphere every night. But, they also could have turned inwards, circled the proverbial wagons and continued to ride this thing out while suggesting those “outsider” fans had no clue.
They didn’t do that. Know the expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Well, these two senior executives have been jumping through proverbial hoops trying to radically change the way the Mariners had operated lately.
And for now, they’ve succeeded.
And do you know what? If the whole thing blows up from here, it will not be their fault. They don’t put on the gloves, or step into the batter’s box. The players do. Too many coaches and executives have paid the price in recent years for the failings of Mariners players. Too many reputations have been ruined.
It’s called accountability. The players are finally showing some. The front office is as well. And the guys at the very top — where it all starts — allowed for that to happen by setting an example and being around to take any heat. I expect this team to start losing some games, to face some adversity, maybe even in this series. But the foundation is now in-place to overcome that.
Think about it: a year ago, J.J. Putz blew a save late in the season’s second game, and the offense stopped hitting the next series in Baltimore.
This year, Brandon Morrow torched the second game of the season and the offense slowed down big-time in Oakland.
That team from last year was 2-5 after a week. This year’s team is 5-2.
The difference? This year’s team keeps finding ways to win. The players back each other up.
And both Lincoln and Armstrong deserve credit. They deserve not to be booed if they step on to the Safeco Field turf or sidelines today. Or if their names are announced over the loudspeaker. I’m not telling you to give them a standing ovation. I would never suggest that for anybody.
But what I’m saying is, give them their due. This organization has been radically transformed in how it operates both on and off the field. And Lincoln and Armstrong are the ones who paved the way for it to happen.

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