Finally, six months after it began, what was arguably the worst season in Mariners history is now over with. There were no prolonged ovations for this 101-loss team the way there were last year, when an 85-win squad capped off a surprising season. Nobody was carried off the field in celebration this time. In fact, the Mariners were fortunate nobody showed up after this 4-3 loss with a paddywagon to haul them away for impersonating a major league team.
There was no comparison between the 2010 Mariners and the 2009 version.
Fans in this city were forced to watch the equivalent of Class AAA baseball from about the midway point onward, even though they still paid major league prices to do so. But even before that, it was abundantly clear that the Jack Zduriencik-built Mariners had lost their way.
In looking back on the past two years, I remembered something Zduriencik told me in spring training of 2009, after he’d given a clubhouse talk to his players. Zduriencik talked about how he’d told players that successful teams need to have both “character” and “talent” in equal measurements. He likened it to a pyramid, where the talent and character rises to the top and meets in one point.
“What you should be striving for as an organization,” Zduriencik added, bringing the fingertips of his hands together and pointing them toward the sky, “is to meet at the top, where the talent is at the top and the character is at the top.”
Well, looking at this team, I didn’t see much talent this year beyond Felix Hernandez, Ichiro and a couple of others. ESPN baseball columnist Buster Olney today quoted an NL talent evaluator, who watched the Mariners this past week.
“That is the worst group of position players I have ever seen,” the evaluator said. “They make the Pirates look like the ’27 Yankees.”
Ouch! But let’s be honest. You don’t lose 101 games with Felix Hernandez there a full season and Cliff Lee around for half if you have a whole lot of talent. It doesn’t take talent to score 513 runs in a season — besting your worst-ever performance by 45 fewer runs and posting the worst run total in nearly 40 years of MLB baseball.
As far as character goes, where do we begin?
Photo Credit: Lisa Bodish
Do we start with Eric Byrnes riding off on a bicycle before he could explain not trying to bunt when the suicide squeeze was on?
Should we discuss the amount of work Milton Bradley forced his veteran teammates to put into policing his well-being throughout spring training and the first month of the season? Hey, I sincerely hope Bradley does all he can to feel better as a person this off-season and to ease some of the inner turmoil that impacted his life. No one deserves to feel miserable about themself. But we can’t gloss over the fact that Bradley was a huge distraction for this team from February through early May, culminating in his leaving the ballpark mid-game and then going on the restricted list for psychological counseling.
And what about Ken Griffey Jr.? How much character did it take to walk out on the team in June and drive away without saying a word to anyone until he’d reached Montana?
Did it take character for Chone Figgins to challenge Don Wakamatsu in the dugout?
In fact, how much character did it take for the veterans of the ballclub to turn on Wakamatsu when they thought — erroneously, it turns out — that he’d been the one to leak the Sleep Gate story about Griffey?
Did this team show any character when, after the going got tough in May, it completely collapsed in June and July — turning what was maybe an 85-loss team at worst into a 101-loss disaster?
I’d argue that, for a GM who preached the need for character on-par with talent, Zduriencik has overlooked the character component on a lot of his recent acquisitions. And very often, the team will refelct the way it’s been constructed.
Some people argue that character flaws only become apparent when losses set in.
They could be right. Because when all is said and done, once this club started losing, its character went out the window. Makes you wonder how much character there really was to begin with. There were a lot of new faces this year compared to last. A different feel to this club than the one that began 2009 with a lot to prove.
Maybe 85 wins and a third-place finish was enough for some of these guys. It should not have been. It should not have been for you. I know it wasn’t for me.
We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing things like accountability. There did not appear to be a whole lot of that with the Mariners this season. Again, that also comes back to character. But it’s more than that. How many times were .200 hitters sent back into the lineup day after day once the season was already a month old? Two months old? Five months old?
It’s tough to have accountability in the clubhouse when nobody is enforcing it from above. And I’m not just talking about the manager’s office. I’m talking about the guys upstairs as well.
Accountablity starts at the very top. This team has an owner who has not set foot in the United States since buying the team and is never heard from by baseball fans. It has local minority owners who choose to sit quietly in the background while doing little to make their voices heard.
The “voice” of owners is supposedly Howard Lincoln, who told employees last month in an email that they should be proud of the work they’ve done. Well, I know a lot of team employees who do good work, so he’s probably right about that. But I don’t know many Mariners employees who’ve told me they’re honestly proud of the final product.
Below Lincoln, you’ve got a team president, Chuck Armstrong, who seems content in letting people know this is “Jack’s team” — meaning Zduriencik — and that it’s his plan moving forward. Well, if that’s the case, what do the Mariners even need a team president for? Armstrong’s job isn’t to be a ceremonial figurehead. It’s to exercise oversight in how baseball operations are being run. Not to meddle in things without a purpose, but to sign off on the bigger stuff. There has to be oversight. You can’t just turn the keys to the kingdom over to a second-year GM with one third-place finish behind him — no matter how much better he was than Bill Bavasi.
In the end, there have been six staffers fired this year — Wakamatsu, Ty Van Burkleo, Alan Cockrell, Steve Hecht, Rick Adair and Carmen Fusco. They have been held accountable for the second 100-loss season in three years.
But to me, that doesn’t seem to be enough.
To me, this whole accountability thing has surfaced before. There have been five different managers of this team since I began my first full season covering the Mariners in 2007. That’s too many.
From 1998-2006, when I covered the Toronto Blue Jays, there were five managers and that was a whole bunch after a lot of trying seasons and upheaval.
The Mariners have now reached that amount in less than half that time and could be on to manager No. 6 next year.
I’d say the accountability level in the coaching ranks has been just about exhausted. At some point, there has to be more accountability placed on those who run this baseball team.
Because expecting it from players, when it doesn’t exist upstairs, is a fool’s errand.
This franchise began to show some accountability when humbled badly by a 101-loss season in 2008. But now, apparently, all it took to make that vanish was a single third place finish.
This fanbase deserves better. It deserves more than a team that cuts payroll without even trying to adequately bolster a terrible offense — then tells fans through its marketing department to “Believe Big.”
Fans deserve better than a team that talks about “character”, but then forgets about it as soon as some potential talent appears in the window.
They deserve more than the freak shows witnessed monthly off the field and in the dugout with this team.
They deserve better than to have a franchise icon walk off into the horizon without so much as saying goodbye because his ego was hurt.
In short, they deserve better than what they were subjected to in 2010.
Trying to cover this team as if it mattered from about May 1 on was a gargantuan task this year, none like any other I’ve been put through in 13 seasons of writing about MLB. In all of those years combined, there were not as many off-field distractions that required me to put pen to paper.
It’s been too much. It made this blog a less fun place to be for me, and for you, at times.
Nothing personal folks. It’s been a tough year on everybody. The second time in three years this has happened.
Will it change? Depends on the team’s willingness to change. I’ll say right now that this team looks in need of a serious makeover that goes beyond just keeping the same youthful roster in place for three more years and hoping it pans out. Not all of the young guys we saw on the field today are going to be here in two years. Some won’t be here next year and that may include a starter or two.
Because this fanbase doesn’t have many more 100-loss seasons left in it, no matter how fun an afternoon at Safeco Field can be. Ask fans in Cleveland or Baltimore, or Toronto, about how quickly the shine can wear off a ballpark once it has its 10th birthday.
These Mariners need fixes. They need talent. They need character. And they need to be more accountable to their fans. Not just through paying lip service to things. But by putting a product on the field that they can be proud of. By spending money when it needs to be spent, not just when books can be balanced.
Again, I can’t tell anyone how to run their business. In the end, it’s up to fans to decide how much they can tolerate. But I’ve listened to you all season long, folks, and I’m pretty certain your patience level has reached a saturation point. You’ve hung in here all year, and that’s something. Thanks to all of you who make this fun and to those of you who don’t. At least you’re here and can be counted.
And no, I won’t take any of your sour moods personally. It’s been a long six months. After 34 years, you have the right to expect a little bit more.