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November 4, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Gathering of Mariners fans focuses on ideas, less on financial excuse-making

My lunch at Ivar’s yesterday with a group of concerned Mariners fans. Clockwise around table beginning at front towards the left side: Don McDonald, Anna McCune, Rich Johnson, Geoff Baker, Tim Rice, Brian Ware, Tricia Reisenauer, Thomas Gerard
Every year for the past decade, a group of colleagues from an architectural firm in Seattle has gotten together to conduct a post-mortem on the Mariners season and explore ideas and options for the coming season. The only difference this year was that they invited yours truly to join them for lunch at Ivar’s down on the waterfront. Being the beautiful November day that it was, we got to sit outside.
The group began meeting after the 2001 season and has been doing so ever since. They get together prior to the start of spring training as well.
What I detected, during our nearly two-hour conversation, was a sense of both optimism about the team, as well as some impatience. The group was all for the rebuilding process that’s been going on, but also wanted to begin seeing results at the major league level.
I don’t think what they expressed — and their opinions were far from uniform — was all that different from what we’ve seen on these pages. Many of them feel the primary needs for the team are in left field and at third base. They wonder about the uncertain state of the bullpen, full of young and largely unproven arms after Brandon League — if the latter even makes it to spring training before being traded.
They had questions about Ichiro, his clubhouse leadership and where he fits into a team that’s gone decisively younger at most positions. They worry about Franklin Gutierrez and how much patience the team will have in him going forward. One member of the group was a devoted Jason Vargas fan and is more bullish on him as a mid-rotation arm than a back-end guy.
But as we tossed ideas around — covering all angles — the one thing I noticed was missing was all the money talk. The ideas were there. But what was missing — thankfully — was all the advance excuse-making about why the team couldn’t afford Player X versus Player Y.
Sure, we discussed Prince Fielder. But the concern was about what would become of Justin Smoak and Mike Carp in the wake of a Fielder signing. It was about what Fielder’s bat could do to improve an offense where he’d automatically be the best hitter right from the start. Not about whether the team’s ownership could afford to spend the money on him. Not about ruling out any Fielder signing because it could be “detrimental” to the franchise.
And I think that’s just great. Too often since the onset of what I call the “Moneyball era” beginning in 2003, I find that fans have been doing a team’s PR spin for them. Not just here in Seattle, but everywhere around the game. Fans are acting as spending apologists for teams under the guise of being “enlightened” or “educated” about reality that they really don’t comprehend all that well.
There’s nothing wrong with arguing about payroll excess. Nobody wants a team to throw dollars around needlessly. But as I’ve told others, I’ve yet to meet a GM in this game who tells his closest aides: “I’m going to throw money away on this guy just because I can.”
Instead, what I’ve seen happening in Seattle is that fans no longer dare to dream big. They automatically write off guys like Fielder, arguing that their team can’t afford him. Really? This M’s squad has made Ichiro the most expensive singles-hitting leadoff man in the history of baseball at $18 million. And it can’t afford something in the $20 million range on one of the better power hitters in the game? Um, sure.
One of the best reviews I’ve seen of the Moneyball movie with Brad Pitt was written by Tommy Craggs of Deadspin, who, I can assure you, actually gets what’s been going on for years with MLB teams and their payrolls. Deadspin, you may remember, published the financial details of the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, showing how everyone’s perceived poor sister of a team was actually raking in profits year after year by not risking any capital on its sad sack payrolls.
Instead, the Pirates, putting some of the weakest yearly payrolls out there, merely collect revenue sharing dollars to boost their bottom line under the guise of perpetual rebuilding that has never led anywhere. By never, I mean over nearly 20 years.
Now, not every team is the Pirates. But not every team is the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels or Phillies either. Those teams got where they were by building a young core, sure. The Royals also built a young core. The Blue Jays had one, then got rid of it. Hasn’t helped them, has it? That’s because the top teams sustain their success by spending in the upper echelons. No, it doesn’t always work out, as the Angels saw so far with Vernon Wells and others. But look at where Angels attendance is these days after a decade of contending. They’ve gone from being an also-ran in the LA market to that city’s premier team, coinciding with the decline of the Dodgers. And if your GM doesn’t spend the money wisely? You get rid of him and move on. You don’t just throw in the towel. Well, you do if you’re from one of those cities that never wins anything, or gets to the big dance once every decade. Very few teams are able to consistently make the playoffs on a budget.
But what you really don’t need, if you’re a fan of a team that’s mired in mediocrity, is for your fellow fans to act as team apologists. To come up with excuses in advance for why a team won’t spend money. Some of this happens with code words and phrases. In Seattle, people like to talk about rebuilding “the right way.”
Here’s a clue. There is no “right way” to rebuild in baseball. There’s winning and losing. The Mariners could up their payroll by $20 million and contend right now. They could have contended last season had they raised payroll last winter to where it was in 2008 and not played Carlos Peguero for the entire month of June while still in a race.
Instead, the team appears to be waiting for the contracts of Ichiro and Chone Figgins to wind down before making any serious moves. That’s the team’s choice. But it doesn’t mean it’s the “right way” to go about it. It’s the easiest way for the Mariners not to risk any franchise value at a time when their two biggest owners are experiencing financial troubles in other areas. That’s it. The Red Sox and Yankees don’t take years off waiting to rebuild. Neither do the Angels. In the end, winning is what counts. And sometimes you have to spend money to make some.
Here’s what Craggs wrote in his Moneyball review, stating that the book and now the movie: “helped consecrate the deeply Seligian idea that there is something inherently noble about being cheap and efficient, that teams like the A’s are competing heroically against a stacked deck when in fact teams like the A’s want the deck stacked in the first place. Even the little guy can win with the right kind of know-how, the book says.
It’s a lie in the long run, albeit a pleasant one. It’s what made a book about arbitrage so appealing to so many readers, including a handful of people in Hollywood. It keeps fans from seeing the central fact of baseball under Selig, which is that the fix is in from the moment that $30 million revenue-sharing check lands in a team’s mailbox. That’s a huge misperception–and a very profitable one for the lords of baseball.”

Exactly. So, why do the Mariners and other teams participate in this “rigged” game? Because they ain’t losing money doing it.
Now, Craggs is mainly focusing on teams like the A’s and Pirates, who for years have underfunded their squads while collecting revenue sharing checks. But what he says can be applied to the Mariners as well.

We’ve noted repeatedly throughout the past season and especially over the past two months how the Mariners refuse to risk any of their franchise value by spending what it will take to get the team back to contender status.
Some will gush over a $93 million payroll and point out how it’s substantially higher than what the A’s put out there. But those people ignore the reality that the Mariners play in the type of taxpayer-subsidized modern stadium that the A’s have been trying to acquire for much of the past decade.
It’s all relative. The $93 million payroll in 2010 was enough for the Mariners to turn a small operating profit for the year despite a horrible, 101-loss team.
We’ll see where the finances balance out for 2011 once the team releases figures next spring. But for years, the M’s have piled up operating surpluses and — with one exception in 2008 — have seen the value of their franchise go up. And once again, we’re not talking about Seattle’s ownership actually losing money on its initial investment in the team. We’re a long way from that ever happening. Right now, this is all about the profit cushion and how much growth owners are willing to sacrifice in order to get a major league product on the field sooner rather than later.
So, that $93 million payroll during the 101-loss season in 2010? Hey, it was enough for the Mariners to grow their franchise value and expand their overall profit since buying the team in 1992. Yeah, they put a historically bad team on the field. Didn’t matter. The $93 million wasn’t risking anything.
So, it irks me when I see and hear fans — either on radio or in their own blogs and comments sections — doing the M’s dirty work for them. Believe me, the Mariners don’t need fans acting as their de facto PR agents. They don’t need them to spin the notion that they can’t afford certain players. The team employs a bevy of really good PR people to handle stuff like that.
Instead, I say, dare to dream.
Think about the players that could help this team become respectable again. Stop making excuses for why the team can’t afford them and start putting the onus back on the team itself when it comes to explaining why they won’t spend the money.
Is it because the franchise value will drop $50 million and erode a paper profit that now stands at over $200 million? I don’t know. And neither do you. Make the team explain why “the right way” in Seattle has to take longer than it does in places like Anaheim, or Boston or New York.
Maybe the team’s answer will satisfy you. But first, you have to ask the question.
And until then, groups like the one I met with yesterday should keep on dreaming the dream that keeps us all invested in pro sports in the first place. This business of continuously writing off entire seasons ahead of time is how teams end up going entire decades — or longer — without ever tasting success.
Spending money is no guarantee of success either. But bringing in better players increases the odds of getting there at some point. Don’t write that idea off before at least demanding that the team explain why it can’t happen.
As Craggs wrote, the big lie in the post-Moneyball era is that there is something noble about winning on-the-cheap. Indeed, there are no “bang for the buck” trophies handed out at season’s end.
But I still see far too many fans making financial excuses for teams ahead of time under the guise of being “informed” about payrolls and limits. Want to have an informed financial discussion? Make sure to incorporate topics like franchise value, owner profits and tax subsidies into the equation. When you do that, I’ll be prepared to engage.
Or, if finances aren’t really your thing, go back to doing what fans do — dream big. Nothing wrong with that. Let the teams themselves explain why they have to rain on your parade. Don’t do that job for them.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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