Lincoln, Armstrong, and the business side

DMZ · October 10, 2005 at 2:35 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Speculation and more speculation from a still jet-lagged author

Much is frequently made of what kind of a leader Howard Lincoln is, as a representative of the team’s ownership group, of which Nintendo of America forms the bulk. Lincoln is the Chairman and CEO of the company, and Chuck Armstrong is the President.

Howard Lincoln gets singled out for a lot of attacks. He’ll say things like “we have talked to a lot of season-ticket holders over the course of the last year, and one of the things we hear consistently is the following, we love this team, we love to watch major league baseball in Safeco Field, we appreciate the fact it is safe, secure, offers a family-friendly environment, and yeah, we’d like to see the team win (so would we) but nevertheless we like to come to Safeco Field. ” (msb sent us a whole transcript of an interview he did. msb is awesome, and feel free to thank her when you see her in the comments)

That kind of talk makes the serious fan blanch. The immediate reaction is “who the heck are they talking to?” followed by “would people please stop telling them that?”

Lincoln has fought the widespread belief that the team only wants to field competitive teams, and seems to make it a point to slip “World Series” in every time he says something like that. A statement like that, where he seems to say “we know the fans will come out to Safeco Field no matter what as long as it’s safe, secure, and family-friendly” is always paired with “of course, we fully intend to be contend next year and eventually win a World Series”.

The front office is also dishonest to the fans and the public on a regular basis, both in downplaying the profitability of the franchise and in other, generally financial, matters. This is not hard to prove and our dissent on these topics are easily found, so I’ll spare everyone a rehash. They have also in past years gone in front of small crowds and said that they budgeted a payroll for x attendance, and if more people came out they’d be able to spend more. When many more fans showed up, no players were acquired, and at the end of the year, Lincoln would say that the books were closed, and no profit would (or could) carry over to be used for payroll the next year.

Dishonesty from the heads of companies, particularly in accounting matters, where real profits can easily be turned into paper losses (or the reverse) while still using recognized, above-board methods, is unfortunately common. For a baseball owner, it’s almost a condition of the job. Still, the effect of this is that the suits are not to be believed when they say things like “we expect to compete this year” or “we are committed to providing a top-tier product”. There’s almost no point to evaluating those statements as true, or false. We must look at what they do, and how that matters.

The role of ownership in any team depends greatly on the owner. Peter Angelos was willing to spend a ton of money to build a great team, started to screw around with who ran it, and how, and they still haven’t recovered. The Twins owner, Carl Pohlad, is one of the richest people in the world, and his role with that team has been to allow them extremely small payrolls and fight for a new, publicly-funded stadium. George Steinbrenner has famously muddled in his team’s affairs and, at times, let his baseball people run them (for instance, when he was banned for misconduct). Groups with distributed ownership are generally less involved than a single person with their personal fortune heavily invested in the team, obviously.

What we know about the Mariner ownership, now that it’s moved to Nintendo of America, is that they have generally not gotten their hands dirty. In “Out of Left Field” the only instance where ownership mattered in the pursuit of Japanese players. There are a couple of others we know of or were rumored:
– an earlier trade of Randy Johnson was opposed by local ownership (possibly one of the Microsoft guys) and later approved
– ownership was behind Jarvis being showcased and then after one horrible outing, Lincoln told Bavasi he could dump the guy into the Sound

We also know that for all their talk about fan-friendly, the ownership either doesn’t pay attention sometimes or is willing to look the other way if they’re convinced a player would help the team (Al Martin is a particularly good example here, but there are others).

The Mariners, as a business, are amazingly successful. From team stores to non-baseball revenue they make off Safeco Field, they’re a money-making machine. Armstrong’s primary interest, as head of the ownership group, is to make more money. A winning team would be nice, but if a losing team made more money, last season would be a prelude to a decade-long dirge. When they listen to their baseball people pitch a particular deal, their primary thought is not “will this get us a World Series” but “is the return worth the cost?”
This brings the business side into baseball decision in many organizations. Is it worth it to spend too much to bring back the team captain because the backlash will affect ticket sales? Will signing an expensive free agent sell enough season tickets?

It’s reasonable to assume, knowing what we know about ownership in general and how the relationships work, that Bill Bavasi, the team’s GM, operates under a set of restrictions.

– Keep payroll under this number

And intangibles:
– Ownership has to consent (either in advance or before a deal is made) on (all deals/deals involving certain players)
– Ownership can make some decisions against the GM’s advice (for instance, while the GM may feel a local, popular guy wants one year and $10m too much on a contract, ownership may decide that it has to be done)
– If you’re going to acquire with a player with baggage that might cause a public relations issue, consult us first

The second is the most interesting dynamic. We know, for instance, that the highest profile trades are often tampered with. In some cases, this is why teams have to get at least one major-leaguer in dumps of high-profile players: ownership wants to be able to point at a clear return, and is unwilling to risk having a basket of prospects all fail.

In the Mariners’ case, think of it like this: Lincoln has great things to say about Willie Bloomquist, and apparently sincerely believes that great things happen when he’s in the lineup. Lincoln’s expressed interest in having Bloomquist play everyday to show what he’s capable of, and so on.

Say that Bavasi disagrees: he sees Bloomquist as a useful bench player, but Bloomquist is likely to make $2m in arbitration. Bavasi wants to let him go. Would the ownership step in and force spending that small but significant chunk rather than lose him?

Or, say Bavasi wants to acquire a Marcus Giles clone, and can get MGC for a bag of cashews. Would the ownership authorize the cashew giveaway if it meant Bloomquist would assuredly never play a regular infield position?

It’s hard to say. In the past, there’s been almost no evidence of direct intervention in cases like that. But consider it a little further:
– Griffey demanded a trade
– Randy had feuded with management for years, and was forcing a trade
– Alex Rodriguez took the team to free agency

It’s natural that a person like Lincoln would respect and leave alone a GM of Pat Gillick’s stature. He might argue his case, but be extremely reluctant to overrule the judgment of someone known as the best GM in baseball. Coming into this year, Bavasi may be a better GM than Gillick (which is a whole other discussion) but with two terrible seasons here and no media seal of approval, the temptation to substitute his judgment for Bavasi’s will be much stronger.

There have been few cases in the ownership’s history where you might look for fingerprints. Dan Wilson’s retention, for instance, but even that wasn’t much money. Jamie Moyer’s 3-year deal was rich for a home-town favorite, but not out of the realm of reason.

This also becomes more important as Lincoln & Co. try to balance the fan issue (which I wrote about earlier). If they’re attached to Bloomquist, and they believe the fans are attached to Bloomquist, and they think it might be the last straw to trade away the scrappy local boy, they might step in.

And then we’re in trouble. The more frequently and the more directly ownership gets in the way of the baseball people, the less well the organization will do, the worse the team will fare, and the dimmer the fan’s chance of seeing a good team in the near future will be. It’s unfortunate that this year, as the team faces a huge season that could return them to grace or damn them to a long purgatory in the AL West cellar, the pressure and temptation for those at the top of the organization to meddle is greater than it has ever been.

Until we see that start to happen, though, we should discard public statements by Lincoln or Armstrong that show they don’t have a good idea of what makes a productive ballplayer, or how to construct a winning team. As long as they give people who do know those things enough money and freedom to do their jobs, the business side’s baseball opinions aren’t relevant, no matter how dumb they may seem.


58 Responses to “Lincoln, Armstrong, and the business side”

  1. DMZ on October 11th, 2005 8:43 am

    Uh, DMZ, why would anyone ever criticize a “fan favorite” who was performing well and earning his salary? The goalposts may appear to be moving, but it is because you are running away.

    I can see this is an argument I really want to continue, because it’s only going to get better.

  2. Nintendo Marios on October 11th, 2005 9:15 am

    39 & 46 –

    The mulligan quote is a bit out of context, as my snippet makes clear Armstrong believes the fans will go away if the baseball continues to be bad.

    Agree, I’m quoting somewhat out of context.

    My point is to illuminate Chuck’s motivation. That Chuck associates dead last in the AL West with a “mulligan” (and gives himself a second), but is “personally devastated” by a PR black eye (to date the Ms have accumulated more banned substance violations than any team in baseball) is anything but out of context.

  3. Brian Rust on October 11th, 2005 9:24 am

    One thing to keep in mind about less-knowledgeable but devoted fans who only joined the Mariners fan base since the magic 1995 season, is that they probably don’t know where baseball players come from.

    Since A-Rod became a regular in 1996, only ONE position player has gone from the M’s farm system to an everyday role (Julio Cruz, Jr.). He was traded away before he finished his rookie season (July 31, 1997, for Timlin and Spoljaric, the same day we cashed in Varitek and Lowe on the infamous Heathcliff Slocumb trade). From that day to 2005, all regular position roles have been filled by trades or FAs. Granted there’s been some success on the pitching side, but that’s only half the team, the success is limited, and the transition is often less-visible as new guys work their way through the bullpen.

    If, as many knowledgable posters here believe, Reed, Betancourt and Lopez blossom into decent regulars next year (not to mention Felix), they can provide a “marketing hook” that will pave the way for Clement and Jones and hopefully others in 2007 and beyond. If given the chance, and he takes advantage of the opportunity, Bavasi can educate a whole new generation of baseball fans about how to build a team. He won’t have to rely on the smoke and mirrors of splashy FA signings to keep butts in the seats — he’ll have a winning team that does that. And unlike Oakland, he’ll enjoy the financial resources to keep the best, and fill in the occasional blank through trades and free agency.

  4. Nintendo Marios on October 11th, 2005 10:13 am

    39 & 46 –

    …but there’s direct evidence that he [Armstrong] can be part of a “winning tradition”- the fact that the M’s HAVE had some success under Armstrong’s tenure.

    The aphorism “even a broken watch is right twice a day” comes to mind.

    My quote, and point, are very specific. The standard I’m employing is a winning tradition, not “a successful season(s)”.

    Chuck has been continuously associated with the Ms since 1984. In that time, the Ms are 1,723/1,771. He’s played for the League Pennant 3 times in 22 seasons and never won it. My point is that Chuck is not “personally devasated” by those facts, and given more time as President of the franchise doesn’t intend to do much about it.

    To the contrary Chuck intends, and will achieve, being one of the most profitable franchise’s in baseball year after year. But Chuck only makes his profit with the help of the most expensive ballpark in baseball and the most lucrative lease in baseball (Forbes). Consequently, I don’t feel out of place demanding a winning tradition (or Chuck’s replacement) in return.

  5. Nintendo Marios on October 11th, 2005 10:33 am

    What is stupifying to me is that, in Seattle, you have to argue that fans can and should demand a winning tradition.

    If fans anywhere else suspected their ownership or managment of thinking the things Chuck and Howie say out loud for attribution, the ballfield would be on fire.

    To paraphrase a Cajun in politics, “It’s the profits, stupid.” Chuck and Howie will never invest in a winning tradition unless they’re certain it is the only way to be profitable. They’re not.

  6. dave paisley on October 11th, 2005 11:47 am

    So regarding “fan friendly”, does anyone ever bring up the issue of being served concessions by ignorant, incompetent volunteers making minimum wage for their charities?

    I avoid buying anything at the stadium whenever possible, but on those occasions when I feel like taking out a second mortgage, it’s galling to have to wait three times as long, pay three times as much, and then see some idiot not even know how to open the cash register…

  7. Rusty on October 11th, 2005 12:25 pm

    From Brian Rust: One thing to keep in mind about less-knowledgeable but devoted fans who only joined the Mariners fan base since the magic 1995 season, is that they probably don’t know where baseball players come from…

    Bavasi can educate a whole new generation of baseball fans about how to build a team.

    Brian, I often agree with your posts but not this time. Bavasi doesn’t need to spend time thinking about educating baseball fans. And to assert that fans need education is rather a stretch. Fans are involved in the game to as much degree as they have passion or reason to be. Bavasi only needs to focus on one thing… winning games, hopefully with enough balance between short term and long term interests of the team. If Bavasi can achieve this goal with ZERO players developed from the farm system, then the fans aren’t cheated any. Fans have the most fun when the team wins. So having that as the overriding objective for your GM is the best way to go.

  8. Steve Thornton on October 11th, 2005 4:17 pm

    Rusty is right on. Not every fan is a frustrated wanna-be GM like most of us here. They don’t care about the intricacies of player development, they care about the results: The batting and pitching, the W-L record and the playoff victories.

    And from a certain perspective, “casual” or “fairweather” fans who only pay attention when the team is winning have the right idea; why should they devote themselves to a team that doesn’t care if they win or not — or perhaps doesn’t have the brains to know how to win?

    But that’s what we have: casual fans who don’t care about winning. The worst possible kind. Instead of behaving rationally, and just going away, they’re still at the ballpark, enjoying their stale sushi and garlic fries and clean carpet and diaper tables and so on, and idly wondering when Bret Boone is batting this inning.

    And therefore, ownership, being more rational, feels no particular need to win, or rather to figure out how to win. Much more of this is random or accidental than we like to believe; and a team that has decided to spend the amount of money the M’s have, but doesn’t have the organizational smarts to know how to spend it, will occassionally luck into a season like 2001, but much more often float around in purgatory, like the Cubs, Mets, Orioles. They think they’re driving the train, but they’re really just passengers like the rest of us.