A Belated Defense Of A Thing Howard Lincoln Said
This is something I’ve had stashed away in my mental freezer for a couple of months. Remember when Howard Lincoln did those sit-down interviews with various area media types? Once upon a time, those were a big deal, before the Eric Wedge drama, and before the Geoff Baker article drama, and before the Robinson Cano acquisition drama, and before the rest of the recent drama. I didn’t write anything about the interviews then, and as more time passed I realized I didn’t really want to, but then there’s one thing that just keeps coming up, one thing that keeps being quoted. And when people quote it, for purposes of being critical of Lincoln and the way the Mariners are run, it actually bothers me, because I don’t see what the problem is. I think people get upset because they just want to be upset, and what I’m referring to is a clip from Lincoln’s interview with Ryan Divish:
How do you sell this team to fans? If two fans were standing here right now and asked, ‘Why should we spend our money to go see your product?’ What do you tell them?
First I’d tell them that when you get to Safeco Field you are going to have a safe, friendly environment. You are going to be sitting in a first class ballpark. You are going to get great entertainment. It’s a great place to come whether it’s at the Pen or at Edgar’s or wherever. So there’s a lot of things going on at Safeco Field for the fans to enjoy besides watching major league baseball. And I would point that out to them. Many of our fans are thinking about things other than just what’s on the field, so we have to provide a really good entertainment experience across the board as well as getting that major league team to perform.
This has been cited over and over as evidence that the Mariners care more about the “Safeco experience” than they do about the baseball. This has been a belief among cynics for a long time. Nevermind that Lincoln mentioned the baseball product in the paragraph. Nevermind that his next paragraph was about the team’s developing young talent. Nevermind that his third paragraph was about Felix Hernandez, and about how Lincoln hears all the time that the team should be better. He led with “safe, friendly environment,” and a lot of people just can’t see past that. They figure Lincoln just doesn’t care.
Look at the question. How would you answer it? There was no good way for Lincoln to answer it. Honestly, there’s probably no good way for Lincoln to answer anything — people already hate him too much. They automatically roll their eyes, just like people automatically figure the Mariners are screwing up whenever they attempt a transaction. These feelings, certainly, have been earned. But the Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001. They haven’t won 90 games since 2003. They’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball for a decade, and when this interview was conducted, the team was fresh off a year in which it was outscored by 130.
And people think Lincoln should’ve highlighted the baseball? The baseball’s been the least entertaining part of the Safeco experience for years. Nobody wants it to be that way, but if Lincoln had answered by saying people should come out to watch the exciting Seattle Mariners, he’d look like an oblivious moron. The team has been borderline unsellable, on its merits. It’s often been unwatchable on TV, and TV doesn’t make you pay money to drive to a ballpark and sit down for three hours. Lincoln had to say something, and Safeco’s strength has undoubtedly been Safeco itself. There’s no sense in denying it.
Relatedly, think about the question “how do you sell this team?” People have been upset that Lincoln didn’t say something more basebally, more appealing to the die-hards. But as an intelligent businessman, here’s something Lincoln knows: the die-hards aren’t going anywhere. They don’t need to be sold on anything, because for the most part they’re already too invested. Look at us, for God’s sake — we’re all still here, like idiots. We’re also outnumbered. Fan bases aren’t groups of die-hards. They’re groups of casual bandwagoners surrounding a die-hardy core. The people that need to be sold on an experience are the people on the bubble. There are people who will keep paying attention to the Mariners, and there are people who’ll never give a damn. Everyone in the middle — those are the people the Mariners need to attract. Because, you know, the Mariners are a business, and there aren’t enough die-hard baseball fans in Seattle to support it on their own.
Safeco’s great. The Mariners have truly done a wonderful job, with Safeco. The baseball experience there has been shitty for years, and still people say that Safeco’s one of baseball’s real gems. They haven’t stopped improving, and while I’m not going to sit here and defend the hyper-conservative ushers, that’s a very small part of the experience, involving a small percentage of attendees. The Mariners would be worse off if Safeco were a worse place. Every baseball team needs to care about the non-baseball part of the show, because every baseball stadium gets filled with fans with varying levels of interest in the gameplay. So Safeco’s got its hydros. Miller Park has its sausage race. Nationals Park has its presidents race. Fenway has its Neil Diamond. Every ballpark has some kind of hat shuffle. The Mariners have made Safeco a priority, and they’ve excelled.
And it’s not like the Mariners have to choose between focusing on Safeco or the roster. Those are different people in different departments, so it’s not like any of Jack Zduriencik’s time was wasted by the installation of the massive new video board. The Mariners haven’t funneled way too much money to the ballpark at the expense of the team, either. The Mariners, like every team, can simultaneously prioritize the park and the roster. The problem, the real problem, has been that the rosters have sucked.
And that’s why everyone’s so upset. That’s essentially the heart of it. That’s why everyone groans whenever they hear Howard Lincoln or Chuck Armstrong’s name. They’ve been in charge while the team has lost a lot of baseball games. So to a large extent they’re thought to be responsible.
And, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of shape the Mariners would be in under different executive management. Under these guys, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league. A little over a decade ago, under these guys, they were arguably the most successful team in the league. I don’t know the truths of their influence, but I do know a lot of people complain because Armstrong and Lincoln don’t allow for a high enough budget. People wish the Mariners would’ve been spending more money.
I’m sure they could’ve. I’m sure they could’ve, and still turned a bit of a profit. But every team in baseball has a budget, and just about every team in baseball turns a profit. The Mariners have been making less money as they’ve gotten worse, because attendance tends to drive revenue. Additionally, enough money has been spent to build winners. The payroll in 2008 was nearly $120 million. But, two things: the money’s been spent poorly, and people misunderstand the significance of things like free-agent additions.
You know where the worst money is spent? Free agency. Free agency is almost always a losing gamble, in terms of return on investment. And one player can never turn around an entire team, especially one player who makes it to the market. The Mariners have spent some money in free agency, and they’ve tried to spend more on bigger splashes while coming up short. Sometimes, they’ve made splashes, and they just made the very biggest kind of one. Other times, they’ve been relatively inactive, but they haven’t lost because they haven’t been able to sign good players. They’ve lost because they haven’t been able to develop good players, or spend on the right ones.
You know another use of money? Keeping good players around, through their would-be free-agency years. The Mariners haven’t lost a good young talent to free agency since, I don’t know, Alex Rodriguez? Because they haven’t had good young talents to invest in long-term. The one guy they have had is Felix Hernandez, and they gave him a contract that, at the time, was the biggest contract in baseball history for a pitcher. It was the second time the Mariners had signed Felix to a long-term extension. Money didn’t get in the way there.
The problem hasn’t been the payrolls. The problem hasn’t been falling short for Prince Fielder or Josh Hamilton or whatever. Sure, it’d be great if the team spent a little more, but the problem all along has been the people in charge of actually putting the roster together. And it’s been the people in charge of maximizing player talent within the organization. When you neither develop talent nor identify talent, a little more money isn’t going to make things all better. It’s probably just going to be wasted.
The easiest and most aggravating example is the last-second shift from drafting Troy Tulowitzki to drafting Jeff Clement. Who knows how Tulo would’ve done here, but he’s turned into one of the best position players in baseball. Who knows how Clement would’ve done elsewhere, but here, he totally busted. So much has gone wrong and blaming it on the executives is too easy. There’s also been some bad luck, sure. Chone Figgins went from a six-win player to a no-win player. Franklin Gutierrez developed a chronic untreatable illness I’d literally never heard of before. But the team has made more bad decisions than good decisions. Talented young prospects haven’t often turned into talented young players. Presto: the Mariners have been a lousy baseball team.
It’s on Lincoln and them to some extent. They influence decisions. They influence other things. They hire the general managers who hire the support staffs. I’m not sure what they saw in Bill Bavasi, but that was a long time ago and I don’t remember it very well. As for Zduriencik, well, we all loved him right away, to the point where we gave him a standing ovation at a USSM meet-up. That didn’t look like a screw-up until later. Absolutely, Howard Lincoln deserves some percentage of the blame for what the Mariners have become, but the Mariners have been bad because the Mariners’ players have been bad, and that just isn’t his fault. And bad decisions with more money would just be bigger bad decisions. Don’t over-estimate the impact that a few more million dollars can actually have. Right now a free-agent win costs like $6-7 million. Good teams don’t build themselves around free agency.
Howard Lincoln was facing certain no-win interviews. There is genuinely nothing that he could say to make people change their minds and like him. The only way people will come around on the Mariners is if the Mariners start to win baseball games, and for the most part that’s just out of Lincoln’s hands. Good decisions have to be made by other people. Good performances have to be turned in by still other people. Lincoln, I’m sure, is tired of being embarrassed. But ultimately he’ll spend his summer sitting back and watching. Watching and hoping the team doesn’t suck. In that way we’re kind of alike, us and him.