A Tale of Two Teams: The Mariners and Seahawks

Football is a sport made for television. Every play, perfect for the little screen, is a carefully scripted drama, with all the actors, offense and defense having an important role to play. Some are three star “no biggie” plays, but there are enough stuffed runs and quarterback sacks, or amazing catches and runs through traffic to the end zone to keep everyone interested.

Football is not my favorite sport, baseball is. I prefer its elegance, its pace, not bound by the clock, and the skill set required to throw a small ball past another guy with a small bat. That it usually begins in those Persephonic months when the weather is warming, and ends when the Northwest is plunged into the endless winter darkness that lasts pretty much until baseball begins again the next spring. For me, Thomas Boswell got it mostly right when he wrote “100 Reasons Baseball is Better than Football,” and George Carlin’s monologue comparing baseball and football was right on.

That said, congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks, champions of the NFC. It’s been a fabulous season. Though I usually do watch Seahawks games, I’m rarely emotionally attached to them. But Sunday I was hollering and screaming at the television with the best 12th Man rowdy. They are a throwback team, with lots of hitting and defense and a run oriented offense, the kind of football I like.

The Seahawks came into the NFL in 1976, and the Mariners entered MLB in 1977. It’s not that the Seahawks have always been good and the Mariners have always been bad over their 37ish year histories, they haven’t, but it’s interesting to examine their past, and consider how we got to where we are. Why is the Seattle football team such a raging success, a crowd favorite, and the baseball team, is considered such an utter failure?

Records

The Mariners  finished 37 seasons of baseball. They’ve won more games than they’ve lost in 11 seasons, fewer than one third. They’ve appeared in the playoffs in four seasons, and never made it to the World Series, going 0-3 in American League Championship Series in 1995, 2000 and 2001.The Mariners finished last in their division 12 times in their history, and next to last 11 times. The Mariners had a brief “golden age” from 1995-2003. All their playoff appearances and all five of their 90+ win seasons were during this time. 90 wins is a key benchmark because it show’s a team is competitive for the playoffs. This is also the time when the M’s featured their most recognizable players: Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Alex Rodriguez all played on these teams.

The Seahawks have an entirely different history. In their 38 seasons, the ‘Hawks have had 17 winning seasons. In those seasons they’ve made it to the playoffs twelve times. They’ve won the conference title twice, and are on the verge of their second Super Bowl appearance. The Seahawks finished last in their division seven times, and next to last nine times. In their history, the footballers have had three golden ages. The first came under coach Chuck Knox, lasting from 1983-88, with four playoff appearances, including a loss in the ’83 Conference Championship game. After a along time in the wilderness, they achieved a second era of success under coach Mike Holmgren. During Holmgren’s ten year tenure, the ‘Hawks made the playoffs six times, including their first trip to the Super Bowl. It is hard to argue the Seahawks are not in their third era of success. In this, their fourth year under coach Pete Carroll, the team has made the playoffs three years, and are making their second Super Bowl appearance.

It’s difficult to compare records between baseball and football. The NFL has had more extended playoffs far longer than baseball. A bad baseball team may have a .420 winning percentage, while a bad football team may go 4-12 for a .250 winning percentage. It is more useful to look at playoff appearances as a basis for comparison. They are not only a useful measure for team success, but they are a benchmark for keeping a fan base interested in a team, generating attendance and a media audience. By any measure, the football team has been far more successful than the baseball team.

At the present time, there is no comparison. The Seahawks are the best team in their conference, while the Mariners remain mired in an everlasting rebuilding effort. The ‘Hawks fill Century Link Stadium each week, while the Mariners have seen precipitous drops in their attendance since 2003, and for the past several years have ranked in the bottom third in the American League.

Stable Leadership

Leadership occurs at many levels in professional sports.  For my purposes, I ‘ll focus on three areas: A) ownership, B) general manager/operations, C) manager/head coach.

Mariners Ownership

The Mariners have had four different ownership groups.  The original group (1976-80,) including entertainer Danny Kaye, was undercapitalized, and lacked the money even for fully staffing their scouting needs. The second owner was George Argyros, a Southern California real estate mogul. Though Argyros was originally seen as a life ring for the struggling franchise, and though he had plenty of money, he refused to accept the realities of free-agency, and wouldn’t offer guaranteed multi-year contracts. Jeff Smulyan purchased the team in 1989, but compounded inadequate operating funds and found  the Kingdome a losing proposition.  Before selling to a local ownership group in 1992, he attempted to move the team to Tampa Bay.

Smulyan sold to The Baseball Club of Seattle in 1992.  This is the current ownership group, now somewhat in tumult following the death of majority shareholder Hiroshi Yamauchi.  Following the Mariners dramatic victory in the ALDS in 1995, the ownership group was able to force legislation throught the statehouse to build Safeco Field, guaranteeing stable reveue streams.

This ownership group benefited from the Mariners “golden age” 1995-2003, and has suffered from a dearth of wins ever since. Though this group has, at times, spent wildly on free agents, many turned out to be busts on the field, or at least underperformed their contracts.  Though the 2001 team won a league record 116 games, manager Lou Piniella complained loudly that he could not get the player he needed at the trading deadline to get the team over the top, losing to New York in the ALCS.  In November 2013, Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker wrote an article detailing the level of dysfunction and meddling on the team by general manager Jack Zdurencik, team president Chuck Armstrong, and CEO Howard Lincoln.  The Mariners are perceived in baseball as a team with plenty of money that is poorly run.

Each owner of the Mariners sold their stakes for millions in profits.  The Baseball Club of Seattle purchased the team for $100 million in 1992.  Forbes valued the Mariners at $644 million in 2013.  This was before their purchase of a stake in Root Sports.

Seahawks Ownership

The Seahawks opened with the Nordstrom family as majority owners.  The team struggled through the its first six years, but prospered under new coach   Chuck Knox.  The Seahawks first “golden age” occurred during the Nordstrom’s ownership.  In 1988 the Nordstroms sold their shares to California real estate baron Ken Behring.  Behring’s stewardship lasted until 1996 and corresponds roughly with what could be called the Seahawks “dark age.”  Having had success on the field, the ‘Hawks had only one winning season.  Behring replaced Knox with friend Tom Flores, the team lost and his unpopularity grew.  He attempted to move the team to Anaheim in the wake of the Rams move to St. Louis, but was thwarted in court, the team declared bankruptcy and sold to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Though Allen’s tenure as owner has had some bumps, the Seahawks have had considerable success.  In 2002, through Allen’s efforts, the football team opened Qwest Field.  Eight of Seattle’s playoff appearances have come during Allen’s ownership, including both Super Bowl appearances.  Allen is known to be willing to spend money for free agent signing bonuses that do not count against the NFL’s hard salary cap.

General Managers

M’s GM Jack Zdurencik

Jack Zdurencik begins his sixth year with many question marks regarding his ability to evaluate talent, construct rosters and provide leadership.  In his first season Zdurencik made a series of trades and free agent signings that catapulted the M’s from a 101 game loser to an 85 game winner. But the team has never approached the same level of success.  Committed to building a winner through successful drafts and player development, the farm has produced some players with ability, but no stars: no Mike Trouts, Giancarlo Stantons or Bryce Harpers despite high annual daft picks. Forays into the free agent market have been mixed.  The Chone Figgins signing in 2010 was a notable failure.  Signing Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma has been a success.  In November 2013, the Mariners outbid the rest of the field in signing Yankees all-star 2B Robinson Cano.  Baker’s article about the M’s was highly critical of Zdurencik’s leadership style, as well as his commitment to using advanced statistics as evaluative tools, including comments from former M’s manager Eric Wedge, and assistant Tony Blengino. At the very least, Zdurencik enters this season with question marks about his ability to construct a winner.  He hasn’t done it. He’s taken little responsibility for it, and there is little to suggest great change for the team this year.

Seahawks Executive VP/General Manager John Schneider

It’s difficult to mention John Schneider’s name without mentioning his partner, Coach Pete Carroll.  Together with Carroll, Schneider took over the team in 2010, tore the team apart and rebuilt it. In their first year Schneider and Carroll made 282 player transactions.  Their mantra is always that competition is good, and that players must earn roster spots and playing time.  Schneider brought running back Marshawn Lynch to Seattle from Buffalo in 2010. He’s drafted players like Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson, and he’s taken an almost Moneyball-like approach to acquiring under-valued talent in players such as Richard Sherman (5th round) and wide receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted.)  The Seahawks are winners under Schneider.  His real challenge will come in the future, as the team matures and players seek contracts to match their achievements, and managing the salary cap.

Field Managers

Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon

This is not an evaluation of Lloyd McClendon who has yet to oversee a single spring training inning.  I wish him the very best, I truly do. However, it is difficult to see McClendon as other than an empty suit.  Since Lou Piniella’s decade long leadership ended in 2002, the M’s have tossed eight managers to the wolves.  Wedge’s three year reign in the Safeco field dugout was the longest.  Mike Hargrove mysteriously resigned in mid-2007, with the M’s actually competing for the playoffs. Though Wedge, McClendon and Hargrove have all had major league managing experience, few others have.  Bob Melvin, fired after the 2004 season, has gone on to manage Arizona, and was named American League Manager of the Year in 2013 after getting Oakland to the ALDS.  Mariners managers are valued for their ability to toe the company line and suffer in silence until their inevitable firing.

Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll

I love watching Pete Carroll on the sidelines.  He has an exuberance during the game that is timeless.  He is joyfully enthusiastic whether the team is winning or losing.  Seemingly 30 years younger than his 62 years, he runs up and down the field, clapping, rooting his players on, trusting his defensive and offensive coordinators. (Contrast with screaming whiner Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.)  He is an endless cheerleader, and must transmit his confidence on to his players.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe his hands are all over this team, and if a player doesn’t perform he’s gone.  But as a former big-time college coach, I see his appeal to young players, as well as his respect for the grizzled veterans.  Carroll has input, if not outright control, over player acquisitions Mariners managers could only dream of, but in shaping his team, he has a clear vision of what the Seahawks are supposed to look like: tough defense, run first, while developing a bevy of  intelligent, talented young players like quarterback Wilson. The Seahawks are winners in no small measure because Pete Carroll is a winner.

The Boredom Factor

Fans should be excited about their teams.  Winning goes a long way toward stoking some excitement and putting butts in the seats.  The M’s always had some exciting players, even in the bad old days.  Julio Cruz was a hot dog and could steal you a base.  Alvin Davis and Mark Langston both had superlative rookie seasons in 1984.  Junior made his appearance in 1989 to play alongside Jay Buhner, Omar Vizquel and Jeffrey Leonard. These were bad teams, but they were interesting.  Lenny Randle blew a ball foul in 1981, Tom Paciorek hit home runs on consecutive nights to beat the Yankees the same year.  Egar  hit “the double” but he also made the “light bat.” Buhner Buzz Cut Night attracted hundreds of fans each year.  Fast forward to  2013, and whaddaya got?  King Felix Nights, which are nice.  But there’s a problem when the face of your franchise is a pitcher who plays every fifth day.  It’s hard to build a public relations campaign around a team that has modestly talented players who tend to under perform expectations, aren’t very good defensively, don’t hit a lot of meaningful home runs, and are slow as molasses in January on the basepaths.

Who would you rather see, Richard Sherman swatting away a ball, or Dustin Ackley swatting at a ball (at bat or in the field, it makes no different.)  Who would you rather hear interviewed, the extremely voluble Russell Wilson, or the tongue-tied aw-shucks simple sentences only Justin Smoak.  Whose post-game press conference would you rather hear-an honest, enthusiastic appraisal from Pete Carroll, win or lose, or a say no evil assessment by any Mariners manager?

The M’s are boring.  Their play is boring.  Their lack of success is boring.  Their persona is boring. The Seahawks are all swagger and confidence.  Yes, Sherman is obnoxious, but he’s much more than his foolish Crabtree remarks.  He has a great personal story to go with his on-field achievements.  Earl Thomas is another player whose performance is matched by his ability to talk the game and be reflective.  Maybe the Mariners need a nickname to give them identity like the Legion of Boom.  The Brotherhood of Whiff? The Clutchless? The Blown Save Society? Maybe not.

Moving On

It is the Seahawks’ time, and I wish them nothing but victories.  I would love to see the Mariners do the same.  Perhaps Robinson Cano will bring that certain something that will at least make them interesting. But let’s be honest, sorry Forrest, but interesting is as interesting does.  Win, the fans will care, the team will seem more special.  Winning covers up a multitude of sins.  Lose. Again. Play bad ball.   Nobody cares.

But it’s up to management-Howard Lincoln and Jack Zdurencik-to provide the pieces needed to make the M’s a winner, whether from inside the M’s system or the free agent market.  I’m convinced more than ever the resources are available to make it work, and all that’s needed is the will to use them.

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