Okay. I grew up around Philadelphia, where rooting for the Phillies was an article of faith even though for much of my formulative years it was a crappy, disappointing team playing in a falling-apart stadium in a bad part of town. We talked baseball all the time, even when the Phils hit the National League cellar four straight seasons, including, in 1961, their epic 23-game losing streak. That’s still the MLB record for this century and the last. It wasn’t until 1980 that the Phillies won their first-ever World Series–two months after I had moved to Houston.
But there I had the Astros, which had a decent following and baseball’s first indoor stadium as a respite from the city’s drenching heat, rain and humidity. Later, I lived in other places where, despite ups and downs, baseball fanaticism was legendary: New York, Los Angeles and even Albuquerque. When I resided there during the 1994 major league baseball strike, the Dodgers triple-A farm team, the Albuquerque Dukes, won the Pacific Coast League title and a claim to be the best professional baseball team not on a picket line.
Then I became New To Seattle.
In my 10 months here, the Seattle Mariners have been mentioned in my presence maybe twice. One was by an acquaintance who happens to own a small share of the team. I can’t remember the other instance, but I’m just being cautious.
Outside the sports pages of The Seattle Times, some specialty publications, sportcasts and a few blogs, the Mariners seem to be a no-show when it comes to public opinion. The team has its home opener in just a few days. Yet I hear a lot more talk about soccer’s Seattle Sounders and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. People chatter excitedly about the possible return of an NBA franchise. Hell, I even hear more about the Seattle Thunderbirds, a minor-league hockey team that despite its name plays its home games 20 miles away in Kent, Wash.
Now, the Mariners have had only two winning seasons in the last eight–finishing in their division’s last place the other six years. In an era of team financial parity, they remain the only American League squad never to have made it to the World Series. However, given my experiences elsewhere, that doesn’t adequately explain what strikes me as a stunning lack of fan interest.
But I just finished reading a new book that does.
Its title is Shipwrecked: A Peoples’ History of the Seattle Mariners. The author is Jon Wells, who operates The Grand Salami, a monthly magazine and website covering the Mariners and named after the enthusiastic bases-loaded home-run call of the late Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus.
As Wells tells the story–and he tells it clearly, with an eye for discerning detail–the Mariners have been run by a series of managements that put short-term profits over long-term success. Fans sense and resent this. It’s that simple.
Shipwrecked is the flip side of Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book made into a movie starring Brad Pitt about how the Oakland Athletics (who, as it happens, long ago shared a stadium with my Phillies) with no money built a winning team.The Mariners with mucho money built a losing team. The two books ought to be sold as a combo and turned into mandatory case study reading for business schools.
I think it fair to say on the basis of the evidence Wells musters that if current Mariners brass had been in charge two decades ago of Amazon.com–there would be no Amazon.com. Because unlike Amazon, the M’s have little regard for customer satisfaction.
Founded as an expansion team in 1977, it took 15 years for the Mariners to finish a season about .500, “the longest stretch of futility for an expansion franchise in any major sport,” Wells writes. Only one of the original six owners–the entertainer Danny Kaye–was considered wealthy, so the team had to gut its scouting and minor-league operations.
California real-estate developer George Argyros, who bought the team in 1981, was no better, going cheap on salaries, selling off players for cash flow and eventually needing police escorts to get around. (I guess the fans cared back then.) In 1989 he sold the team to an owners group headed by 42-year-old Jeff Smulyan of Indianapolis. Within two years, he hatched a secret plot to move the team to Tampa. But litigation and a tough lease forced Smulyan to seek buyers who would keep the team put. In 1992 Hiroshi Yamauchi, head of Japan’s Nintendo Corp., whose U.S. office was in suburban Redmond, put up most of the $100 million to acquire the team.
Wells goes through the bad trades, the budget-cutting, and the day ceiling tiles fell off the old Kingdome. Much of his fire is aimed at Howard Lincoln, the team’s long-time chairman and CEO. I can’t imagine Lincoln is going to be very happy at some old quotes that Wells resurrects. Like, “The goal of the Mariners is not to win the World Series … We absolutely have to make money … We will not do a deal just so we can say to fans or players, ‘Look at us, we did a deal.’ This is not the way I operate a business.”
You also can get the flavor of Wells’s book through some of the chapter titles: “Mortgaging The Farm,” “Who Needs Superstars?”, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Do The Exact Same Thing Again,” and “Gouging the Most Loyal Fans in Baseball.”
A revealing chart shows a stunning 45% slide in attendance over a decade, to the point last season where barely 23,000 fans on average made it through the turnstiles. During my time in Texas, I attended high school football games with bigger crowds.
But after reading Shipwrecked, what I still don’t understand is why there isn’t more of a vocal reaction from Seattle fans other than mainly–and quietly–voting with their feet. Right now in Los Angeles, fans are running Dodgers owner Frank McCourt out of town (albeit with $800 million or so in his pocket) for operating his storied franchise pretty much like the Mariners.
Here there seems to be some sort of collective shrug. Maybe it’s just conditioning from low expectations of long standing. Forbes currently ranks Seattle the country second most miserable sports city (last year it was No. 1). Maybe it’s another manifestation of “Seattle Nice.”
Or maybe, it’s just the imperative of literature. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the famous narrative poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, only the Mariner himself survives the deadly voyage. Does Howard Lincoln know something he’s not telling us?
Whatever, I guess that explains why despite an interesting seafaring name, the team mascot continues to be an uninspiring moose. Rather than something catchy and more fan-pleasing like, say, the Philly Phanatic.
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