It was an odd week to yet another disappointing season for the Seattle Mariners. They finished with 91 losses in 2013 – their fourth consecutive losing season. And in the season’s final days, manager Eric Wedge decided not to return, citing a difference of philosophy.
With the second-worst attendance in the American League – less than 2 million for the third season in a row – the organization is far from its glory days of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. On Tuesday, Mariners Chief Executive Officer Howard Lincoln sat down for one-on-one interviews from three news outlets – The News Tribune, the Seattle Times and MLB.com.
An excerpt of his 44-minute interview with The News Tribune:
Q: You’ve had a few days now to look back, what were your thoughts on the 2013 season?
This was the most disappointing and frustrating season I’ve ever endured, without any question.
Q: Worse than 2008?
Yeah, really. I don’t judge it just by wins and losses. And the reason I say that, at spring training our expectations were very high. And I think that was justified. You were there. This looked really good. I didn’t expect we were going to go to the World Series, but I thought we were going to be very, very competitive. And things looked really good. I’m really disappointed and frustrated of what happened in the season, given the fact that these expectations on our part, on my part, were so high.
Having said that, I feel good about some of the things that did happen during the season. I liked the young talent we brought up. If I go around the infield (Kyle) Seager, (Brad) Miller, (Nick) Franklin, (Justin) Smoak, (Mike) Zunino – I think that’s our future. As I look at the starting pitching, not only Felix (Hernandez), but (Hisashi)
Iwakuma had a fabulous year. And we’ve got guys like (James) Paxton, Taijuan Walker and (Brandon) Maurer and (Erasmo) Ramirez – we’ve got a solid foundation there. And I think our fans see that, too. They see that young talent and we just have to be – patient is not a good word because our fans have been more than patient – but we certainly have to stay the course. We have to work with this young talent and develop it. So that’s where I am at.
Q: Do you have faith in this plan, right now, the way it is?
Yeah, I do. When we hired Jack Zduriencik, we hired him primarily as a talent evaluator. He did not have any experience as a general manager, so he’s had to learn on the job. But as a talent evaluator, I think he’s done a superb job in the area of scouting. I think he’s done a really good job reorganizing and strengthening the player development side of this operation and that’s a huge, huge component.
I think he’s done a fair job, OK job in the composition of the major league roster. I think he’s made his share of mistakes, but no general manager bats one thousand. I think he learns from his mistakes, which is positive. … So overall, I continue to have confidence in Jack going forward.
Q: How frustrating was this last week with Eric Wedge deciding to leave?
I don’t think frustration is a good word. I think disappointment and surprise. Surprise because of what Eric told me when we met in my office in September. Disappointing because I fully expected, as did Jack and Chuck (Armstrong, Mariners president), that we would fully be able to resolve these issues and retain Eric going forward. … But I do believe that the process we used was the correct process, and Eric put the cart before the horse. We can’t have a contract extension until we have a talk about how things have gone. It’s a simple as that.
Q: Where do you think this organization is at right now?
Let’s separate baseball out. All of the other parts of organization are running at full speed and doing a great job. Our front office employees are great. Our day of game staff provides a level of customer service at Safeco Field that beats any team in major league baseball. … So I’m very happy about that.
The baseball side of the business, as I’ve said, is in, I think, good hands with Jack. I have confidence in him going forward in terms of setting up the major league roster. Certainly, the young talent is coming up or is already up. I’m very confident about the organization going forward. I think it’s regarded in major league baseball as a really good organization. And I think if you were to ask Bud Selig, he would tell you that. So that’s how I feel.
Q: This is the third year you have had fewer than 2 million fans. What are your thoughts on where you are at?
The attendance is a reflection of the losing seasons. I’m a fan as well as the Mariners CEO. I think of this the same way of other fans do – ‘Why can’t these guys start winning?’ That’s reality. … But I’m cognizant as a fan of the frustrations of our fans out there and the need to get this going in a different direction. But I do have confidence that the program Jack is working on is going to work. It’s simply taking a lot more time than I ever thought when I sat down with Jack the day we hired him.
Do you ever worry that the fans might not come back?
Over half of our fans come from outside of King County. And with that roof (on Safeco Field), this is a regional place to come. I think that when we start seeing wins and winning seasons, yeah there could be some delay. But I think our fans are really ready to jump back on board once we can get this young talent to start winning baseball games.
Q: The times we’ve talked, you’ve seemed very confident that you are the person to lead this organization back to where it once was. Why do you believe that you are the man to lead this group?
I’ve been very successful in everything that I’ve done in my life. I’ve enjoyed great success certainly at Nintendo and in the home video game business. And this has been a humbling experience for me. In the first two years that I was CEO we went to the American League championship and we’ve had other winning seasons. But these last few years have been a very humbling experience. And I know that my legacy is going to be determined is by how this team ultimately comes out under my leadership. And I am determined to get this thing turned around.
Q: You and Chuck have been the constant in most of this losing run, do you believe you are perceived fairly, or unfairly?
Oh you know, when you have losing seasons, someone has to be the target. That’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think that it’s unfair or unjust. I recognize when you are in a position like this – any major league CEO – where you have losing seasons is going to be rightfully the target. Somebody has to be the target. That just comes with the territory. If you don’t have a thick skin, you shouldn’t be doing this. But I think, in fairness, my record of service in this community is pretty well known. And I’m hopeful that fans, while they may be disappointed in how the team has performed, will understand that I have made huge commitments over many years to making our community a better place to live.
Q: Does it bother you when people accuse this organization of simply trying to make money and not caring about wins?
None of our owners, when we got into this back in ’92, got into it with the idea that the objective to make money. Certainly the value of the franchise has gone up. All major league baseball franchise’s value has gone up. When this group was assembled, the primary objective was to do whatever was necessary to keep major league baseball in Seattle for the foreseeable future, and that’s why we pushed so hard for Safeco Field. And everything that we’ve done over the years has been with that objective in mind.
The second objective has been if we can make a little bit of money, that’s fine. But if we lose a little bit of money, that’s fine, too. … The overriding objective is not to make money, it’s to have winning baseball teams. That’s what all of these owners want. These owners hear the same things I’m hearing from their neighbors, too: ‘What the heck is going on? Why can’t you get this thing going in the right direction?’ So we are all cognizant of that. This idea that we are only interested in making money is pure nonsense.
Q: You had a $100 million payroll in 2008. People wonder what the payroll is going to be. There is a fear among fans that payroll may go down, but where will it be?
We don’t know what the payroll will be for 2014. Jack is still working on his needs and we are at least a month away before we make that decision. Last year our payroll was a little over $91 million, which is not chump change. …We’ve had instances where we’re up to $110 million and we had a losing season. At that point, clearly we didn’t spend our money wisely. It is true that with all of this young talent, some of your major commitments are coming off the books, so Jack will have a lot more flexibility. But I can’t tell you what that payroll is yet, and I can’t tell you where it’s going to end up because I haven’t heard from Jack.
Not many people understand how adding your own regional sports network will benefit your payroll. How much will it help?
Over the period of the rights fee we get from Root Sports, which goes from now to 2030, over that period, that money, plus the cash flow we receive in Root Sports over the lifetime from now till 2030, it will comparable to the cash flow and the rights fees that the Angels and Rangers get, even though they are in larger television markets. So we’ve negotiated a very good deal. But the money isn’t going to fall out of the sky in 2014.
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish