John McGrath: ‘Mr. Charmstrong’ only guilty of outstaying his welcome

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comNovember 27, 2013 

Chuck Armstrong’s biggest mistake as Seattle Mariners president has been an attachment to his job. He loves it.

He loves Seattle, where he played a significant role in keeping a baseball franchise once coveted by out-of-towners. He loves Safeco Field, built in large part because of his efforts as the project’s driving force. He loves spring training — specifically the Cactus League, which he helped keep intact when Arizona was losing spring camp sites to Florida.

He loves talking to players, be they top prospects on their way up or former journeymen long retired. But he also loves mingling with coaches and scouts, office staffers and clubhouse attendants, executives and umpires, broadcasters and writers.

Disneyland might be the happiest place on earth, but an elevator car containing Chuck Armstrong, before an afternoon game at sunny Safeco Field, is a close second.

Armstrong’s official title with the Mariners is president and CEO, but I’ll always think of him as the goodwill ambassador my son met years ago at the annual Mariners FanFest.

“Dad,” he asked, “is Mr. Charmstrong the boss of Lou Piniella?”

I had to think about that for a moment.

“Sort of,” I said.

Had Armstrong left the Mariners when Piniella left, after the 2002 season, Mr. Charmstrong’s

empire-builder legacy would have been indisputable. The team was a winner on the field and at the gate — it drew 3.5 million fans in ’02, the franchise record — and the horizon, with Pat Gillick in charge of the baseball operations, appeared limitless.

But Armstrong wasn’t concerned with how his public image would look like in 2013. He was concerned with the task of upgrading the Mariners from perennial contenders into World Series contestants. And when the core of the great 2001 team got old at the same time and flopped to a last-place finish in 2004, he spent the rest of his career trying to reassemble a jigsaw with missing pieces.

Armstrong on Monday announced his retirement, effective Jan. 31, 2014. Consistent with the low profile the 71-year-old executive has been keeping, he didn’t arrange a media event in the interview room at Safeco Field. His explanation was confined to a statement that included a cryptic reference to the recent deaths of “several good friends.”

Although he never played pro baseball, Armstrong is a student of the game (in 1987, he persuaded then-owner George Argyros that Ken Griffey Jr. was a better No. 1 draft pick than fellow high-school outfielder Mark Merchant) and a cultivator of its rich history.

Armstrong is familiar with Connie Mack, the Hall of Famer who managed the Philadelphia Athletics decades after he established himself as an icon because, for one, he owned the team, and, for two, he loved what he was doing.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Mack’s Athletics enjoyed three different eras of American League dominance, culminating with the powerhouse that won the World Series in 1929 and ’30 and an AL pennant, with 107 victories, in 1931. Mack was 68, seemingly primed to retire with his reputation intact.

But he stayed on (and on, and on). Of the 17 teams he managed after turning 71, only three finished with a winning record. Toward the end of his career, he was prone to fall asleep in the dugout — unacceptable, perhaps, but understandable: He was 87 during his final season.

“I am not quitting because I’m getting old,” Mack said in 1950. “I’m quitting because I think people want me to.”

And yet Connie Mack is remembered today more for winning (3,731 victories as a manager, most in big-league history) than losing (3,948 defeats, most in big-league history). His name remains associated with the annual American Amateur Baseball Congress tournament known as the “Connie Mack World Series.”

Chuck Armstrong is Seattle’s version of Connie Mack. Most of the accomplishments came during the first half of the career. The second half?

Well, put it this way: Substitute Armstrong’s retirement statement on Monday with that of Mack’s in 1950, and it’s a more tangible motivation than the recent deaths of “several good friends.”

Armstrong didn’t need to consult an opinion poll of Mariners fans to realize that on a list of their favorite things, he ranks somewhere below rush-hour traffic jams on the eve of a midweek holiday.

He kept a job he loved, and he kept it for too long, and for that he paid the price of his legacy. I can only hope the price is temporary.

Happy trails, Mr. Charmstrong. Thanks for your contributions in preserving the Mariners in Seattle, and for assuring their future with a beautiful ballpark. Most of all, thanks for all those times you boarded that crowded elevator, 90 minutes before the first pitch thrown on a gorgeous summer day, and reminded everybody to smile.

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