It’s been a few days since I sat down with Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln for a one-on-one interview. I first asked for the interview via email over a month ago, shortly after the information about Jack Zduriencik’s contract extension first came out. Since then, we’d emailed a few times trying to set something up. It was totally understandable that they would do multiple one on one interviews, and not just with me.
In the first 24 hours after I posted it to the blog, there was large amount of anger, complaining and mocking of his answers. I tried to hold off posting my thoughts or reaction. Remember, I’m not emotionally invested into this situation. I’m not a fan, so I don’t share your rage or contempt. The more I do this job, the more pragmatic I become. So if you are looking for me to share your outrage, you are going to be waiting for a while. Also it would be totally classless and unprofessional to sit and mock a person's answers to the interview I've just given.
In the moments after the interview as I was driving back to Tacoma (a nice hour and half drive), I thought of things I should have asked but didn’t or forgot. I thought of the questions I could have asked better to possibiliy get a better response.
I went back and listened to the recording of the interview a couple of times. I reread the transcript a few times as well. These are things you can do on a two and half hour flight to Denver. And re-listening and re-reading didn’t make me feel much better. There were times I thought I should have pushed more and missed follows up. I’ve been told as much by a few people. Obviously, in hindsight everything is much clearer, and armchair quarterbacks are undefeated. This is harder than you think. It's not quite a verbal chess match, but it's never simple.
Admittedly, I’m not David Frost or even Larry King, this format isn’t something we get often. It's difficult. There is a technique to it. Also it’s not an inquisition or a cross examination. There isn’t someone sitting there telling Lincoln to “please answer the question.” He's not strapped to a lie detector. And I have no agenda in this other than asking questions to issues I'm curious about and questions I think fans would ask if given the opportunity.
After thinking about it and discussing it with some colleagues and friends, the frustration with myself has waned a little.
Lincoln was very prepared for the questions. You don’t do a bunch of one-on-one sit-downs like that and not prepare. He knew the basic gist of most of the questions that Greg Johns or Jerry Brewer or I would ask. They were pretty evident. You can see it in the similarities in the answers he gave us.
Being a lawyer, he knows how to talk and discuss things. He’s going to say what he wants to say. That’s why he granted the interviews. He was going to get his message out regardless of the questions that were asked.
After a few days and a little bit thinking, here are a few random thoughts ….
No matter what Lincoln said in the interview – short of saying he was resigning, Nintendo of America was selling its majority of shares or he was firing Chuck Armstrong – it was not going to be received with anything but vitriol and disdain. Honestly, what could he say to appease an increasingly angrier fan base that believes he and Chuck Armstrong are the root of all the Mariners’ struggles?
I don’t know what there was to be gained from him speaking. But he and the Mariners knew that he had to at least make some public comments following another losing season. I respect that.
Really what did you expect him to say? Let’s be realistic. He’s going to shoulder the blame in most ways and offer his positive thoughts. But if you think he was going to beg for forgiveness or metaphorically impale himself with answers, you were being unrealistic. That’s not his way. That’s not the way of any CEO.
Obviously, there were a few things he said that irked fans more than others.
Yeah, really. I don’t judge it just by wins and losses.
I saw that sentence tweeted out a bunch. In the remainder of the quote he says this …
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.
Yes, it’s a little illogical and foolish to have high expectations based on spring training results, but he wasn’t the only one to make that mistake. Of course, wins or losses are the end result of any season and the simplest measure of success. But often in sports progress is measured as well. The Mariners took a step back in that progress and that also adds to the disappointment.
This line was also a fan un-favorite …
"I think we’ve got really an outstanding front office. Let’s separate baseball out."
Ok, there is more to the Mariners front office than just Howard, Chuck and Jack. He was talking to the business side of it … marketing, public relations, sales, gameday operations. I was there. That’s what he meant. Marketing and selling this organization isn’t easy based on, well, you know. So they are probably pretty good at their jobs.
Am I sure? Well, in the second part of the answer where he says specifically, “The baseball side of the business …”
But the answer that drove people the most crazy was to my question about selling the organization to fans
Lincoln said this:
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.
There’s long been an accusation that the Mariners go out of their way to cater to non-baseball fans that come only for the event aspect of it. That they do things like hydro races and bobbleheads to try cover up the fact that the on-field product isn’t good. This comment certainly doesn’t help that perception.
But the admission that: “Many of our fans are thinking about things other than just what’s on the field” isn’t spin. It’s a fact. And if you don’t think so, try hanging out in the Pen or center field beer garden during the game. There are a large portion of fans that go to games that aren’t simply in it for the baseball, and that’s not just at Safeco. This happens in stadiums all over the country. I’ve been there and seen it first hand. Yes, even in places like Boston and St. Louis, where they love to brag about what great fans they are. There are a large portion of fans that are just happy to be there. They get excited about food races on the field, kiss cams in the 8th inning, singing to Sweet Caroline, cheering on the rally monkey. Next time you are at a game, look around, who’s really focused on what’s going on the field and who’s in it for the event.
To ignore those fans would be bad business. You could argue that the Mariners are more over the top in enticing those types of fans than some teams. But every team has ways of marketing to the non diehard baseball fans. They have to.
Also, if Lincoln would have said the biggest selling point right now is the team on the field, it would have been met with equal ire, disdain and disbelief, because we know that isn’t close to being true.
Was his answer to his question perfect or what people wanted to hear? No. There may have been a way to answer it. In a way, with the where the franchise is at right now, there is no real great answer to it for him. Why do you think it's a question people wanted to ask.
As far as follow-ups that I feel like I missed …
One of my bigger failures was when Lincoln was lamenting the failures of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, saying:
You never know what’s going to happen next year. Pujols and Hamilton could be tied for the batting championship next year, you just don’t know. That’s what makes this such a crapshoot, you don’t know what kind of performance you are going to see. You don’t know if key players are going to be injured. When he signed Pujols, I don’t think he was thinking Pujols would have the injuries he’s had. When he signed Hamilton, I don’t think he was thinking he’d have a sub-par season. That’s what happens in this game.
I should have said: The failures of Pujols and Hamilton weren’t necessarily a surprise to a lot of people in the baseball world. With increased and advanced statistical data and more useful projection systems as well as their age, there were many predicting these types of struggles. You were right there on Hamilton till the end, did you look at those projections. How much are you employing the use of that advanced data analysis beyond just your baseball analytics operations staff? Are you a believer in it?
And then there was this exchange:
Me: Does it concern you that when you reference those moments it was in 2000 and 2001 and it’s now 2013?
Lincoln: Sure, I can count.I should have followed with: “There is a complaint/belief that the organization is too reliant and too quick to reference 1995 and 2001 as examples of success. While they are part of your history, shouldn’t you move on a little given the amount of time passed?
I also probably should have asked about their stance on the arena and if it hurt their public perception and if he’d do anything different. Maybe a few questions about their role of Root Sports into increased coverage of the team, pregame and postgame.
One thing that I took from it was his admittance that the Mariners would determine his overall legacy as a businessman. This is a guy, who helped acquire the rights to Tetris for Nintendo. That’s a billion dollar accomplishment. But by admitting that, it became clear to me that he has no plans of leaving until this gets righted. And he believes he can do it. Barring a health issue – he’s 73 – I doubt we will see him resign in the next three or four years. This is personal to him. He has too much pride in himself as a businessman to admit defeat. Call it ego or foolish thinking, but he believes he’s going to fix this.
Regrets, I have them. But I'm done thinking about them now. Hopefully there is a chance to fix a few them in the future with another interview.