Many were the intriguing topics covered Tuesday during the introductory press conference of new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, also attended by the man who chose Dipoto, club president Kevin Mather. Believe it or not, most answers were reasonable, even enlightened. I know, I know: I see your eyes rolling from here.
The community skepticism surrounding the Mariners is already at least as dense as a cubic mile of lead. Deservedly. But I choose today not to dig into it. My pick broke long ago.
Instead, I pass along answers to two questions that helped me in deciding whether to take this latest leadership change seriously.
I asked Mather whether he asked Dipoto if he knew the current Mariners roster was ill-suited to the home ballpark.
“I didn’t have to,” Mather said. “He told me.”
This news represents a breakthrough. For seven years, Dipoto’s predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, kept building a roster of home-run hitters for a stadium that played slightly smaller than Belgium.
The result this season was a team fifth in the American League in home runs, yet out of playoff consideration by the Fourth of July. After weak drafts and mediocre player development, the thick, square pegs in Safeco’s round hole were a critical reason Zduriencik’s teams missed the postseason in all seven seasons of his tenure.
The Mariners roster should look a lot more like the 2014-15 Royals than the 1965 Yankees. Saving runs via pitching and defense are nearly as important as making runs. In running down a ball in the massive Safeco outfield, there’s not enough time to hitch up the Conestoga wagons to the oxen.
The second question was directed to Dipoto. I asked why he failed to convince his former boss, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno, that he should NOT sign addiction-plagued outfielder Josh Hamilton to a mega-contract in the winter of 2013 — unless Dipoto thought it was a good idea.
The reason is relevant to the Mariners because Zduriencik was in the middle of the same free-agent foolishness, waving his checkbook at Hamilton, who failed miserably in Anaheim despite the red flags that were seen from the International Space Station.
Dipoto explained that the owner screwed up. He didn’t use that phrase, but I caught his drift.
“Every decision you make is a collaboration. Josh was a free agent. I met with his wife and family. Obviously, Arte and upper management were heavily involved in what we were doing. Rightly so. That decision was the owner’s decision to make.
“As I understand it here, my position here is to manage what I’ve been given. That’s what I do. With the Angels, we did our best to put a team as good as we could around the core players. As Arte told me at the time, ‘My decision (on Hamilton) is mine.'”
Whew. One of the worst free-agent signings in recent major league history apparently was not Dipoto’s idea.
Now, some will say he’s lying, or that he’s dodging responsibility. I’m going with the idea that anyone operating off more than his medulla oblongata understood that Hamilton was a great talent but unworthy of a $125 million risk.
Where that puts Zduriencik, who was the driver on Seattle’s pursuit of Hamilton, I don’t know. But he’s under the bus now, so nobody cares.
Asked about the Hamilton episode, Mather said, “I would suggest that (Dipoto’s) previous employer was much heavier-handed than our ownership. We defer to our general manager.”
Then he cringed: “I’ve probably said too much.”
It’s our secret, Kevin.
But the episode reveals that Dipoto is experienced in ownerships that don’t know baseball. The skill won’t show up in his bio, but might be as important as any other asset in Seattle because of the other key news Tuesday, this from much-criticized CEO Howard Lincoln.
“I don’t have any plans to retire,” said, Lincoln, who showed up to the presser and took numerous questions. “I’d sure like to retire after we win the World Series . . . or make the playoffs.”
That’s a fairly wide target, but the lower end of Lincoln’s spectrum offers some optimism to the legions who hold him chiefly responsible for the Mariners’ 14-year absence from the playoffs, baseball’s longest drought.
As well as experience managing up to lightly informed owners, Dipoto has experience managing down to lightly informed managers. The Mariners manager, Lloyd McClendon, is a lot closer to the Angels field boss, Mike Scioscia, in terms of acceptance of advanced statistical analytics. As in, almost no acceptance.
The issue was said to be the reason Dipoto unexpectedly resigned the Angels GM job in July. Scioscia was said to have resisted deploying the information in Dipoto’s reports. The argument was won when Moreno sided with his 16-year manager.
But Mather claims that was not the issue.
“It’s really ironic that that media thinks Mike and Jerry got sideways on analytics,” he said. “Jerry’s not an analytics guy. He has people who show him stuff that he uses.”
Whatever happened in Anaheim, Dipoto is here now, experienced in dealing with oddball owners and stubborn managers. He’s also a former major league pitcher, a scout, and a personnel director. He’s a polished personality and talker who delivers perfect sound bites to please TV, such as:
“My baseball philosophy is to build flexibility, build versatility, create balance, and that will lead to sustainability,” he said. “I believe that starts today.”
So yes, he gets how the job works. Dipoto and this change are worth taking seriously. But will Mather, Lincoln and ownership persist in compromising their help?
Mather recalled being part of the pre-game ceremony in August celebrating Jamie Moyer’s entry into the club’s Hall of Fame that drew 39,000 to Safeco. He said he leaned over to Lincoln and said, ‘Think of what would happen if we put a winning product on the field.’ We once drew 3.5 million people (2002, leading baseball).
“This sounds crass, but there’s money in this town. People buy tickets, food and beverage and merchandise. We just need to put a winning product out there. Our ownership is tired of losing. They look at me and say, ‘You gotta treat the fans better,’ and then they kick me under the table and say, ‘Don’t forget ownership. You gotta treat us better.’
“I’m going to put more resources to Jerry’s end of the table than maybe Jerry’s used to.”
There you have it: Spend money to make money, and hire the right people and get out of the way. Two axioms to which anyone with a lick of business sense would stand up and say, “Duh!”
This organization has been breathtakingly slow on the uptake. Change comes when they know how long they’ve been wrong. Sounds as if they know.