Rummaging through the closet of the manager’s office at Safeco Field almost 20 years ago, Lou Piniella was sorting his civilian clothes into a duffel bag. After 10 seasons managing the Mariners, the last three producing seasons of 91, 116 and 93 wins, he was going home to Tampa, where he was born and raised and kept his off-season home.
He was also going to manage the Tampa Devil Rays. He had professional and personal reasons for leaving Seattle while still at the top of his game, which actually benefited the Mariners. They were able to trade Piniella for the Rays’ All-Star left fielder, Randy Winn.
“In 10 years in Seattle, the Mariners never got a left fielder for me,” said Piniella, smiling, shortly after the deal was announced. “Now they get a left fielder for me.”
At the moment, he was standing in his underwear, cigarette dangling, choosing between shirts to wear. He paused, then turned to look at me, his lone visitor, sitting in a chair opposite his desk.
“Ten years,” he said. “I never thought I’d be here for 10 years, did you? I can’t believe it.”
I shook my head no: “It’s good to keep surprising yourself, Lou.”
I kept thinking about that moment as I prepared this final column for Sportspress Northwest.
Not that I’m being traded, or leaving — too much love for this part of the country. But doing a thing you care about for a decade or so is a long time. Especially in the digital age.
I surprised myself.
Born out of a recession and ending in a pandemic, Sportspress Northwest was an entrepreneurial idea conjured with my friend and colleague, Steve Rudman, to keep independent local journalism’s standards and practices going, with some new tools. We knew the statistics that said more than 80 percent of startups never get past two years.
I also knew that 100 percent of MLB insiders told Piniella he was nuts to go manage the Mariners. The same percentage also told him same about Tampa.
That time, they were right. In three years, Tampa won 63, 70 and 67 games, and he left for the Chicago Cubs.
So the insiders were half-right. But 50 percent is good, and Piniella knew to stay in business, he had to keep moving.
The business of journalism was moving faster. To be precise, circling the drain.
By the time of the 2008 recession, accelerations in the pace of technological innovation had swept over the media business and, among many other things, helped bring about the demise of my employer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Watching in high-def the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing via all platforms, it occurred to me that working the Summer Games 14 years earlier in the same city working for the P-I with a flip phone, an 18-pound Dell PC and no social media, made it seem as if I had been in the silent-film era.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a book about what he called the “age of accelerations.” Here’s how he saw 2007, the year the first smartphone was widely introduced:
Facebook didn’t exist yet, Twitter was still a sound, a cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking space, “applications” were what you sent to colleges, Big Data was a good name for a rap star, and Skype, for most people, was a typographical error.
Soon, all those terms came to mean something different, and all were swiftly understood around the globe as disruptors for nearly every industry, especially media.
I plan to write more extensively about my business experience with impacts at ground level at a later date on another platform. But I want to share an observation now about consequences from the change in the sports and media industry.
Some of the most sophisticated, resource-rich newsrooms in the world belong to MLB.com, NFL.com, NBA.com and NHL.com. As innovation eroded the finances of newspapers, pro sports leagues swooped in to hire out-of-work or underpaid reporters, editors and designers to create in-house digital newsrooms.
Armed with video rights to their own games, the newsrooms blossomed from websites into 24/7 channels on cable. It happened so fast and so well that we now take it for granted, but think about how remarkable it is to have MLB.com produce from up to 15 ballparks a day telecasts, audio, text and social media on each game, often simultaneously.
The entity that created this, MLB Advanced Media, streamed its first game in August 2002. Known as BAM, it quickly morphed into a digital colossus that served clients beyond baseball, such as ESPN and NHL. Five years ago, MLB owners began selling chunks of BAMTech to Disney, owner of ESPN, which now has nearly $4 billion invested.
That has meant a per-team windfall of about $50 million. From technology, not baseball.
Talk about surprises.
Keep that development in mind when you read stories about the current MLB lockout in which owners are seeking further cuts to minor league rosters players making less than $10,000 a season. The gall is breathtaking.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Jonathan Sposato. He’s the savvy chairman and co-founder of Geekwire, the successful local startup with a national reputation for quality coverage of something vastly under-covered 10 years ago by newspapers — technology.
I asked him what would have happened if Google, Facebook and Amazon had included in each of their build-outs a 200-employee newsroom with high-end features to cover the world of technology.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
Nor did anyone else — except baseball’s owners, in order to hype their games . With each passing year, young consumers come to its cool, one-stop digital shop — same thing for the other leagues — who have little idea that it is the house organ, unaware that independent newsrooms exist for baseball coverage that offer honest content of an industry rich in controversy.
I offer a parting request: Support with your media dollars the journalism outlets with no affiliations to leagues or their broadcast partners — locally, Seattle Times, News Tribune, Spokesman-Review, and nationally, The Athletic and Sports Illustrated. There’s others, but you get the point — sports-news consumers deserve, just like the games they enjoy, impartial arbiters.
That was the aspiration here at SPNW. We were aided in the quest by many readers who contributed voluntarily to keep the site free, and the many who contributed comments to keep the site lively. I tried hard to resist blocks, because I make a living offering opinions.
I am grateful to all.
I also offer gratitude to the writers and photographers whose work appeared here. Also to the many who contributed behind the scenes in creating, funding, designing, directing, lawyering, bookkeeping, accounting and beer-buying.
The start-up experience called to mind the cautions offered by British explorer Ernest Shackleton in his published ad seeking crew members for a 1914 Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole:
Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
Here, then, is your honour and recognition. You live!
Special shout-outs to five people who endured from the beginning: Photographers Drew McKenzie and Drew Sellers, whose sharp eyes see forward; historian Dave Eskenazi, whose sharp eyes see backward, and IT lord Tim Garrison, who saw digital potholes everywhere and managed to pull us back each time. Of course, to my retired pal, Rudman, whose indefatigable passion for discovery makes Shackleton look slothful.
As for me, my decision has little to do with health, which is good (except for a bunion that is shortly to be excised) or the current Seattle sports scene, which is not good. But since neither lasts forever, I’d like to take advantage of the former by picking a smart time to say so long to the latter.
I’m calling this an unwinding from daily journalism. Carl Hiaasen, one of my favorite novelists, explained it as he left his day job at the Miami Herald last year.
“Nobody really retires as a writer,” he said. “You keel face forward into the keyboard one day, and that’s it.”
That works for me. Near-term, I have a sports-history project that figures to be fun. But writing about the daily deeds isn’t the same thing as taking time to write well. Breaks are required. It’s been awhile.
I was reminded of that with the recent death of John Madden. Peter King, then of Sports Illustrated, re-published his wonderful essay about joining broadcaster Madden on one of his cross-country bus rides. Madden told the story of how fellow coach and longtime pal John Robinson helped talk him into giving up the sidelines after 10 winning seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
“He once said to me, ‘You’ve changed. It’s like you live in a tunnel. You don’t have any idea what’s going on in the world,” Madden told King. “It was true. He thought I’d lost my sense of humor, my inquisitiveness. It got so I knew nothing other than football and the Raiders. I’m not criticizing that in myself; it’s part of the job. You focus in so much, and you miss life.”
Another successful football figure, Marshawn Lynch, offered a similar sentiment, in the patois of the Oakland street.
In January 2020, I was standing in the visitors locker room at Lambeau Field, about eight feet from a podium where the Seahawks running back was holding rare court after the Seahawks were ousted from the playoffs by Green Bay. He brushed aside football questions and addressed young players about the hazards of NFL life.
“Start taking care y’all mentals, y’all bodies and y’all chicken (money),” he said. “And when y’all ready to walk away, you walk away and be able to do what you want to do.”
Three days after he said that, a man infected with the first known U.S. case of coronavirus walked through Sea-Tac Airport. I know it’s coincidence. Still, I haven’t been able to scrub from my head the few degrees of separation between Beast Mode’s advice, applicable to all, and Patient Zero.
Mentals? Checking the box now, boss.
As far as the photo of Bill Walton, I knew him when he stuttered. He now cannot be silenced. Talk about surprises.
I hold him in high regard as the Patron Saint of Second Acts.