By Shannon Drayer
Friday marks the last day of Chuck Armstrong’s 28-year tenure as president of the Seattle Mariners. The man who many in the organization have called the face of the Mariners will begin a new chapter of his life away from the ballpark. He will be leaving one family to spend more time with another. On the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way, he will be sorely missed.
“Everyone is well aware of Chuck’s great love of the Mariners and the game of baseball, but only a few of us have seen first hand what our friend has sacrificed over the years for the good of the club, and I am one of those people,” chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln told the crowd of hundreds at Armstrong’s retirement celebration Wednesday.
“Few know the critical role Chuck played in keeping the Mariners here. I do. I saw the tears in Chuck’s eyes when we opened Safeco Field on July 15, 1999. Few know that on many mornings Chuck starts his day by standing behind home plate at Safeco Field and just taking in the view.”
That view was precious for Armstrong, who has said on many occasions that he has not three children, but four. The son and two daughters he and his wife Susan have raised, and Safeco Field.
“Absolutely,” answered head groundskeeper Bob Christofferson when asked if this was the correct characterization of Armstrong’s feeling for the building in which the Mariners play. “He knows every inch of it and took care of every inch of it.”
It is a building he is largely responsible for. While pointing out that others, including current and former Mariners CEOs Lincoln and John Ellis, and former governors Gary Locke and Mike Lowry, played a huge role in ensuring Safeco Field would be built, original Public Facilities District board member Robert Wallace feels that it was Armstrong who was most instrumental in saving the Mariners and the building of Safeco Field.
“I think I could safely say if not for Chuck Armstrong we would not have either the Mariners or the stadium today. They would have gone broke and gone somewhere else,” he said.
The ballpark needed to be built on a breakneck schedule. According to Wallace, the building was being designed as it was being constructed with plans coming in every Monday morning with change orders from the architects. To get the job done it took what he called a Herculean effort, with Armstrong, who brought diverse experience to the project, leading the way.
“He was integral,” said Wallace. “He’s not just an engineer. He had actually worked for a large developer in California. He built commercial buildings as a developer. He is a lawyer as well. He had run a sports program at the UW. This guy is about as uniquely qualified for the job he had that you could hope for. He was literally involved in every aspect of the evolution of the whole program. The interface with the PFD, he almost always attended those public meetings. He was hands on.”
“It wasn’t always easy,” Wallace continued. “With the overruns that came about the Mariners had to pay for it. I’m sure those ownership meetings weren’t a whole lot of fun when they were trying to figure out how to make cash calls. But to their credit from that day to this the Mariners have done absolutely everything they were expected to do and more. And thanks to the Mariners in general and Chuck Armstrong in particular, what got built was what most people would agree is certainly one of the finest, if not the finest, ballparks in the US.”
A ballpark that Armstrong enjoyed every morning. The morning home plate visit was not the only visit he would make to the field on a daily basis, however. On gamedays, about an hour and half before first pitch he could be seen walking across the field, sometimes with a hearty shout to someone in the broadcast or press boxes, over to Christofferson who was supervising the preparation of the field. The two would have a brief chat before disappearing down the umpires’ tunnel.
“He cared about what was going on the field. It was like his baby, but we talked every day,” explained Christofferson. “I usually kept him abreast of the roof and where we were at all day long and then him and I would go in and visit with the umpires before every game. That was always fun. He liked interacting with those guys and he was one of the few presidents in the league that actually did that, and the umpires liked it.”
Armstrong’s journey would not end there. There was always a quick trip through the Mariners clubhouse. This was something Ken Griffey Jr. in particular appreciated.
“You just don’t find as caring people as Chuck,” Griffey said. “You just don’t find that in a president of a ball club. Its all about business. Chuck is beyond this. He will actually come down and sit down and talk to guys. ‘Hey, I’m here. You got anything? Feel free. My door is always open.’ You just don’t see that from a lot of executives.”
Armstrong, along with scout Roger Jongewaard and GM Dick Balderson, were responsible for drafting Griffey despite the wishes of team owner George Argyros to draft pitcher Mike Harkey. Griffey remembers getting off the plane for the first time in Seattle, still just a teenager. Armstrong was the first face he saw.
“As a teenager you try not to get involved in front office, but his way has always been about family, and he has been genuinely honest in taking an interest in not only who you are but your family,” Griffey said. “I think a lot of people in business don’t do that. With Chuck, he hears something, it’s ‘How are you? How’s your dad?’ And that’s not just with me but everyone who has been there. He’s a caring person. I don’t think a lot of people give him credit for that.”
“He knew part-time people, he knew their names,” he said. “He liked interacting. He liked being out. He was the face of the Mariners and he showed it. I think he is an outstanding person. He’s a great boss and I consider him a great friend.”
Griffey insists his friendship with Armstrong has always been the same, never changing since day one because in his eyes Armstrong hasn’t changed. His understanding of Armstrong has changed in recent years, however.
“The only thing is when I retired I got to see him first hand up in the box (during games), what goes on,” Griffey said. “Sometimes he just sits there and it’s hard for him. That’s the biggest thing. He cares about this team, this city. What goes on, what people think about the product he puts on the field. If you don’t think he wants to bring a World Series to the Northwest you are sadly mistaken. He wants that more than anything. I get the privilege of sitting up there and talking to these guys, and there is nothing more they want to have than the people of Seattle go, ‘Hey Chuck, hey Howard, thank you.”
“He cares tremendously about the Mariners,” Christofferson concurred. “Despite what people might think, nobody wanted to win more than Chuck and nobody agonizes over it more than Chuck. He’s probably more upset when the team loses than the players are. He takes what he sees day in and day out personally and you just don’t find that in a lot of people.”
Griffey, who flew in from Florida for Armstrong’s retirement celebration, said he was surprised to hear he had decided to retire, but that he understood the reasons why. He doesn’t expect to see him on the golf course any time soon, however.
“He’s got grandkids. I am going to have to schedule an appointment,” Griffey laughed. “He might be busy for a while. They might be, ‘You are not doing anything, we are doing all this fun stuff.’ I know when I retired my wife had an agenda, an itinerary. Time stamped and everything at my house. I better warn him.”
“I was hoping he would have that World Series Championship,” Griffey continued. “He’s a guy who wants this city to do well. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He wants that parade in October.”
Christofferson too was surprised.
“It was a shock when he said he was going to leave,” he said. “He’s going to leave the Mariners in good hands. There are a lot of good people here but there is only one Chuck. He used to bring his grandkids out on the field and I told him I hope he still does that and is around a little bit. That was family time. He was proud to let the little girls just run around and play in the grass and he would run with them. He was like a little kid again. I know he will be rooting for the Mariners. He was a good man for the city of Seattle and the Northwest.”
Wallace agrees that Armstrong has made an incredible contribution to the area.
“I think he leaves the mark of absolute integrity,” he said. “I think he is as straight an arrow as there is. In an industry where the money is big and the temptations are lots, Chuck brought a level of maturity and a dedication to doing the right thing to everything he did. He brought a commitment to quality that this was going to be a first-class facility and a first-class team. Everything those guys have done has been a conscientious attempt at excellence. Unfortunately it hasn’t always played out on the field, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been trying.”
Monday morning it will be business as usual at Safeco Field, but what perhaps was the most familiar face will not be there.
“For over twenty years I have worked hand in glove with Chuck, in the good times and the bad times, ” Lincoln said. “I think the world of this guy. For our front office employees, Chuck has been a steady hand and great leader. Chuck’s friendly and outgoing manner with our employees is something that all of us at the Mariners greatly appreciate. Quite frankly it is literally impossible to replace.”