Drayer: How have the Mariners become contenders? They bought in
Mar 28, 2023, 11:52 AM
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Back in his first months as general manager of the Mariners in 2015, Jerry Dipoto made it clear it was his intent to take a big left turn with the organization. He hired a manager who had never managed before (Scott Servais) and a farm director who led with mental skills coaching (Andy McKay). He was up front about wanting to challenge conventional thinking about baseball, and his hires reflected that.
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There was a worst-in-baseball farm system to be remade and an organizational culture that needed to be set. The two would go hand in hand. Rebuilding an organization was not just about the talent, it was about the identity from bottom to top. A player who spent time in the Mariners organization should have that imprint.
These things don’t happen overnight but programs and systems were put in place and tested. Some stuck, some fell by the wayside. Eyebrows were raised by the language, the approach with the players, ultimately the attempt to change the path in a game that, until very recently, was resistant to change.
“That might work in the minors, but a major leaguer will never go for that,” was often the response to something new.
Little by little, however, the systems, processes, and language filtered up to the big league clubhouse. In 2022, it seemed that journey was complete. That which is impossible to quantify – culture, chemistry, belief – was unmistakably present in that Mariners clubhouse.
“Everyone knows what to expect from each other in heart and hustle and playing the game right.”
“We are not afraid to hold each other accountable.”
“The strength of this organization is we stand for something.”
“We sold out for it and we bought in, and the guys out here all understand how important that is now. That’s our identity.”
It was seven years in the making, but in 2022, it arrived. This is the story of buy-in.
All together now
“I think that can be used as one of those cliché lines, buying into what we’re doing here,” said Mariners first baseman Ty France, “but after being around everybody, the whole group from the front office to the last guy in the minor leagues, everybody here, we have the same goal in mind.”
It was by no means a single “aha” moment in 2022 that got everyone pulling in the same direction. For those who were newer to the organization, it was perhaps more a matter of jumping on. Catcher Tom Murphy, who along with utility player Dylan Moore and shortstop J.P. Crawford trails only pitcher Marco Gonzales in Mariners tenure, can appreciate the process he witnessed.
“I’ve seen the same type of discipline that I take in personally from the organization as a whole,” Murphy said. “We talked about the process a lot, and the process is not something that happens overnight, ever. Three years ago, we had an offseason meeting with (leadership coach) Brian Kight who talked about ‘two by 24.’ It’s going to take two years at 24 singular months of just, like, daily work and discipline of this is who we are, this is our identity. This is where we’re going to strive to be every single day, and we’re going to keep pushing to be a little bit better every day.
“Last year, at the end of the year, you look at the playoffs and how that all came together. You don’t realize how that process started three years ago. So for us to stay disciplined with those mindsets and to carry it through for three years, it’s really hard to find in an organization honestly. We sold out for it and we bought in and the guys out here all understand how important that is now, and that’s our identity. That was what we strive for.”
Manny Acta, currently the Mariners’ third base coach, has been there from the beginning, and he points out that while the identity as a group is important, the individuals are not lost in it. Scott Servais has emphasized that the players must be listened to. The morning meetings, get-to-knows, player plan meetings where they have a voice, all of this is important.
“The thing is also we give these guys the opportunity to be themselves, which is awesome,” Acta said. “From top to bottom, especially from Scott, it’s something to see. It’s something that everybody would love to be in that situation as a player. We give everybody an opportunity to be themselves, we are honest to them and we present to them our process, and we have got the right group now.”
The right group not just to buy into processes the Mariners believe will lead to numbers on the field – Dominate the Zone; Dominate the Count; Doesn’t Matter, Get Better; Get 1% Better Every Day – but the right group to take hold of the culture in the clubhouse.
“We have a really good clubhouse, a really good culture,” said Moore. “Everyone knows what to expect from each other in heart and hustle and playing the game right. We are not afraid to hold each other accountable.”
‘Ego is out of it’
We hear those words “hold accountable” so many times, but what exactly does that mean in the Mariners clubhouse? These weren’t just throwaway words for Moore.
“That means that when somebody yells at me for doing the wrong thing, I don’t take it personally,” he said. “My ego is out of it. I know that he’s coming from a good place because he wants everyone to do better. So in that situation, he says you are doing the wrong thing because that’s not how we do things and you are hurting the team because of it. And I say, ‘I recognize that. That’s not how we do it. Stay on me if I do it again.’ We want to move past it, we want to get it out.”
These critical conversations don’t just happen. It takes systems, investment on all levels, and, above all, trust. It is critical for a group that is together nearly every day from February to October. When the messaging comes from the players, and when they live that messaging and hold each other accountable, the result is that they are on the same page, pulling in the same direction, and as we witnessed last year, believing. Believing big. It is what led a number of them last September to state their goal wasn’t to just make the postseason, it was to win the World Series.
“A lot of teams come into spring and (say), ‘Let’s go win the World Series this year,'” said France. “Most teams, it’s not realistic, whereas last year, we felt as a group (that) we have a really good team. We started off a little slow and there was a good group of us that were on that ’21 team who kind of (did the) same thing, started off a little slow. We reminded the newer guys, ‘Hey, like, this is not going to be an issue. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to be alright.’ Sure enough, we took off. And you know, I think once those guys saw the potential that we had, the sky was the limit for us.”
It is now a large core the Mariners have. Those like Murphy who have been here from the beginning of the “stepback” understand and appreciate the level of commitment to the process, and those who were there for any part of last year know they could climb out of the crater they dug for themselves in April and May. While the outlook is bright coming off last year, Murphy cautions that it is important not to forget their foundation.
“Unfortunately, buying in usually comes from results, and that’s not what the process is about. Process is never tied in with results,” Murphy said. “But it’s a lot easier to convince somebody when you’re winning that this is the way to do things.”
Regardless, the winning validated the process and gave credentials to those involved. France believes that will go a long way in smoothing the journey in 2023. The bar has been raised and they now set out for another Mariners first.
“I think it’s very easy to just say, ‘Hey this is what we’re doing here, come along,'” France said, “but every single guy in that locker room, especially coming off last year (and) how close we were, as cool as it was to end the drought and make the playoffs, I think a lot of us had a bad taste in our mouth at the end of the season. So to come in here now, everyone has the same goal in mind, and we’re able to accomplish the same thing.”
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