Salk: Mariners fans don’t want a favor – they want a banner

Oct 4, 2023, 1:00 AM

Seattle Mariners...

Fans cheer after the final game of the 2023 Seattle Mariners season at T-Mobile Park on Oct. 1, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners fell short.

Short of their stated goal, short of their fans’ expectations, and short of the win total necessary for them to advance and play in the postseason. The 2023 season represents a step back from where this franchise found itself just one year ago. There is no way to sugarcoat that.

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The results over a grueling 162-game season let you know exactly where you stand. And this was not in anyone’s view “good enough.”

But behind it lies the nuance that lets you know what went right, what went wrong, why you are where you are, and where you need to go next. That is where it gets more interesting and where the debate really starts.

So when president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and manager Scott Servais met the media for season wrap-up Tuesday, it was clear that they had a goal: to take responsibility for the failure of the season while downplaying the scope of the issues that caused it, highlighting some of the successes and reasons for optimism moving forward.

Was it successful?

I would honestly suggest watching and listening to as much of the full press conference as you can, then making up your mind based on more than the sound bites and quotes that you will hear and read. As I said, there is a lot of nuance. But my impression was that while they stated facts and made some compelling arguments, the overall message fell flat.

I think much of what (mostly) Jerry said was based in a grounded, realistic view that can be a real asset for a decision maker like himself. That is to say, he can’t react emotionally and he needs to take a wide-angle view that considers all the information.

But to a fan frustrated that their favorite team just fell short, the underlying stats or the optimistic factoids don’t help. They don’t take solace in knowing that the team put more runners in scoring position than any other, or that they loaded the bases more often. They want the results. They want to eat the cake, not read the recipe. And if the cake tastes bad, they don’t want to hear how many of the ingredients were actually right. They want to know how you are going to alter it to make it taste better. All they want to hear is that you will identify the problems and use every available resource to solve them. Period.

So I can tell you where Jerry was right. I agree that “adding more impactful roster pieces at the start of the season so that (they) don’t go through the struggle that (they) did for the first 2 1/2 months” would help.

I can’t argue against more contact “producing more runs.” I don’t know if that’s the secret sauce, but it sure couldn’t hurt. No one is against contact.

Like Jerry, I don’t believe that “bigger payrolls (automatically) win bigger trophies.” I think there are many ways to achieve ultimate success. I don’t care how much you pay for a player – just get the best ones! If that player makes $550,000 or $550 million, it’s all fine with me as long as the team improves. Teams have shown that there are all kinds of ways to build a successful roster.

Like Scott said, I too believe “they are good.” They are a lot closer to winning now than they were a few years ago when they began this rebuild. But they aren’t yet great.

Sure, they missed the playoffs by just one win. They were within four wins of all but four teams in the league. Four games aren’t that hard to make up. But they finished between 11 and 16 games behind those four top teams, and making that up could take a little (or a lot) more work.

You’ve probably quit reading by now or you’re busy yelling at me for agreeing with some of what was said. But there is another side to this story.

While I understand Jerry’s stat that says winning 54% of games in a decade will likely produce a championship, I don’t think that is helpful to say out loud. Certainly not to a fan base suspicious that the team is content with merely being competitive. Yes, building a sustainable winner is the goal, and Jerry has done an admirable job building the foundation of a long-term winner. His drafting, international free agent signings and development system have been incredibly successful. They have turned from a messy organization at the lower levels to a solid one. That accomplishment should be celebrated more than it has been.

But 54%? No fan in any sport or any city measures success that way. None. Zero. They measure it in titles, starting with divisions and moving up to championships. It’s OK to have that metric internally because you believe hitting it will give you the best opportunity to take multiple bites at the apple. But asking anyone outside the organization to be mollified because you’ve hit a target of 54% is never going to work. We just want to know how you can get from 88 wins to 95 and then 100 because you need those outlier positive seasons to make up for the down ones.

Then we have the ringer. Jerry said, “we’re actually doing the fan base a favor in asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.”

Ooh boy. I gasped when I heard it. I would be willing to bet Jerry would take it back if he could. I’m sure in his mind he was saying that by aiming for sustainability, they are saving the franchise (and thus its fans) from cratering back into the hole that often awaits teams that go “all-in” and fall short. Those teams use up their resources and get stuck holding the bag.

But those were the wrong words, and this is the wrong fan base. This fan base has stuck with the team through too many down years to count. They stayed loyal throughout the rebuilding process, even knowing it could take longer than originally stated. They have shown up in droves and turned the park electric any time the product on the field has given them an opportunity to do so. They don’t want a favor. They want a banner.

As someone who speaks publicly for four hours every day, I can certainly relate to choosing the wrong words (e.g. wanting anyone to “burn”) or sticking my foot directly into my mouth. All you can do is take your medicine, apologize, and then take steps to let your actions speak louder than any of those words.

I believe the Mariners are at a crossroads. The moment their two stated clubhouse leaders called out the front office and demanded more help in trying to win, they were put on notice. It doesn’t matter if Cal Raleigh or J.P. Crawford are right or wrong. The leaders believe they need more talent around them, and their willingness to say it out loud puts all the pressure on management and ownership to deliver, or face losing the support of those who hold the future of the franchise in their hands.

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Fans will support the players they love over an organization that they mistrust, especially when those players are trying to get the best out of that organization. And worse, those players hold sway over their teammates and other potential additions around the league. These aren’t malcontents. They don’t predate Jerry or Scott or even the rebuild. These are respected players who go about their business the right way. These are the guys you want speaking their mind.

Left unsaid at the end of those players’ statements is an implied “or else.” I don’t know what that “or else” entails, but no one wants to find out. I do believe if those players aren’t satisfied with the efforts moving forward, they have the ability to effect change in other ways that would set the organization back even further.

I wrote earlier that actions need to speak louder than words. Ultimately, this entire (way too long) column boils down to that sentiment. It doesn’t matter what Jerry, Scott or Justin said on that podium. It doesn’t matter what they said to Cal or J.P. It doesn’t matter whether they made solid points or chose the wrong words. It doesn’t even really matter how close they were to their goal in 2023.

All that matters is what they do next. The beauty of sports is that there is a next year. This front office has another chance. This core is good. The only thing that matters is if they can make it great.

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