Begrudgingly wrapping up the Mariners season

Oct 6, 2010, 7:17 AM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:52 pm

By Mike Salk

I know it’s sort of my job to write something wrapping up this Mariners season, but to tell you the truth, I’ve been avoiding it because I really don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to relive all the disappointment nor do I want to revisit the turmoil.

You know what happened as well as I do and you don’t need me to refresh your (bad) memory. You remember how excited you were to “Believe Big” and how quickly that plan was dashed. You likely bought in to the 2010 Mariners and were disappointed by the result. So while I won’t go through each of the divisive incidents this year, I’ll try to offer a few (somewhat connected) thoughts.

1. This season, amazingly, started to go off the tracks even earlier than we might have thought. So much has been made of the Chone Figgins/Don Wakamatsu fight and Sleepgate and Milton Bradley bailing on his teammates, but those incidents were primarily effects rather than causes of the problems. From talking to people on and around the team, I think Wak’s problems started in the sixth game of the season. His team had dropped four straight after winning the opener and they were on he verge of being swept in Texas. Clearly, the team was either struggling with the high expectations or learning that they didn’t have enough talent. Heck, maybe they just all started off cold at the same time. But trailing the Rangers in the ninth inning, Wakamatsu decided to pinch hit for Figgins with a man on base.

2011578179Yes, the move is defensible. The pinch hitter, after all, was Ken Griffey Jr. and the situation called for a run producer rather than an on-base percentage maven. Even more, it paid off as Junior got a hit and the Mariners came back to win.

But, in retrospect, it was the wrong move. Baseball managers, like economists and parents, need to balance their short term decisions with the long term goals. They oversee a 162-game marathon where most games in and of themselves are meaningless. For example, they often have to withstand the urge to use their best reliever in every important spot because they don’t want to risk his effectiveness later. They often have to give position players a day off to keep them fresh for the long haul. And they sometimes pull their starting pitchers before they’re done with the same thought in mind.

And in the case of Figgins, keeping him happy was more important than winning that game. I’ve been critical of Figgins throughout this season, and I still believe he comported himself in a manner that would cause me to start looking for his next home if I were in charge. But Wak knew that his second baseman had just signed a shiny, new $36 million deal and was feeling (rightly) entitled. To lift him in just the first week of the season was a panic move and it sent the wrong message to the team.

Do I think Figgins should have handled it differently? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean Wak handled it correctly either.

Figgins clearly never forgot that moment. He referenced it months later when he was dropped to the ninth spot in the order and it very well may have been on his mind when he and Wak had to be separated in the dugout. Wak may have been right in that first week in Texas, but by losing the faith of a core member of his team, he showed that he was also wrong.

The team never really recovered from that first road trip. Maybe it was because they didn’t have enough talent to rebound. Maybe it was bad luck. But I suspect they took a cue from their manager that day. I think the message they received was: we can’t afford to lose a few games early. And while that message may sit well with fans who want their team to try to be 162-0, it doesn’t work for professional baseball players who deal with the reality of the game on a daily basis.

2. By now you’ve probably read the letter sent to fans by Howard Lincoln and Jack Zduriencik. Not surprisingly, my first reaction was cynical. Like the great orator Jim Mora once said, it seemed like “what losers do!”

I think my initial reaction was wrong.

No, letters like that aren’t often written by winning front offices. Right now, the Mariners don’t have a winner. And like they say in one of the twelve steps (I think), the first step to change is admitting you have a problem.

Over the past decade since the 116-win season, the Mariners have never admitted to having a problem. They’ve never truly rebuilt. They’ve incorrectly reasoned that they were just a veteran or two away from contention and each corresponding move has set them back further from their goal of a World Series. They’ve consistently sacrificed either the budget or the future prospects for the sake of a lost cause and they paid the price for those moves.

“Will it take some time? Yes,” wrote Lincoln. “Do you have the patience to see this through with us? I hope so. Our number one goal remains to bring championship baseball to Safeco Field. I’m sure we’ll get there.”

That tells me he understands that this takes time. I see this letter not as a typical PR stunt where a team makes promises it can’t keep, but more of the start of a campaign to explain to people that sometimes taking a step back can help you take two steps forward. It looks like the beginning of a message that 2011 may not be a winning season but that the front office is committing to the youth, the organization and the man (Zduriencik) that is building a long-term winner.

Finally, I guess these two thoughts are more connected than you might think. They both relate to idea of balancing short term gratification with long term success. I think Wakamatsu made the same mistake the organization has been making for too long: trying to win the game instead of the season. That tactic has never worked in Seattle. But maybe for the first time, someone at the top recognizes it and has a new strategy instead.

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