I distinctly remember my single favorite managerial moment in Seattle Mariners history. The date was May 27th, 2002 (OK…. I did have to Google that). Manager Lou Piniella was less than thrilled with the balls and strikes being called (they had led to three consecutive walks surrendered by Mariner pitching) and decided to have a calm and rational discussion with umpire John Shulock. In typical Lou fashion, this was a rage and spittle (my personal assumption) filled rant laced with profanities that I like to believe I would still find exotic to this day. Feeling, as we all have at some point or another, that his eloquent presentation would be enhanced by a visual aid of some sort, Lou proceeded to pile dirt on the plate, completely covering it, presumably to illustrate just how blind he thought Shulock must be. Unsurprisingly, Lou was ejected but what followed is the thing that took it over the top: catcher Dan Wilson sheepishly borrowing Shulock’s brush and cleaning the plate, silently imploring the umpire not to hold his skipper’s actions against him in future calls.
Yes, Sweet Lou had plenty of personality and had success to go with it. It is no shock that since his departure, the Mariners have been trying to fill his metaphorically Shaq-sized shoes. No replacement has lasted more than 3 seasons. Eric Wedge holds the post-Lou record with 486 games managed, a paltry sum compared to the 1,551 hit by Lou. As the season wound down, comments from the Mariner front office indicated the team was about to have their first manager to make it to a fourth year with a vote of confidence in Wedge. It was not to be. After a still head-scratching decision and explanation Wedge has left, citing a conflict with the very ownership that supported him. On Tuesday, it was announced that the next in line to attempt to fill these shoes is Lloyd McClendon.
Even with the Mariners having solidified their new manager, one thought continually nagged me. What did the Mariners have to offer potential new managers? Could they really compete for the best hires? In fact, the Mariners did lose out on one potential manager, losing out on Brad Ausmus, who the Tigers have reportedly hired after Ausmus interviewed with the Mariners.
This may sound pessimistic, but stop and think about it. There were some amazing jobs open this year which directly competed with the Mariners in the job market. The Tigers were a couple wins away from appearing in the Series. The Nationals have risen from the dregs of the league with some of the biggest young names in the sport today. The Reds were sneaky good, beginning to fulfill some of their potential in a tough division. All of these teams obviously won more games than the Mariners last season and arguably all of them have a brighter future, at least in the short term. Even the Cubs job has the allure and potential of being the manager to end the drought. Also, while the Cubs lost more games than the M’s, they also didn’t get to play the Astros 19 times and have a lot of name recognition operating in Chicago.
So what really did the Mariners have to offer? The postseason once again demonstrated the power of starting pitching and the Mariners have King Felix locked down long term, right? It’s hard to argue with the Tigers rotation top to bottom. Young, developing talent? The M’s have some but it is hard to match the potential of Strasburg and Harper. Willingness to spend money? Theo Epstein has never been shy of spending and the Cubs knew that when they hired him as GM. The M’s have a fairly large payroll and they are always in the running for big free agents but never seem to land any of them. They’ve been rumored to be in the hunt for Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton (even offering a $100 million contract) and many others but always seem to land the Jeff Cirillo’s of the world. The Mariners are the proverbial Renaissance team: potential in all these categories but masters of none. The one place they might have the edge? Lower expectations. The M’s might just be the one franchise that was hiring a manager this offseason that isn’t in a win-now mentality. On the contrary, the Mariners seem destined to be perennially a couple years away from contention. After all, the front office did give a public show of support for a manager who was 68 games under .500 after three seasons.
The hiring pattern around the league provides further reason for concern. The Mariners interviewed Ausmus and the Tigers got him instead. McLendon was announced as the M’s manager after interviewing with Detroit – only taking the Mariner job once the vacancy with the ALCS-appearing Tigers had been filled. None of this is slight against McLendon. Only time will tell if he can finish the rebuilding job that Jack Zduriencik has been working on throughout his tenure. As a fan, I, in fact, have the highest hopes for the former Pirates manager. While I don’t expect to see piles of dirt or bases thrown in the old Lou fashion, it would be my dream if the Mariners could recall some of the success from the days of Piniella.