Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Behind the meltdown

Total collapse. Complete loss of confidence. Little faith in even the idea of a bailout.

No, for a minute, we're not talking about the economy and the mess in Washington and Wall Street, but that other horrific collapse: the Seattle Mariners baseball team.

Upon revival of the M&M morning news meeting last week, regular commenter Jason assigned a story in a comment thread: "I'd like a column on how to save the Mariners and where they rank against some of the other pathetic MLB franchises."

Excellent idea, and I've been watching the local papers with an eye out for just such an analysis. No luck.

First, if you haven't followed Seattle's dismal baseball season, the Mariners set a new record for futility: Their 101 losses weren't the most ever -- the not-yet-lovable Mets of 1962 still hold that honor, with 120 -- but the M's were the first team to lose in the triple digits while also paying their players at least $100 million. Do that for 7,000 straight years and you could pay for the Wall Street bailout, but I digress.

Anyway, last week the Seattle Times seemed to promise the kind of takeout Jason suggested with a five-part series, "Rebuilding the Mariners." But what a disappointment. (The P-I, which seems to have given up on baseball coverage, didn't even attempt a meaningful season wrap-up. And U.S.S. Mariner, a blog with the best local baseball coverage, hasn't taken a comprehensive stab either.)

In the Times, instead of doing what the series title implies, breaking down the team's strengths and weaknesses and mapping some sort of route out of the woods, writer Geoff Baker burns through many expensive pages of newsprint to make some obvious points: Big contracts will make it tough to reshape the team; the Mariners don't have enough good hitters; they do have a couple of promising pitchers; the ownership group hasn't been brilliant, but it isn't going anywhere; the field manager, promoted at midseason, brought a little old-school discipline but no more success than the guy he replaced.

OK, fine. Anyone who has spent more than three innings at Safeco Field or tuned into FSN this year knows all that already. So now what? Baker doesn't get much beyond noting that that will be a big challenge for the next general manager, to be hired soon.

Baker also ruined much of his credibility as a reporter, at least in my eyes, by writing last week that the Mariners' franchise player, Ichiro Suzuki, is so disliked in the clubhouse that team meetings were convened and at least one player had to be held back from fighting him. Trouble is, Baker attributes all this to one unnamed "clubhouse insider." When the story was predictably denied Baker offered the lamest defense: "You'll just have to trust me on the anonymous source."

Trust me: Anonymous sourcing is weak, in sports no less than in politics, and hanging a story -- especially one this explosive -- on just one unnamed "insider" is unacceptable. Go back and watch "All the President's Men":

Ben Bradlee: Bernstein, are you sure on this story?
Carl Bernstein: Absolutely.
Ben Bradlee: Woodward?
Carl Bernstein: I'm sure.
Ben Bradlee: I'm not. It still seems thin.
Howard Simons: Get another source.
But back to baseball. Anybody who has seen my fantasy-team moves up close, and that includes at least three of our regular readers, knows that I'm no more qualified for drafting a Mariners blueprint than Bill Bavasi, the moronic general manager they just fired.

But I'm no less qualified either. So here's my prescription.

When faced with a massively bad team like this one, there are three basic options: Blow the team up and start over, which usually means a long, slow painful "youth movement"; try to win right away, usually by hiring a couple of genius free agents to fill holes and turn things around; try for some modified, middle-course rebuilding program.

Baseball's full of success stories employing all three strategies. I'd go here for Option 3, mostly because the M's have too many overpriced and under-contract players to pull off a full-blown, Florida Marlins-style nuke job.

My basic principles would be that, with a few exceptions, no player is off limits if a decent trade becomes possible; no jobs are guaranteed; and the rebuilding plan should emphasize pitching and defense first. I'd look to dump salary where I could, and not mislead fans with happy talk about being "competitive" this coming season.

Given that, the untouchable players on my Mariners would be promising young pitchers Felix Hernandez, Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith, along with Ichiro. Whatever Geoff Baker says about him, Ichiro is one of the few Mariners who can put fans in the seats, and at 200 hits and 100 runs scored a year for eight years (the only other player to do that was Lou Gehrig) he's no slouch on the field.

Elsewise, around the horn, I'd try to make the best of a bad situation at catcher, where the Japanese ownership insisted on a three-year, $24-million contract for the inept Kenji Johjima, by making Johjima the backup to up-and-comer Rob Johnson. Move another catcher, Jeff Clement, to first base, giving up on midseason call-up Bryan LaHair (who was an improvement over the hated Richie Sexson). Keep Jose Lopez at second and Yunieski Betancourt at shortstop, with the option of moving either of them if needed, and hang on to Adrian Beltre at third base. Expensive he may be, and somewhat disappointing at the plate, but he's a rock defensively, never misses a game and remains one of the few power threats in the lineup.

In the outfield, look to trade left fielder Raul Ibanez, even though he's the team's most productive hitter. He's got value on the trade market, which is rare on this team, and he'll be too old to be useful by the time the team is good enough to win. Move Ichiro to center, whether he likes it or not. Give Wlademir Balentien a chance to win the right field job, with Jeremy Reed, Mike Morse or open tryouts all available as backup options.

Build the rotation around Felix, Morrow and Rowland-Smith, with the other spots an open competition among Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva, the disappointing acquisitions from last winter, along with Ryan Feierabend, Jarrod Washburn, R.A. Dickey and whoever else shows up next spring with a pair of cleats and a jar of Ben-Gay. The bullpen can sort itself out from the dregs and the hungry prospects in camp.

Will the team win? No. It's pretty much the same gang of losers who have been out there all season, with the subtraction of a couple of lameos already discarded and, one would hope, the motivation that no job is safe.

As for the second part of Jason's assignment, comparing the Mariners' prospects to those of baseball's other bad teams, I presume he means his hometown nine, the Washington Nationals. I don't know much about the Nats, except that Michelle and I saw them play this year at their new stadium, along with Jason and his girlfriend. Not a great-looking team.

I do know that even in their ineptitude the Mariners are inept: Incredibly, they won the last three games of the year to finish a game and a half better than the Nationals and thus not quite the worst team in the majors. Meaning Washington and not Seattle will be rewarded with first pick in the upcoming amateur draft.

So, with the second pick, some patience and maybe a giant rescue plan from Congress, I suppose it's possible the Seattle sports pages will be worth reading again in a couple of years.

In the meantime, a final suggestion for the Mariners: Keep the hot dogs. They're pretty good.


Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Great stuff. Baseball and journalism commentary in the same article -- it's like a pretty double play.

Your point about basing an Ichiro slam around one unnamed source is right on. The only sports coverage sin that happens more frequently is the media-created locker room controversy.

Example: In my days working for the Green Bay Packers, the club opened a season with a defense that was getting picked apart thru the air. In a locker room interview session, a safety implied that it wasn't the secondary's fault and that the defensive line had to provide some help with a pass rush. What happened? The media raced over to an unsuspecting D-lineman and offered a hypothetical along the lines of: "What would you say if a guy in your secondary was blaming you for the defenses suckage." The gullible D-lineman answered as you'd suspect. Next day in the papers (three) you've got stories that make it seem like the secondary and D-line are at war. Probably sold some papers (figuratively speaking, of course). Couldn't have been more misleading.

But back to baseball. Here in the District, the Nationals are reaching a crisis point. They opened a new park this season and failed to get a considerable jup in attendance -- in part because their AAA-talent was reduced to about A-talent thanks to multiple injuries at almost every position. Thomas Boswell -- who responded to baseball returning to the District like a frat boy to a wet T-shirt contest -- wrote a column about a week ago warning that the whole Nats experiment is in danger of folding. His solution: Ownership needs to shell out some cash for some players who can play. Like now!

He's probably right. But, truth be told, my biggest pleasure of the baseball season was watching Cristian "Lasik Surgery Saved My Career" Guzman hit over .300 on a team with absolutely no help (and that's not just because I have him on my fantasy team for a buck). That's why there should be All-Stars from each team, folks. The teams I saw in person this year included the Pirates, Padres and Giants -- all of them among the worst in baseball. But I can't say I enjoyed the games any less. Then again, it's probably not a good sign when the home team ties the game in the 8th and you find yourself saying: "Man, fuck, this could go on all night. How is either team ever going to score again?"

I hope the Mariners can turn it around. I don't follow the AL, but I like the idea of pro sports in the PNW being relevant. In the meantime, on behalf of the Nats, I'll give you Austin Kearns for ... anybody.

Mark said...

Jason, thanks for the smart comments.

The Ichiro thing here felt exactly like the kind of ginned up locker-room controversy you describe from Green Bay. I empathize with the reporters on these beats -- the monotony, the access problems, the overpaid babies and giant egos -- but surely there's a way to stay focused without abandoning solid journalism. I'd like to hear from your dad on this topic. In fact a Bellamy-Bellamy discussion, from both sides of the team-media relationship, would be a fascinating read.

What's your opinion on the Nats? Free agents or home-grown rebuilding? Seems to me they could afford to rebuild slowly, or is the pressure to fill the stadium just too great?

As for Austin Kearns, the M's already dumped the one guy who would be fair trade value. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Richie.

Jason Bellamy said...

I was in an interesting position in Green Bay. I "covered" the team, but I was employed by the team -- technically a member of the PR department. So when it all came down to it, yeah, I was as fair and balanced as Fox News. But growing up with a reporter's outlook, I tried to play it down the middle 100 percent of the time. It basically meant I had to respond to stories rather than break them. It frustrated me to sit back. But at least then when it came time for the "sucky defense" story, it would be built around the head coach's quotes on the sucky defense. Meantime, my stuff remained credible. (I must have done a decent enough job playing it down the middle, considering that the then-head coach/GM questioned my "allegiance" to the club, among other things.)

I was friends with all the beat guys, and we had some good conversations when I was there. I'd challenge them on their coverage every now and then. The most popular general challenge I'd issue is this: To me, a reporter goes into a situation, looks at it and reports on it. I argued that in the need to generate sexy headlines, most reporters fancy themselves mini-Woodsteins and walk into every situation and ask: "What's wrong?"

Skepticism is a necessary tool for the reporter. But it isn't the only tool. The "What's wrong?" approach often ends up skewing reality. (There's an exchange in "All The President's Men" that's kind of related to this, about seeing a guy in a raincoat and what you can safely assume from that.) Look at the coverage of the presidential race: reporters dig and dig and dig and look for something that hasn't been found or wait for the gaffe. In that way, the media plays "gotcha" as much as the politicians do. But, underneath it all, how accurate is this gotcha crap? They lead to stories, but not The Story.

On the Nats: I think they have time to build from the bottom up. And that's what they keep saying that they're doing. But I agree with Boswell that it's time to spend some money to show the fans you want them to have some level of entertainment now. That said, I disagree with Boswell that they should sign at least one top-money pitcher. I say let the young pitching develop and take your lumps in the meantime. Instead, sign some hitters. For the average fan, offense is more entertaining, plus the guy is going to be in the lineup more than twice a week. High-priced pitchers are too risky (see: Zito, Barry or Brown, Kevin, etc). Eventually, when you're a contender, you need them. Right now it's wasted money.

Mark said...

A version of this post by someone who knows what he's talking about here.