It was an odd end to yet another disappointing season for the Seattle Mariners. They finished the 2013 season with 91 losses – their fourth straight losing season. And in the final days of the season, manager Eric Wedge decided not to return to the organization citing a difference of philosophy.
With total attendance under 2 million for the third straight season, and ranking second-worst in the American League, the organization is far from its glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. On Tuesday, Mariners Chief Executive Officer Howard Lincoln sat down for one-on-one interviews with three news outlets – The News Tribune, the Seattle Times and MLB.com.
Here’s the transcript of my 44-minute interview with Lincoln:
You’ve had a few days now to look back, what were your thoughts on the 2013 season?
This was the most disappointing and frustrating season I’ve ever endured without any question.
Worse than 2008?
Yeah, really. I don’t judge it just by wins and losses. And the reason I say that, at spring training our expectations were very high. And I think that was justified. You were there. This looked really good. I didn’t expect we were going to go to the World Series, but I thought we were going to be very, very competitive. And things looked really good. I’m really disappointed and frustrated of what happened in the season, given the fact that these expectations on our part, on my part were so high.
Having said that, I feel good about some of the things that did happen during the season. I liked the young talent we brought up. If I go around the infield (Kyle) Seager, (Brad) Miller, (Nick) Franklin, (Justin) Smoak, (Mike) Zunino – I think that’s our future. As I look at the starting pitching, not only Felix (Hernandez), but (Hisashi) Iwakuma had a fabulous year. And we’ve got guys like (James) Paxton, Taijuan Walker and (Brandon) Maurer and (Erasmo) Ramirez – we’ve got a solid foundation there. So I think I’m very optimistic about the future. I think there were some good things. For one thing, I just realized today that we hit more home runs than any other team in the league except Baltimore. That’s unbelievable. I actually had to check that statistic.
So I was very disappointed, probably more disappointed than any season that I’ve gone through, but there were good things that happened. And I think our fans see that too. They see that young talent and we just have to be – patient is not a good word because our fans have been more than patient – but we certainly have to stay the course. We have to work with this young talent and develop it. So that’s where I am at.
Do you have faith in this plan, right now, the way it is?
Yeah, I do. When we hired Jack Zduriencik, we hired him primarily as a talent evaluator. He did not have any experience as a general manager, so he’s had to learn on the job. But as a talent evaluator, I think he’s done a superb job in the area of scouting, both professional and amateur scouting, there were a lot of changes there for the good. He’s done an excellent job in the amateur draft and the international draft and when I say that, you have to rate the first round picks but the subsequent rounds. I think he’s done a really good job reorganizing and strengthening the player development side of this operation and that’s a huge, huge component. We have 250 baseball players that are employees, 25 of which are at the major league level. So that’s good.
I think he’s done a fair job, OK job in the composition of the major league roster. I think he’s made his share of mistakes, but no general manager bats 1.000. I think he learns from his mistakes, which is positive. I think you have to be fair when you recognize general managers are going to make mistakes. And even decisions that are not mistakes turn out to be bad because the player gets injured, or the player doesn’t perform up to expectations, based on history and whatnot. So overall, I continue to have confidence in Jack going forward. And that is the test of whether Jack will stay here?
With you regards to Jack and the one-year extension, if you have faith in the plan, why not three years? Why just one?
Contract extensions are a distraction. They are a distraction for the fans, for the media, for everyone. I don’t care what contract extensions are, whether they are one year, three years or five years, because at the end of the day, you can have a contract extension, and if you aren’t performing, we are going to let you go and we’ll eat that contract. I think focusing on these contract extensions and their terms misses the point. The point is, “do you have confidence in this employee? And if you do, then he remains an employee. If you don’t, he is not an employee, regardless of what his contract says.”
How frustrating was this last week with Eric Wedge deciding to leave and the perception of having a manager quit on you?
I don’t think frustration is a good word. I think disappointment and surprise. Surprise because of what Eric told me when we met in my office in September. Disappointing because I fully expected, as did Jack and Chuck, that we would fully be able to resolve these issues and retain Eric going forward. Eric’s moved on to greener pastures and that didn’t have to happen. But I do believe that the process we used was the correct process and Eric put the cart before the horse. We can’t have a contract extension until we have a talk about how things have gone. It’s a simple as that.
Where do you think this organization is at right now?
I think we’ve got really an outstanding front office. Let’s separate baseball out. All of the other parts of the organization are running at full speed and doing a great job. Our front office employees are great. Our day of game staff provides a level of customer service at Safeco Field that beats any team in major league baseball. We get letters and emails from fans about their experience at Safeco Field. And uniformly, the customer service level is off the charts. So I’m very happy about that. I’m very pleased with how we’ve gotten into this regional sports network. That’s going very well. The baseball side of the business, as I’ve said, is in I think good hands with Jack and I think he’s done a really good job in scouting and player development. I have confidence in him going forward in terms of setting up the major league roster. Certainly, the young talent is coming up or is already up. I’m very confident about the organization going forward. I think it’s regarded in major league baseball as a really good organization. And I think if you were to ask Bud Selig, he would tell you that. So that’s how I feel
The attendance for this season is up about 40,000 people from 2012, but this is the third year you have less than 2 million fans. What are your thoughts of where you are at?
The attendance is a reflection of the losing seasons. I’m a fan as well as the Mariners CEO. I think of this the same way of other fans do – ‘Why can’t these guys start winning?’ That’s reality. As you said, the attendance is up a little bit from 2012 to 2013 and our television ratings were actually higher this year than they were last year, but I’m cognizant as a fan of the frustrations of our fans out there and the need to get this going in a different direction. But I do have confidence that the program Jack is working on is going to work. It’s simply taking a lot more time than I ever thought when I sat down with Jack the day we hired him.
How do you sell this team to fans? If two fans were standing here right now and asked, ‘Why should we spend our money to go see your product?’ What do you tell them?
First I’d tell them that when you get to Safeco Field you are going to have a safe, friendly environment. You are going to be sitting in a first class ballpark. You are going to get great entertainment. It’s a great place to come whether it’s at the Pen or at Edgar’s or wherever. So there’s a lot of things going on at Safeco Field for the fans to enjoy besides watching major league baseball. And I would point that out to them. Many of our fans are thinking about things other than just what’s on the field, so we have to provide a really good entertainment experience across the board as well as getting that major league team to perform.
The second thing I’d tell them is that you are looking at talent that we have brought up. Young talent that we are going to control for many years. And we are going to grow this talent and you are going to watch it grow.
The third thing I’d tell them is you are having the opportunity to see an individual who is one of the best pitchers in baseball today, and is historically going to go down as one of the great pitchers of all time in Felix Hernandez. And that our ownership group by investing that $175 million made sure that a great pitcher is here for the duration. So I would tell them those things. And then I would tell them, as a fan, I feel their frustration. I feel how upset they are. I get it. I get it in spades. My neighbors are fans I hear it from them. My fishing buddies are fans. I hear it from them. That’s all I heard on that trip to Alaska. ‘Why don’t you fix this? Why don’t you fix that?’ It’s kind of a little joke because I think they actually support me. I do hear what the fans are saying and if they were sitting across from me, that’s what I’d say.
Do you ever worry that the fans might not come back? We’ve seen it in Cleveland. And while Cleveland is a different economic market, do you worry they won’t come back with winning?
I think we are in a different situation than in Cleveland. Over half of our fans come from outside of King County. And with that roof, this is a regional place to come. I think that when we start seeing wins and winning seasons, yeah there could be some delay, but I don’t think it would be anything like Cleveland. I really don’t. I think our fans are really ready to jump back on board once we can get this young talent to start winning baseball games.
There’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot – public trust – in terms of what a pro sports franchise is doing. Do you believe you have the public trust? Do you believe it’s been diminished at all?
Let’s go back to 1992 when the Mariners were about to head to Florida. This ownership group, which is the same ownership group, other than John Stanton coming in a little bit later and buying John McCaw’s interests and Mr. Yamauchi transferring his interest to Nintendo of America – it’s the same ownership group, if not for the fact that they stepped up, the Mariners would not be here and we would not be having this conversation. It’s the same ownership group going forward. There really haven’t been any changes. There’s a stable ownership group that is committed to keeping major league baseball here in the Pacific Northwest for the foreseeable future. That is entitled to a lot of credibility.
We are going to have situations where the team has losing seasons as well as winning seasons. But whether they are losing seasons or winning seasons, this ownership group is going to provide the stability to make sure major league baseball survives here and flourishes.
So I think that while fans are frustrated by losing and certainly while our credibility no doubt has suffered, I think if fans will step back and say, wait a second what did these people do, they kept it here so that we could enjoy major league baseball, our kids could enjoy major league baseball and our grandkids can enjoy major league baseball. And that’s entitled to a lot credibility, forgetting about the losses for just a moment.
It’s been brought up before, you famously told a reporter that you put yourself on “the hot seat” when things aren’t going right.
I actually didn’t do that. I went down on the field – and this was some years ago – and there was kind of a media scrum and I happened to say, something like ‘so and so is on the hot seat and I’m on the hot seat.’ And then I thought to myself, ‘should I have said that?’ And I realized that I might have put my foot in it. If I had it to do over again, I might have come up with some different expression. Certainly do I perceive that I’m on the hot seat and Jack’s on the hot seat and Chuck’s on the hot seat, we are all on the hot seat. In hindsight, I wish I’d used a different expression because it’s come back to haunt me.
Using a cliché, the buck stops with you. You are the CEO. People are wondering in this run of losing and this negative perception, who do you answer to?
I answer to Nintendo of America – the majority owner, which is wholly owned by Nintendo Company Limited of Japan. If Mr. Yamauchi, Mr. Iwada or Mr. Kimashima didn’t have confidence in me I wouldn’t be here. I answer to the board of directors of Seattle Baseball Inc., the managing general partner of baseball of Seattle L.P. – limited partnership. If that board didn’t have confidence in me going forward, I wouldn’t be here. If any of our members of our ownership group, or a sizable a group of our owners, didn’t have confidence in me going forward, I wouldn’t be here. But right now, I retain that confidence.
The times we’ve talked, you’ve seemed very confident that you are the person to lead this organization back to where it once was. Why do you believe that you are the man to lead this group?
I’ve been very successful in everything that I’ve done in my life. I’ve enjoyed great success certainly at Nintendo and in the home video game business. And this has been a humbling experience for me. In the first two years that I was CEO we went to the American League Championship and we’ve had other winning seasons. But these last few years have been a very humbling experience. And I know that my legacy is going to be determined by how this team ultimately comes out under my leadership. And I am determined to get this thing turned around.
You and Chuck have been the constant in most of this losing run, do you believe you are perceived fairly, or unfairly, by not just the media, the fans and the local community.
Oh you know, when you have losing seasons, someone has to be the target. That’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think that it’s unfair or unjust. I recognize when you are in a position like this – any major league CEO – where you have losing seasons is going to be rightfully the target. Somebody has to be the target. That just comes with the territory. If you don’t have a thick skin, you shouldn’t be doing this. But I think, in fairness, my record of service in this community is pretty well known. And I’m hopeful that fans, while they may be disappointed in how the team has performed, will understand that I have made huge commitments over many years to making our community a better place to live.
Does it bother when people accuse this organization of simply trying to make money and not caring about wins?
None of our owners when we got into this back in 92, got into it with the idea that the objective was to make money. Certainly the value of the franchise has gone up. All major league baseball franchise’s value has gone up. When this group was assembled, the primary objective was to do whatever was necessary to keep major league baseball in Seattle for the foreseeable future and that’s why we pushed so hard for Safeco Field. And everything that we’ve done over the years has been with that objective in mind.
The second objective has been if we can make a little bit of money, that’s fine. But if we lose a little bit of money, that’s fine too. We’re not in the business to make money. Some years we have losing seasons and we make money. Some years we have a winning season we may lose money. But the overriding objective is not to make money it’s to have winning baseball teams. That’s what all of these owners want. These owners hear the same things I’m hearing from their neighbors too, ‘What the heck is going on? Why can’t you get this thing going in the right direction?’ So we are all cognizant of that. This idea that we are only interested in making money is pure nonsense.
As far as money, there was a time when you reduced payroll. You have a $100 million payroll in 2008 – that money wasn’t probably spent ideally. People wonder what the payroll is going to be here. There is a fear amongst fans that payroll may go down, but where will it be?
We don’t know what the payroll will be for 2014. Jack is still working on his needs and we are at least a month away before we make that decision. Last year our payroll was a little over $91 million which is not chump change. But as you said, we’ve had instances where were up to $110 million and we had a losing season. At that point, clearly we didn’t spend our money wisely. It is true that with all of this young talent, some of your major commitments are coming off the books so Jack will have a lot more flexibility. But I can’t tell you what that payroll is yet, and I can’t tell you where it’s going to end up because I haven’t heard from Jack.
Not many people, myself included, completely understand how adding your own regional sports network will benefit your payroll exactly. There is the thought that money is going to be flowing in. How much will it help your payroll?
Over the period of the rights fee that we get from Root Sports, which goes from now through 2030, over that period, that money, plus the cash flow that we receive from our majority ownership Root Sports, over the lifetime from now till 2030 it will be comparable to the cash flow and the rights fees that the Angels and Rangers get, even though they are in larger television markets. So we’ve negotiated a very good deal. But the money isn’t going to fall out of the sky in 2014.
The Mariners have invested millions and millions of dollars in order to obtain that majority interest and control of that regional sports network. Nothing is going to happen in 2014, but certainly over the lifetime of our rights agreement there will be cash flowing from that RSN that can be used.
Is the bulk of that portion of cash going to your on-field product?
At this point, we got into this with the idea that this would enable us to supplement not only our major league payroll, but the other things we spend money on. I think the fans need to understand we’re not just spending money on major league player payroll. Right now, we are building a new academy in the Dominican Republic, that’s not free. Right now we are in the process of building a new facility down in Peoria, our spring training facility. Last season we put in one of the most expensive scoreboards, largest scoreboard in baseball. That was not inexpensive. The point is we continue to spend a lot of money on a lot of things to make Safeco Field better, a lot of money to make our player development, our scouting and all aspects of our business better in addition to major league player payroll.
There’s been a fair amount of turnover in your upper level baseball staff and player development – scouts, assistants, coordinators – do you think that is typical? Or is there a disconnect between Jack and people who work for him?
I think it’s very typical. I think if you were to go to other major league teams, I think you’d see there is significant turnover of scouts and player development personnel. That’s not unusual. I can’t give you a scientific answer, but that’s my gut feel. I don’t think anything unusual has happened here.
You guys were a huge player in the international market in Japan, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. You haven’t seemed to be as active. Has it changed because of MLB changes, or philosophical changes?
It just kind of goes up and down. The last Japanese player we got, again, came from Mr. Yamauchi.
Mr. Yamauchi is the guy that said I’d like to have Ichiro play for you. I’d like to have Sasaki play for you. And by the way, check this guy Iwakuma out. If we can get this guy at a reasonable price, I think he can help your team. So the late Mr. Yamauchi is batting 1.000. It goes up and down, some years we spend more money in Latin America or in the international draft than we do in others. But we are very active in the international draft, and we have scouts all over the world – as do other major league teams.
This has been mentioned often and it irked you the last time we talked, but the reports of the franchise being sold or that Nintendo of America selling its shares have surfaced again, is that a possibility?
After Mr. Yamauchi passed way, I double checked with the executives in Kyoto – Mr. Iwada and Mr. Kimashima – before I publicly stated that ‘at the present time Nintendo doesn’t have any plans to sell its majority interest in the Mariners.’ And that is the case. Right now, quite frankly, Nintendo is very busy in the whole video game business with the transition from new hardware systems from Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo. This is not something they are focusing on right now, let’s put it that way.
Is there a reason why Nintendo of America would want to get out of the baseball business, short of being a financial burden on the company?
I can’t predict the future. But I can tell you, certainly the typical reasons why – for example, we need cash. That’s not the case. Nintendo has plenty of cash. I think that Nintendo looks at this as a very good investment and all of that. But I think they also look at it as giving back something to the community. Nintendo of America is community minded. At this point in time, there are no plans. But I can’t predict the future, no one can.
You’ve talked about the plan you have in place for the major league product and getting it back to a winning level and meeting expectations, how close do you think that plan is to being realized and what things do you need to do to make that happen?
I thought we were a lot closer.
Was it a step back?
I do. I do think that. I thought we were a lot closer coming out of spring training. I do think as I’ve said, I was disappointed with how the season went. It’s a step back because, yeah we lost more games this year than we did last year – maybe four or something like that, but still we lost more. But I think we are closer than many of us may even realize given the young talent that we have and the experience that they’ve had on the field this past season. We’ve got a lot of good young talent that’s ready there. If Jack can make wise decisions on supplementing that young talent with free agent signings, then I think we are going to be in pretty good shape.
There is the idea of rebuilding with young players and there is the idea of building through the free-agent market, where do you think you are in that regard?
The plan that Jack put together, his program, was to develop that young talent, focus on the draft, focus on player development, focus on getting that young talent up and then supplementing it with free agents. Quite frankly, I think that’s the best plan. But most teams have that plan. We are not unique. Many of the mid-market teams, for good reason, have that as their plan. The difference is talent evaluation. The difference is actually executing on that plan. And it’s harder than people may realize. Everybody can say, ‘oh we are just going to go out and make good drafts.’ That’s tough to do. Or say, ‘We can get better player development people,’ that’s hard to do, too.
I have great confidence in what Jack is doing. I think it would be a mistake. I think Eric would be the first person to say that it would be a mistake to get off that plan. At this point, I don’t think that makes any sense.
People felt like there was a level of secrecy with Jack’s extension, and the contract issues with Eric. People want transparency, and you aren’t a public institution, but these are two of your most public employees. And while you have your policy about not discussing contracts, should it be different for them?
I don’t think it should be different. I don’t think they are public employees. I think they are high profile employees. But I think that in terms of a contract of a general manager or a field manager, it is a private matter between an employer and employee. Now some people don’t believe that, some people have a different view, some teams have a different view. That happens to be our view.
The other reason for trying to keep this private is that it’s such a tremendous distraction. It makes it more difficult for them to do their job and it becomes a distraction. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s Jack or Eric or any employee of the Mariners, the issue isn’t the term of the contract, the issue is do I have confidence in them. If I do, they remain Mariners’ employees. If I don’t, they don’t remain Mariners’ employees, regardless of what the terms of their contract. That’s reality. I realize that there all sorts of different points of view. We could take a different point of view. But that happens to be my view and the organization’s view.
So when people say you are trying to hide things?
We are as transparent of an organization as we possibly can be. That’s one of the things we have to be, whether it’s player injures or player trades or this or that. We have a large staff in our baseball information department and we try to get all of the information out that we can. We aren’t trying to hide anything. But when it comes to contracts between employees, we think that’s a private matter. We recognize many fans don’t see it that way, but that’s how we see it.
We are only two days after the seasons is over with, but what are your expectations for this upcoming season?
I think one of the things that Jack said when he addressed all of the players the day before the last day of the season was: get out of your minds that you are young, that you are just kids, that you are youngsters, and get into your heads that you are major league players. You’ve had experience on the field so let’s get with it. I don’t want to hear that we are too young to make it, or that the season is too long or this or that.
I thought his comments were very appropriate. These young players have had experience on the field, now they have to take the next step. And that’s the expectation that we have. We’ve got a fine group of young players and we’ve got more coming up. But the ones that we have at the major league level are going to have to execute.
What is that next step?
They have to win. They’ve got to win.
If that’s not achieved?
Well, I could say I was going to shoot myself in the foot. But I just have to have confidence that our people and our players will be able to do that.
When I look at guys … it’s funny, I will give you an example, when we were at spring training we saw Miller for the first time, and we were all saying, ‘man, that kid is going to be a great addition to our major league club,’ and we were right. There’s a lot of talent there whether it’s Seager or Miller or Franklin or Smoak or particularly Zunino – he’s going to be another Dan Wilson. You can see it coming. And the fans are going to love to watch that. So there’s a lot of good things at the Mariners besides the disappointment of the losing season.
Do you think those players need help? You added Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales this year, but do you think you need to supplement the major league roster with more formidable talent.
Sure, we’ll have to supplement it. That’s part of the plan. It’s not just young talent period. It’s young talent plus additions. The key in this offseason is to make sure that what we supplement it with works. There were some veteran players we had – without naming names – this past season where it didn’t work.
Adding that supplemental talent costs money. In a market that gets overinflated more and more, are you confident that you can spend the money needed. You were all-in with Josh Hamilton last year, are you confident you can do something similar money-wise this year?
If we had to do it, we could do it. When we’ve seen the need to spend money, we’ve done it – when it makes sense. It certainly made sense with Felix Hernandez. But I think you have to go into those kind of things with great care. If Arte Moreno had his choice, he’d probably be saying I wish Josh had signed with the Mariners. That’s the nature of this business, of this game.
Does that give you any more trepidation heading into this offseason after seeing that?
You never know what’s going to happen next year. Pujols and Hamilton could be tied for the batting championship next year, you just don’t know. That’s what makes this such a crapshoot, you don’t know what kind of performance you are going to see. You don’t know if key players are going to be injured. When he signed Pujols, I don’t think he was thinking Pujols would have the injuries he’s had. When he signed Hamilton, I don’t think he was thinking he’d have a sub-par season. That’s what happens in this game.
Five years from now, where do you see yourself and where do you see this organization?
I’m not so sure where I’m going to be five years from now. Hopefully, I will continue to have good health and all of that. Let’s not worry about me. Let’s think about where the team will be. I think in five years, and hopefully a lot sooner than that, we will have winning seasons. That’s my great hope. That’s really what I’m focused on. I know that may not resonate well with some fans. They can’t be patient forever. But that’s how I feel.
When you say winning seasons, do you mean postseason berths as well?
Sure, but first we’ve got to have a winning season. If we have a winning season, given the second wild card, we always have a chance to get in the playoffs and you never know what happens then. Think back to 2000, we made it by the skin of our teeth and we went into Chicago and we won. Before you knew it, we were in the American League Championship playoffs. I will give you another example. Lou Piniella in 2001 had some real concerns about how his team was going to do. I think the world of Lou. I think he’s a great guy, a great manager, just an all-around neat guy that I’ve always enjoyed being around, but neither of us could predict that we were going to win 116 games. And who knows what would have happened if 9-11 hadn’t occurred, who knows.
Does it concern you that when you reference those moments it was in 2000 and 2001 and it’s now 2013?
Sure, I can count.
We didn’t hear much for you this season. Although we didn’t really request many interviews either, but when things were going wrong this season and then with last week’s issues, did you feel that you needed to be out there in front talking to the media?
Jack’s running the baseball side of this business. Jack is the one that should be out there speaking with the media, dealing with the media on a daily basis. I think it is sometimes counter productive for Chuck or for me to be out there. So I’ve deliberately tried to pull back. Not that I’m avoiding interviews because we are talking today. The timing of when that takes place, the number of interviews I give, I want to make sure that everyone understands that Jack is running the baseball side of this business and he is. Now obviously, when we start talking about huge financial commitments, I get involved. But on a day-to-day basis, this is Jack’s. If it is Jack’s, then he should be talking to the media.
So Jack has autonomy other than for the huge financial commitments?
He’s running it.
There is some thought that there is interference from you or Chuck on baseball decisions.
No, that’s not what’s happening. Jack’s running it. Jack’s making the decisions on the baseball side. We are certainly supportive and I want to be as supportive as I can and Chuck feels the same way. But at the end of the day, he’s making the day-to-day decisions. But when we get to the major decisions, like in any organization, they filter up to the top. Jack knows when to check in and when he can make decisions without checking in.