If the Seattle Mariners are successful in their effort to land their first post-season role in more than a decade, it will fulfill a key wish of Kevin Mather, the team's first-year president and COO, who says "we'd sure like to reward our fans with a playoff opportunity."
(Photo Ben Van Houten, Seattle Mariners)
Mather came to his new role, when named last February to replace long-time president and COO Chuck Armstrong, with a conviction on how the Mariners would build a winner and of the need to reward the fans who he said "have been outstanding, patient and loyal" over all the down years.
But while the playoff hopes remain yet unresolved, most of the developments for the Mariners during Mather's first year, some things under his control and some beyond, have come up as positives rather than the negatives that have dogged the team for a dozen years.
In fact, if the Mariners make it to the post season, it will be the first such appearance since 2001, a draught that drained the support of fans who, during the season of that last playoff run outdrew every major-league team with a per-game attendance averaging 43,302.
Mather reviewed the year and fielded questions during a breakfast interview we had last week at the Columbia Tower Club, the same day that the Mariners were singled out, with an article in the New York Times, to be acknowledged broadly for the club's pre-eminent role in an area more important than on-field performance.
As the cries of anger echoed across the NFL and beyond over the assault recorded on video by Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice as he punched his wife senseless in an elevator, the Mariners were singled out for their 17-year partnership with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV).
It was in 1997 that the Mariners started a public education campaign, "Refuse to Abuse," after the WSCADV reached out to team executives in the hope of engaging and educating the team's fans through media advertising in an annual campaign to foster more safe and healthy relationships.
The relationship, noteworthy among all pro sports teams, has continued since then, with the highlight of the annual fund-raising campaign for the coalition being a 5k run carried out entirely in, out and around Safeco Field.
"The coalition has been a great partner for us," Mather said of the domestic-violence awareness group, then added, "baseball is frankly held to a higher standard. We have zero tolerance for domestic violence."
That partnership began a year after Mather joined the Mariners as the Vice President of Finance and Administration. He was promoted to Executive Vice President of Finance and Ballpark Operations in 1999.
Prior to the Mariners, Mather, a CPA by profession, worked for the Minnesota Twins from 1989 to 1996 as director and vice president of finance.
It was in his role with the Twins that he first came to the attention of the Mariners when he was selected to represent baseball's small market in the landmark revenue-sharing plan. It was a process in which markets self-selected themselves as small, medium or large markets,
As Mather recalls it: "Baseball had become a sport in which 25 teams had no chance to win, so the goal was to make every team competitive."
So in 1992, the then-new baseball commissioner Bud Selig began negotiations to create a sharing of revenue that would involve taking money away from some teams that made a lot of money and give it to teams that didn't make a lot.
It was Mather's job to represent the small-market teams, which included the Mariners, then just being saved for Seattle by a new ownership team headed by John Ellis, CEO of the new Mariners. Mather smiled as he recalled that the small-market group he represented began with five teams and others kept opting in as they liked the way he was negotiating, until the commissioner called as halt at about a dozen small markets
Mather remembers an example of not every team with a lot of money wanting to share.
"George Steinbrenner (the late owner of the New York Yankees) said to Ellis, 'you mean I am going to spend millions of dollars for this sad-case baseball team in the Northwest? We should buy you and put you out of your misery.'"
"John looked at me for a response and I didn't have one," Mather joked to the breakfast audience.
I asked him how the Mariners had done, assuming that some years they had been on the receiving end of the sharing, but he said the team has basically been a payer, to the tune of $20 million to $22 million a year ever, ever since the plan went into effect in 1995.
So when the Mariners needed to go looking for a CFO, they knew where to look, and while thereafter Mather was in Seattle through the glory days when the Mariners were virtually among the best teams in baseball, he's suffered with the fans through the down years as attendance slipped the past three years to 500,000 below the MLB average attendance.
Mather takes pleasure in noting that attendance this year will be above two million after three years below that mark.
And he freely attributes part of the return of the fans to another of those areas beyond his control. That's the impact the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks have had on Seattle sports fans, saying "there's no doubt that the Seahawks have had a positive impact on fan support for all professional sports, including the Mariners."
But within Mather's control is his conviction that the long-term view will guide decisions on players and building the roster, convinced that the position players now in development in the minors represent stars of the future for the Mariners. "They are the key to our winning 95 games a year in a few years"
And he credits General Manager Jack Zduriencik, who last month got a long-term contract extension, with positioning the franchise "to be a contender for many years to come."
Jack has never been a short-term thinker," says Mather, whose philosophy is "it's easier to fill a hole in free agency than with trades, because you just give up money in free-agency deals but trades require you to give up players."
Mather says that one goal he outlined when he met with the ownership team for the first time after assuming the new post, was "to still be playing meaningful games into September." That goal has been achieved, and "meaningful games" may still include the post-season.