M’s problems far above field level

TUESDAY, AUG. 10, 2010

When times were good in the Seattle Mariners dugout, manager Don Wakamatsu loved to invoke the bounty of “belief systems,” or what apparently was a trust in his own judgments and values – and in the abilities of his players.

Ah, but what he possibly underestimated is that baseball’s own belief system is supreme and absolute, and here it is:

The manager will always be at the mercy of a general manager covering his backside. The manager will always suffer the indignities born of chicken-scratch ownership and executive schmucks. The manager will always be scapegoated for the failures of the indulged, unaccountable millionaires in his clubhouse.

Believe in that system.

Wakamatsu’s firing Monday was the formal rendering of what was set in motion last winter, when general manager Jack Zduriencik spent all his allowance on penny candy – and, yes, Cliff Lee – and found that CEO Howard Lincoln and perpetual toady Chuck Armstrong would not advance him any more money for actual, you know, hitters.

Between the music Wak and the Mariners had made with an 85-win 2009 season and the metrics-mad media trying to glom onto a new Moneyball – defense wins! – too many pickers made Seattle the favorite to win the American League West. At that point, the hunch was it would all end badly – though no one could have predicted this badly.

So a week after proclaiming, “Certainly Don has my support,” Zduriencik demonstrated just how much by gassing him, and bench coach Ty Van Burkleo and pitching coach Rick Adair, as well.

“The truth of the matter is, I lost confidence in Don, Ty and Rick,” the GM said. “New leadership is needed and it is needed now.”

He’s right, except that it’s new leadership at the very top which is truly needed.

And so ends one of the most despicable sagas in the history of this Milquetoast organization.

Not simply the firing of the manager. The M’s have done that 10 times before in their history, and a futile gesture is obligatory in light of a record like the 42-70 stain the team had compiled prior to Monday morning. It was just a higher profile blood sacrifice than the axing of hitting coach Alan Cockrell earlier in the season – which has really paid dividends, no?

And the truth is, this team had tuned out or become openly hostile to Wakamatsu weeks before – but with the tacit endorsement of Zduriencik, Lincoln and Chucklehead.

Two episodes were telling. Zduriencik stuck his manager with a washed-up Ken Griffey Jr. as the primary DH, with no Plan B and apparently no understanding that this had to be a make-good proposition. That left it to Wakamatsu to deliver the message by finally benching Griffey – which upset the franchise icon and a number of other clubhouse grumblers. In any case, Griffey sulked and then phoned in his retirement from the highway home.

Then, of course, came the dugout dustup with Chone Figgins, who all-too-publicly challenged the manager’s authority after dogging it afield – and then was back in the lineup the next day without discipline or an apology or any public support of Wakamatsu by his bosses.

It was easy to be in Wak’s corner when the M’s were winning. But if Zduriencik was going to hire a no-name newbie – on the cheap – then he needed to have his back, all the way. When the Junior thing blew up, players smelled blood – and a way to convince themselves that their own failings were in some way related to the manager.

Wakamatsu was hardly faultless. He never took a hard line the way he did last year by calling out Felix Hernandez – turning the young pitcher’s season around. As Jose Lopez hit and ran the bases with the same focus a teenager on a cellphone possesses behind the wheel in rush hour, Wak kept trotting him out there – though for all we know, that was under orders as Zduriencik tried to “showcase” him for a trade.

There is no space to list the Full Monty of flubs Zduriencik made in stocking this Titanic, though one name – Milton Bradley – is enough to sum it up. But the GM’s firing wouldn’t have been any easier to justify.

The fact is, the Mariners – possessed of a bejeweled, revenue-producing stadium and an undemanding fan base – are on their third GM and seventh manager since 2002, with not even a sniff of a playoff appearance. But they still have the same two empty shirts at the top of the organization, and it’s impossible to conclude whether they’re clueless, indifferent or just downright contemptuous.

Possibly all three. Now that’s a belief system.

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