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Thiel: Owners to blame for Mariners’ despair

Much as I would like to believe Earnest Eric Wedge and Genuine Jack Zduriencik, I cannot.

I have seen too much that has come to too little.

Not just this year. For many seasons. Wedge and Zduriencik are merely the latest workers hired to sweep out the tide of mediocrity with toothbrushes.

In the 35th anniversary non-celebration of the Mariners, the season-long rhetoric about “the plan” can’t get through the evidence of a misshapen roster and a misbegotten history. I get the part about youth and inexperience of the hitters; I get it because I see the quality veteran hitters who began, or spent time, as Mariners, carrying other teams.

Wedge and Zduriencik are competent in their jobs but they are trapped by a tired ownership that cannot escape past mistakes and won’t take future risks, who value the ballpark experience more than winning. The learning curve in Seattle is not a curve; it is flat-lined.

Evidence for the immediate dilemma is the fact that the most compelling move to bring the Mariners closer to relevance is to trade Felix Hernandez. In a story this week for, writer Tom Verducci makes a strong case that Hernandez, at 26, is at his physical and contractual apex this month, so trading him now makes for the least risk to get highest value.

But the Mariners likely will take the easy way out and avoid trading him for emotional and sentimental reasons. Yet the club isn’t going to be good this year, will be marginally better next season, and by 2014, Hernandez will be in his contract year and looking for the door, probably after having pitched more than 2,000 major league innings.

What the need to trade says about the Mariners, in light of the recent trades of other young pitchers of high potential, Doug Fister and Michael Pineda, is the only real chance to get good is to cannibalize their biggest baseball asset: young pitching. In the world of baseball personnel, there cannot be a worse plan.

Since MLB is at the All-Star Game break, when much of the focus shifts from local to national, the broader perspective provides more appalling evidence of feeble progress in Seattle relative to the rest of the game.

Since the Mariners last were in the playoffs in 2001, 14 of the 16 National League teams have made at least one playoff appearance. Four N.L. teams have won the World Series – Philadelphia, Florida, San Francisco and St. Louis twice; four American League teams also have won the Series: New York, Anaheim, Chicago and Boston twice.

In that decade, the only two N.L. teams that have not made the playoffs, Pittsburgh and Washington/Montreal, are leading their divisions right now.

Should the Pirates and Nationals hold positions into the postseason, the Mariners’ 11-year playoff drought come October will be exceeded by only three American League teams – Baltimore (most recently in the playoffs in 1997), Toronto (1993) and Kansas City (1985). And Baltimore is currently the holder, albeit tenuously, of the fifth and final A.L. spot in the newly expanded playoffs.

But even this century’s fellow unwashed waifs have history upon which to hang some dignity: Each franchise has a World Series story to tell in the time since the Mariners were born via litigation in 1977.

Toronto won World Series in 1992 and 1993. Baltimore won Series in 1966 and 1970 and lost in 1979. Kansas City lost the 1980 Series and won the 1985 Series.

Such history is probably as dog-eared in those towns as is the 1995 run to the playoffs is to Seattle fans. But it is part of the legacy, part of the hope, that keeps some fans engaged. Because it was done at least once in their towns.

The Mariners and Nationals share the dubious distinction of being the only major league teams never to have been to a World Series. And by October, the Mariners could be the last man on the curb.

It can always be argued that sports are cyclical: The Yankees went 14 years without a postseason appearance before they met the Mariners in the immortal (at least in the 206/425/253/360/509 area codes) A.L. Division Series in 1995.

But since the mid-’90s, two influences have made the cycling time shorter in baseball: greater revenue sharing and more accurate scouting.

Baseball endured seven work stoppages to get the game where it is today economically: Most teams, most of the time, have at least an occasional shot at postseason glory because more revenues are shared.

The funds are abetted by the widespread adoption of statistical analysis, begun by author Bill James in the 1970s and glorified by Oakland general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” which has removed some of the guesswork in scouting. No system is perfect, but with proper application of widely available data, teams have a better chance of finding undervalued talent, which can reduce the urge to spend wildly on the veteran free-agent market.

But neither revenue-sharing – the Mariners for years were payers, not receivers, because Seattle fans kept buying tickets – nor fresh knowledge has produced the uptick in Seattle fortunes as it has in almost every other market. In the decade since Seattle last met the Yankees in the A.L. Championship Series, longtime ne’er-do-wells such as the Marlins, Astros, Rays, Rangers, White Sox and yes, the Red Sox (no previous World Series since Fred Flintstone found the foot pedals to his car) have come to goodness.

Now the Mariners find themselves in a division with two big, successful spenders, the Rangers and Angels, who have three Series appearances between them in the Mariners’ lost decade. They are beneficiaries of lucrative new cable TV deals in their markets that allowed them to spend more than $120 million this year in player salaries. But it isn’t all about money in the A.L. West – the A’s again have the lowest payroll in baseball, but at $55 million, are again getting more bang for buck than the Mariners, who are 71/2 games back of the A’s.

And next year the A.L. West is joined by the Houston Astros, who also recently nailed a big cable deal. The conventional wisdom is that the Mariners’ turn will come in 2015, when they can opt out of their deal with Root Sports. But that’s three years away, and who can say by then that the cable market will be as lucrative? What if it is a bubble, as we’ve seen in the past decade with commercial and residential real estate, derivatives and dot-com industries? The Mariners can’t know today that the rights-fee train will still be at the station in 2015.

Wedge said recently he didn’t “drag his butt out here” to fail. I’m sure he didn’t. But those of us whose butts have been “out here” for awhile see a pattern that he doesn’t – or at least didn’t: a long-term, consistent neglect or mismanagement by an ownership apparently disengaged in the urgency to winning baseball games above all.

Besides the obvious consequence of fan disaffection – the Mariners are behind the attendance pace of a year ago, when they had an all-time Safeco low of 1.9 million – there are two other toxicities to consider: The disparagement of the franchise that makes it harder to keep or draw baseball talent here (see the Hernandez dilemma) and the increasingly agonizing travail of Ichiro Suzuki.

It’s coming to a bad end, and that’s no good. The Mariners have moved him from leadoff to third to second in the batting order, to no avail. He’s a .250 hitter (down from .272 in 2011) making $18 million. There’s nowhere to hide him or trade him, and no way to dump him because he doesn’t deserve it.

He and, apparently, his patron, majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, are obsessed with achieving career milestones, when the remaining fans are long overdue for a winner. It will be very difficult to achieve both, so the franchise is at cross-purposes with itself.

Regardless of his stats last year and a half, Ichiro has been a big competitive and financial asset to the franchise. Any ugliness attendant to his departure will hurt the Mariners and, temporarily at least, baseball’s relations with Japan.

But the worst part of it is that, typical with any team sport, well-paid stars in decline with losing franchises bear the brunt of public acrimony. Thus the same characteristics that made him an asset and cool 10 years ago are now seen as impediments. For an increasing number of fans, Ichiro is becoming a source of baseball resentment, not joy.

That is a damn shame.

But ownership created the situation, as well as many of the problems described earlier. No amount of castigation by Wedge nor manipulation by Zduriencik, two good baseball men, can change the past and, sadly for Mariners fans, can rejigger the near future.

From the 116-win team of 2001, the Mariners, baseball’s most forlorn franchise, have been on a decade-long hangover.

I’d enjoy believing Wedge and Zduriencik that the end of the despair is near. Can’t do it.

Art Thiel is a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @Art_Thiel.