Eric Wedge sat simmering in a Safeco Field conference room as the Mariners manager’s bosses laid into him.
It was 14 months ago, two days after the 2012 season, and Mariners president Chuck Armstrong unleashed what Wedge calls “a ferocious, venom-filled tirade” about the team, coaches and players.
Armstrong told him the club “sickened” him and was “disgusting” and “disturbing,” while Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln agreed and added choice barbs of his own.
Wedge said general manager Jack Zduriencik had assured him earlier that the duo was pleased with the 75-87 team, winners of eight more games than in 2011 and 14 more than in 2010.
Now, he felt blindsided and let down by Zduriencik. He waited until Lincoln was done, then, unable to hold back, let them know how he felt.
“It got real heated,” Wedge said. “I started fighting back with Chuck and Howard and it got loud.”
Wedge chided them for their dugout meddling, poor leadership and lack of faith in struggling young players. He argued the Mariners had revamped their foundation and won more despite a roster full of rookies, millions in payroll cuts and an upper management that never fully bought into its own rebuilding plan.
He said he told them: “All I’ve done is exactly what I said I was going to do and all you’ve done is the exact opposite.”
Things got so heated, Lincoln walked out.
“I think,” Wedge said, “that was the beginning of the end.”
Just more than a year later, the Mariners have lost another 91 games and hired Lloyd McClendon as Zduriencik’s third manager, the team’s seventh since 2007.
They are trying – rather desperately, some have suggested – to counter a wave of negative public perception after years of losing, turnover, turmoil and reluctance to raise their payroll beyond the $100 million mark of previous seasons.
The team now has opened its pocketbook for a 10-year, $240 million deal with free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano and heads to the annual baseball winter meetings in Orlando this week hoping for additional deals to make them relevant again.
But for Wedge and others no longer with the team, the dramatic financial splash comes too late. It also doesn’t change problems at the very top of the organization – problems they say got the team to this point in the first place.
Wedge left at season’s end, fleeing what he describes as “total dysfunction and a lack of leadership.”
The sentiment is echoed by current and past Mariners baseball operations employees beyond Wedge, who has remained silent since leaving and only reluctantly agreed to talk.
More than two dozen people who spoke to the Times say any manager – and the players under him – will fall short of success without a halt to ongoing interference from Lincoln and whomever succeeds Armstrong, who will retire Jan. 31.
The sources also raised serious doubts about the GM tasked with reversing years of futility in one offseason, saying Zduriencik has kept his job only because Lincoln and Armstrong won’t admit another critical hiring mistake. The sources question Zduriencik’s credentials to properly build a roster, saying he sold Lincoln and Armstrong on hiring him five years ago with a job application package prepared not by him, but by recently dismissed Mariners special assistant Tony Blengino.
Lincoln, Armstrong and Zduriencik were invited to respond to these accusations. Armstrong declined. Lincoln and Zduriencik issued general responses.
“Eric has mischaracterized much of what occurred over the past three baseball seasons,” Lincoln said of Wedge. “I am not going to try to recite private conversations from the past.”
Zduriencik declined to address specifics raised by Wedge and former team officials.
“I am aware of some of the comments of former members of our baseball operations group, and I find them unjust, misleading and one-sided,” Zduriencik said. “I don’t believe the airing of ‘dirty laundry’ should take place in the public arena, so I am not going to talk about internal meetings, daily conversations and personnel decisions.”
One of those speaking out is Blengino, the former No. 2 in Zduriencik’s front office. Blengino, who was working for the Milwaukee Brewers with Zduriencik at the time, said he authored virtually the entire job application package Zduriencik gave the Mariners in 2008, depicting a dual-threat candidate melding traditional scouting with advanced statistical analysis.
Blengino said he prepared the package because he was versed in the hot trend of using advanced stats for team decisions.
“Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid because that’s what he needed to get the job,” Blengino said. “But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door.”
The Seattle Times obtained a copy of the package, which talks of rebuilding with minimal pain through shrewd drafts, undervalued free agents and a “vast pipeline of young, homegrown star-caliber talent.”
Advanced stats charts ranked every major-leaguer and top minor-leaguers, while computer spreadsheets depicted each team’s positional depth and payroll commitments.
Zduriencik declined to speak about his stats knowledge or Blengino’s role in the package.
It’s hardly unusual in the corporate world for trusted assistants to design job applications. But after initial success, Zduriencik had a slew of failed player moves – coinciding with his eventual decision to push Blengino out.
“Jack tried to destroy me,” Blengino said.
Things started off well in 2009, with Blengino arriving alongside Zduriencik from the Brewers and assuming a powerful role of raising the Mariners’ talent any way possible. He coordinated big-picture elements of the annual draft, integrating advanced analytics into selections.
Blengino advised Zduriencik on key moves in a surprising 85-win first season, including the signature acquisition of outfielder Franklin Gutierrez.
“It was the Jack and Tony show that first year,” a former front-office member said.
But things unraveled in a turmoil-plagued 2010, when the Mariners lost 101 games.
Zduriencik fired manager Don Wakamatsu. Blengino said Zduriencik – needing to further finger-point – soon marginalized him as “the stats guy” despite his scouting background and the draft work that earned him a team “President’s Award” in 2009.
In 2011, Zduriencik imported longtime associate Ted Simmons as a senior adviser and increased responsibilities for second-year assistant GM Jeff Kingston, pushing Blengino from his inner circle. Zduriencik received a three-year contract extension that August and Blengino said Zduriencik told him: “Now, we do things my way.”
Blengino said Zduriencik became obsessed with power hitters, ignoring defense, baserunning and roster construction. He said the GM also dismissed the importance of evaluating players within the context of their contract values.
Zduriencik then made him “look like an ass” in front of baseball operations brass in spring training 2012 after Blengino gave a presentation on possible benefits from advances in computerized hitting data.
“He nitpicked about font sizes and column widths,” Blengino said. “He did what he always does and made fun of something he couldn’t understand.”
Zduriencik began working more from his suite overlooking Safeco Field, holding one-on-one meetings out of earshot of team offices.
“He began operating much like the Wizard of Oz, wielding his power from behind a curtain,” Blengino said. “Intimidating, manipulating, and pitting people against one another. Berating them for no particular reason. He set out to eliminate any type of disagreement, accumulating yes-men who meekly go along with his program.”
Blengino was sent home to Wisconsin last winter, to a lesser scouting role. He was told in August his contract wasn’t being renewed.
The Mariners from 2011 to 2013 traded Doug Fister, Michael Pineda, Steve Delabar, Erik Bedard, Mike Carp and John Jaso for limited returns.
“The way the team operates now,” Blengino said, “is totally different from what it was.”
Another original Zduriencik front-office member, former professional scouting director Carmen Fusco, was fired in September 2010 after the Josh Lueke controversy. Zduriencik claimed he hadn’t known that Lueke, one of four players acquired from Texas in that summer’s blockbuster trade of pitcher Cliff Lee, had previously pleaded no contest to a charge of false imprisonment with violence in a rape case.
Lincoln and Armstrong initially said they accepted Zduriencik’s explanation of incomplete research by staffers. But former Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair later said he’d warned Zduriencik about Lueke beforehand.
The Mariners stuck to their story and Fusco was fired by phone as he scouted in Tennessee.
“He told me, ‘You didn’t do anything. It wasn’t my call,’ ” Fusco said of the fateful call from Zduriencik.
Fusco said Lueke was briefly discussed during the call. But Fusco insists anybody using Lueke to justify his dismissal is off-base.
For one thing, he wasn’t even kept in the loop on the immediate trade discussions. Also, he said, the Mariners knew about Lueke’s past before the deal.
Fusco had seen a pretrade report by Mariners scout Frank Mattox in the team’s central database and “he clearly had in his reports that Lueke had trouble with the law.”
Mattox died of a heart attack last year.
Fusco said he told the team’s human resources department he’d been scapegoated and later received a terse call from Zduriencik, asking what he was doing. Though they’d been friends since schoolboy days in Pennsylvania, they haven’t spoken since.
Numerous unhappy scouts and executives have quit or been fired by the Zduriencik regime.
“They’ve humiliated people they’ve let go,” a current scout said. “And the ones still here hate it. They hate the way they’re treated.”
One of those to quit was longtime vice-president (international scouting) Bob Engle, who landed future major-leaguers like Felix Hernandez, Pineda and Shin-Soo Choo. Engle was named baseball’s Scout of the Year in 2011, but relations with Zduriencik were strained.
Things worsened in 2012 as Engle’s crew ran up against Zduriencik’s directives to spend money differently on international players after Major League Baseball imposed new limits.
Zduriencik wanted more cheaper “diamond-in-the-rough” prospects rather than a few premium players. The respected Engle had organizational clout, but things changed in September 2012 when Zduriencik fired Engle’s right-hand man, Patrick Guerrero, the team’s top Latin American scout.
Engle was furious. Though 65 years old and reluctant to make a career-altering move, he declined a contract extension. Within weeks, he and Guerrero landed equivalent jobs with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Engle declined to comment, but Guerrero said Zduriencik told him he’d done nothing wrong and it wasn’t the GM’s decision to fire him.
But Guerrero said he doesn’t believe that explanation and said Zduriencik “probably” fired him to force out Engle because they often pushed back against his directives.
“They don’t want people to tell them the truth about what they want to do,” Guerrero said. “They want people who tell them what they want to hear.”
But as tough as Zduriencik could be on those working under him, Wedge said he was the opposite with Lincoln and Armstrong.
Wedge said when he became manager in November 2010, Armstrong confided the Mariners were in their worst shape ever and upper management would patiently support a true rebuild.
Things changed after a slow start to 2011. Four people who worked closely with Wedge say he was inundated with directives from above: that Lincoln and Armstrong took notes nightly during games and passed them to Zduriencik, who relayed them to Wedge in his office and expected him to work on it with players.
Wedge confirmed the sources’ version of events.
“Howard would run things through Chuck and Jack all the time,” Wedge said.
The sources say Wedge implored Zduriencik to stand up to unreasonable demands, like Lincoln and Armstrong wanting Felix Hernandez and other pitchers to throw live batting practice between starts so position players could work on bunting and situational hitting.
Or wanting more early fielding work last September, which Wedge refused because team trainers warned too many players were worn out.
Wedge was tired of defending young players to Lincoln and Armstrong, who ripped them in meetings with him. He became frustrated that Zduriencik worried about his own job and wouldn’t support him.
Wedge described how, starting in 2011, Armstrong would visit his office and gravely say things like: “Howard sent me down here and … we’ve got to win.”
Wedge would shrug in agreement, telling him he wanted to win every night. “But he’s like, ‘No, we’ve really got to win. We’ve got to go 5-2 on this trip. We’ve got to win tonight.’ ”
Wedge reminded Lincoln and Armstrong they could ease struggles by adding payroll and proven players.
“They’re not going to take a chance of operating at a loss,” Wedge said. “Which is fine. But come on. There’s going to be a learning curve with guys right out of college.”
Wedge sensed Zduriencik aligning himself with Lincoln and Armstrong after the 2012 season-ending blowout, leaving him in a position of having to ignore orders with no support from his GM.
“If I did what they wanted,” Wedge said, “it would be a joke of an organization.”
Relations with Zduriencik worsened during the 2013 season’s final week after the GM told the Times he’d wait until the season ended to discuss Wedge’s future. Wedge was irked Zduriencik went public, feeling that furthered confusion for players about who’d manage and coach the team in 2014.
Wedge met Zduriencik in his private suite Thursday before the season’s final series. He wanted his status resolved before players left for the winter, but says Zduriencik began a point-by-point recitation of coaching staff issues.
“He kept saying more and more stuff about early work, about bullpen (sessions), about our starting pitchers,” Wedge said. “You can pick anything to death if you want to. But I’m not going to sit there and let him crush our coaches. I said ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. Shame on you.’ ”
Wedge told Zduriencik he’d honor his contract through season’s end, then walked out.
“I’m not going to stand by and let them treat other human beings the way they treat human beings,” he said. “I’m not going to stand by and let them disrespect the game.”
Lincoln and Zduriencik declined to comment on internal discussions and stood by previous statements they were surprised Wedge left.
“Eric decided to quit on the final weekend of the season despite knowing that we were prepared to extend his contract through the 2014 season as one of the best-paid managers in the game,” Lincoln said. “I was surprised by his decision because earlier in September, Eric came to my office, told me he ‘felt great,’ was – in his words – ‘all in,’ and wanted to know before the end of the season if the Mariners would extend his contract.”
Zduriencik said he’s excited about new manager McClendon and his staff.
“In a short time, Lloyd McClendon has captured and gained a great deal of credibility and respect within our organization,” Zduriencik said.
“We are all looking forward to him and his staff wrapping their arms around these players and helping to create a winner in Seattle. That is our sole focus and anything else is an unneeded distraction.”
Wedge said he’s relieved to have moved on, despite potentially walking away from another $2 million – the amount he earned last season and could have received in a 2014 extension – in favor of unemployment. His experience was “night and day” from managing in Cleveland, where Indians president Mark Shapiro, GM Chris Antonetti and others “care about the right things.”
“Neither one played, but they know and respect the game,” Wedge said. “They respect how hard the game is. They know how to communicate and they’re smart people.”
Wedge and his wife, Kate, are still living in Seattle while their children finish the school year. He maintains it’s a great city and baseball market, and a club that has resources and a promising talent base.
He’d still love to manage again. After failing to land a managerial job with the Chicago Cubs, he’s weighing an East Coast television analyst offer.
“I’m no great person, but I do care about the right things,” he said. “I work hard to do the right thing.
“And what’s happened here is wrong. What’s happened to the players and coaches here is wrong. What’s happened to this organization is wrong. It’s so wrong. I can’t put it any better than that. At some point in time, somebody’s got to stand up to them.”