Armstrong retirement a positive

TUESDAY, NOV. 26, 2013

One down, one to go.

With Chuck Armstrong’s decision Monday afternoon to retire as the Seattle Mariners president and CEO effective Jan. 14, 2014, the question now becomes: When will Howard Lincoln follow suit? For Mariners fans, aggrieved over 12 years of tepid teams, no playoffs and scant hope, Lincoln’s departure can’t come soon enough.

It’s not really a surprise that Armstrong, employed by the club on a largely uninterrupted basis since California real estate developer George Argyros owned the franchise back in the early 1980s, decided to seek the sunset. The surprise is that it took him so long to recognize the obvious, which is the inescapable fact the Mariners were never going to flourish under his watch, or Lincoln’s.

Armstrong, 71, didn’t cast his retirement announcement quite in that light, of course, preferring the explanation that his decision was made on the basis of his current circumstances, including age and the recent deaths of several friends. His remarks in a team statement:

“After much thought and reflection, it is now time for me to retire and enjoy as much time as possible with my wife Susan and our family. The recent deaths of several good friends have really had an impact on me and helped crystallize my decision. This was a very difficult, very personal decision, but I know in my heart that it’s time to turn the page and move to the next chapter of my life.

“Thirty years ago, my family and I were given a wonderful opportunity to move to the Seattle area and become associated with the Seattle Mariners. We quickly grew to love this community and this team. Through all the good times and the not-so-good times on the field since 1984, the goal always has been to win the World Series. My only regret is that the entire region wasn’t able to enjoy a parade through the city to celebrate a world championship together.”

I’m sure Armstrong, a relentlessly upbeat individual, absolutely meant that. But along with Lincoln, Armstrong was a big reason why the Mariners couldn’t – and never would – ride in a parade.

Here’s what they did do, all positive: Working on behalf of absentee Japanese ownership, they brokered a deal that prevented the Mariners from relocating to Florida in 1992. That was no small feat at the time, in fact a miracle worthy of Lourdes, a given then that the Mariners were on their way out of town.

Then they retained, from the previous ownership, GM Woody Woodward, who assembled the various pieces that enabled the ball club to become an American League force in the mid-1990s, the only “golden” era the franchise has experienced, the rest of it leaden.

Lincoln and Armstrong, now inextricably linked, signed off on the hiring of Lou Piniella, wrangled a new ballpark, and put the Mariners in a position to succeed, which they did admirably for a half decade after the team’s playoff appearance in 1995.

They signed off on the hiring of GM Pat Gillick, architect of the 2000 team that reached the playoffs, and the 2001 team that won 116 games with Japanese import Ichiro, another Lincoln-Armstrong decision, and a superb one.

But once Lincoln and Armstrong lost Gillick, they lost their mojo, their perspective, their brains. The franchise still hasn’t recovered from the disastrous hiring of GM Bill Bavasi, plus a succession of managers that have helped reduce the Mariners into a franchise that can’t contend because it doesn’t know how.

The Mariners are superb at a lot of tasks, and Armstrong and Lincoln deserve credit for them. They know how to run a ball club from business, promotional, advertising and public relations perspectives. Their idea has always been to deliver a wonderful, summer-entertainment product that will draw fans to Safeco Field and make fans feel good about coming out to the ballpark. In that, they have hit grand salami after grand salami.

But they lacked one thing: They underestimated fans’ thirst to win. They never understood or figured out how to deliver winning teams, largely – and unfortunately – because winning teams were never a priority. Contending teams were a priority, only because contenders would fill Safeco Field and meet the team’s financial budget.

But, ultimately, Lincoln and Armstrong couldn’t deliver even contending teams. Why? They hired the wrong people – executives, scouts, player personnel directors – who drafted and signed the wrong players. Seattle hasn’t lost 90 or more games, including 100+ twice, six times since 2004 for no reason.

Since Lincoln is in charge, that’s primarily his fault, an otherwise smart man who is tone deaf to the wishes of his customer base. And Armstrong abetted and enabled him until he ran out of gangplank Monday, couching his departure in the usual explanation of needing to spend more time with his family.

Armstrong has been with us a long time. He joined the franchise in 1983 as an employee  of Argyros – worst owner in Seattle pro sports history. After Jeff Smuylan bought the franchise in 1990, Armstrong moved to the University of Washington as interim athletic director following Mike Lude’s forced removal, then departed UW when it hired Barbara Hedges.

Armstrong returned to the Mariners in July, 1992, and has been with the club since, for worse, not for better, in the view of most Mariners fans. He also had this to say Monday:

“Thanks to our outstanding ownership, the franchise is stable and will remain the Northwest’s team, playing in Safeco Field, a great ballpark and great example of a successful public-private partnership. The team is in good hands and positioned for future success. I am thankful for this important part in my life and I will always bleed Mariners blue. Susan and I plan to continue to live here and remain involved in many community events and causes.”

Following Armstrong’s announcement Friday, commissioner Bud Selig offered up a predictable tribute on behalf of Armstrong, saying, in part:

“I congratulate Chuck Armstrong, a great baseball man, on his upcoming retirement, after 28 years of dedicated service to the Mariners franchise as club president.”

Had Selig, a documented waffler, been honest, here’s what he would have said:

“I congratulate Chuck Armstrong, a great baseball man, on his upcoming retirement, after 28 years of dedicated service to the Mariners franchise as club president. I only wish that he and Howard Lincoln had a better understanding of how to develop a major league baseball franchise that has an opportunity to compete. Clearly they don’t. As results demonstrate, the Mariners haven’t been competitive in more than a decade. It’s obvious that they won’t be competitive as long as Lincoln and Armstrong are in charge.  Those two  didn’t get it. In wishing Mr. Armstrong the best in his retirement, I hope that Mr. Lincoln takes a cue.”

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