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The Remaking of the Seattle Mariners

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The Remaking of the Seattle Mariners

As the longest postseason drought in major American men’s team sports appears to be nearing its end, a look at the people who helped carry the Mariners back to contention.

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By Tyler Kepner

Sept. 26, 2022, 11:21 p.m. ET

SEATTLE — The Ford Crown Victoria pulled up at the Peace Arch Border Crossing just as the news reached young Matthew Boyd: The Seattle Mariners were eliminated from the playoffs. Boyd was a defenseman for the Seattle Sno-King youth hockey team, on a road trip to Canada with his father. The voice of the Mariners, Dave Niehaus, gave the grim report through the car radio.

“I remember being so dejected, like, ‘We’re not going to the playoffs?’” said Boyd, who had come to expect that his heroes would always play in October. “I was kind of spoiled at that point in my childhood. They were so good, and now there was this weight, like: ‘Why, Dad? Why is this happening?’”

Boyd has grown up a lot in two decades — college, pro ball, marriage, children — and now he pitches for his hometown team. Yet through it all, the Mariners have never returned to the playoffs. They got there a total of four times, all from 1995 to 2001, superstars coming and going, hopes soaring and sinking. The afterglow still flickers.

“People will say, ‘I was with my son, we were all in the living room’ — they remember what they were doing at that time,” Edgar Martinez said the other day, recalling his double to beat the Yankees in the 1995 playoffs. “That memory, it sticks to the fans a lot, because of what it meant to them as a family, as a fan.”

Every team in Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., the N.H.L. and the N.B.A., with the exception of the Seattle Kraken who joined the N.H.L. last year, has reached the postseason since the Mariners last qualified in 2001. The New England Patriots won all six of their Super Bowl titles. The Stanley Cup visited Raleigh, N.C.; Anaheim, Calif.; and Tampa, Fla. Even the Sacramento Kings played for a conference championship.

The baseball gods, too, went soft. Four teams won their first-ever championship since the Mariners’ last playoff game, and three others — the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox and the Boston Red Sox — snapped streaks of futility stretching more than eight decades. Yet the Mariners wait.

“I actually think the Cubs and the Red Sox, in a really warped way, were good for the Seattle sports fan, because it showed us that, yeah, it could actually happen here in Seattle,” said Bill Binder, a season-ticket holder since the Mariners’ inception in 1977. “Not that you want to wait that long — even though we’re getting close.”

The Mariners remain the only franchise in baseball to never reach the World Series, and their path may have gotten more rigorous last week with a back injury to Julio Rodríguez, their dynamic center fielder. But their wait to return to the playoffs appears to be finally, mercifully, nearing an end. Through Sunday, the team was 83-69, four games up for an A.L. wild-card spot with 10 to play.

Eliminated on the final day of last season, the Mariners have since added the rookie Rodríguez; four former All-Star position players (Eugenio Suárez, Jesse Winker, Adam Frazier and Carlos Santana); and three power pitchers to the rotation (Luis Castillo, who signed a five-year contract extension last week, Robbie Ray and the rookie George Kirby). They also have a dominant bullpen and slick defense, traits often critical to playoff success.

“When we get there, I think we’re going to feel just as good as any team in baseball,” Paul Sewald, the Mariners’ closer, said. “I don’t think anybody wants to see us.”

Opponents, he means. Folks in the Pacific Northwest — especially those who have worked toward this moment from the inside — cannot wait.

The Historian: Randy Adamack

Randy Adamack started working as the public relations director of the Mariners in 1978 and was there with Vada Pinson and others for some of the team’s more difficult years.Credit…Seattle Mariners

The Mariners were created to settle a lawsuit. The City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington had sued the American League when the Pilots, a 1969 expansion team, moved to Milwaukee after only one season. By awarding Seattle a new team, in 1977, the league solved one problem — and created a set of new ones.

Maybe the Mariners were cursed by their original logo: a trident pointed down, forming the letter M but also symbolizing bad luck in Greek mythology. Or maybe they overestimated the city’s baseball appetite. The Mariners’ inaugural game drew 57,762 fans to the Kingdome, but the second game drew only 10,144. Neither crowd witnessed a run by the home team.

Unless you showed up in person, the Mariners were all but invisible. In the early years, only 17 games per season were carried on local television, all from the road. The Seahawks had arrived in 1976 and quickly won over football fans. The SuperSonics were a rising power in the N.B.A. The Mariners asked fans to come indoors in the summer, when the city sparkles, to watch a perennial loser.

“The first idea was that the Kingdome was the eighth wonder of the world, like the Astrodome,” said Randy Adamack, who joined the Mariners’ front office as public relations director in 1978. “It was the first indoor ballpark in the American League, but it was cavernous. It was gray. You had to rig the building to fit a baseball field in it.”

Adamack was the Mariners’ longest-serving employee when he retired this spring. He has stayed involved by coordinating the team’s alumni efforts, curating its memorabilia and working on a commemorative history book.

The early chapters may be a tragicomedy: Third baseman Lenny Randle dropping to his knees to blow a slow roller foul. (The hitter was given a single.) Pitcher Rick Honeycutt hiding a thumbtack in his glove. (He was caught and suspended.) A groundskeeper hopping and howling as he was bitten by a stray cat. (He survived.)

And the greatest accidental promotion in team history: an outfielder hawking funny nose glasses in 1981.

“We had Tom Paciorek on air with a 30-second spot, saying, ‘Come out on Saturday night because it’s funny nose glasses night!’” Adamack said. “And he puts on a pair of funny nose glasses, and a voice-over comes on and says: ‘No, No, Tom. It’s jacket night.’ And Paciorek’s answer at the end is, ‘What am I going to do with 30,000 pairs of funny nose glasses?’”

Turns out, the fans took him seriously. The Mariners scheduled a funny nose glasses night for 1982 and attracted a crowd of more than 37,000. That was great, but it underscored the finicky nature of the market: The silly giveaway outdrew, by nearly 10,000, an actual baseball milestone two nights earlier: Gaylord Perry earning his 300th career win.

Understaffed and underfunded, with few impact players on the field, team staffers struggled to harness their product’s potential.

“The closest teams were Oakland to the south and Minnesota to the east, so there was plenty of territory out there, a big footprint,” Adamack said. “But it was hard enough, with our resources, to promote just in our own metropolitan area.”

The franchise teetered, passed off from one frustrated buyer to the next. Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, told Seattle reporters in 1991 to “start writing an obituary” for the Mariners.

Reinsdorf had nearly moved his team to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1988, and the Mariners seemed to be headed there in early 1992. Then a surprise bidder — Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was the president of Nintendo — spent $75 million for a controlling interest, a good-will gesture to the home region of Nintendo’s American headquarters.

By then the Mariners had the makings of a contender, with Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez. The players had bonded in the summer of 1994, when falling ceiling tiles at the Kingdome forced the team to take a three-week road trip. A year later, the Mariners roared back from a 13-game deficit in August to win the A.L. West.

“All of a sudden,” Adamack said, “our guys became rock stars in town.”

Voters rejected a ballpark-funding measure that September, but as the Mariners sprinted to the A.L.C.S. — a six-game loss to Cleveland — the state legislature seized on the excitement and passed a deal. The new ballpark opened in 1999 and just might be the best in baseball: the only one with a roof that functions only as an umbrella, covering the field and the fans but never enclosing the park.

In other words, it always feels like Seattle.

“We want this ballpark to last 100 years,” said Adamack, whose name adorns the press box. “And I guess that’s just a different way of saying that this is a stable franchise, and Major League Baseball is going to be in the Northwest forever.”

The Legend: Edgar Martinez

A Hall of Famer who won two batting titles, Edgar Martinez delivered arguably the biggest hit in Mariners history.Credit… Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

He is part of the scenery here, a statue and a street sign: Exit 164B, “E Martinez Dr,” beckons drivers approaching downtown Seattle on Interstate 5.

“People get a road named for them after they die,” Edgar Martinez said, laughing softly. “But I’ve got one here and one in Puerto Rico.”

Martinez, 59, still works at T-Mobile Park (formerly Safeco Field) on most game days, dressing with coaches and helping hitters. Martinez spent his 18-year career with the Mariners, batting .312 with two batting titles and earning a spot in the Hall of Fame. He played more than 2,000 games for Seattle, the most in club history.

“I got to shake his hand on this homestand; say hi, honored to meet you,” said Boyd, the pitcher and Seattle-area native who joined the team this month. “The cool thing about the Mariners is, I feel like Seattle is such an intimate place. It’s a big city but everybody’s pretty local. So you’d see him around. And growing up you’d see Félix around, or John Olerud. You’d see guys.”

Félix is Félix Hernández, an ace who spent 15 seasons here without making the playoffs. He is one of those players the locals seem to regard as a friend: Edgar, Junior, Ichiro, Félix, Julio. In Seattle, the fans want to know you by your first name, but they’re too polite to bother you at dinner.

That sensibility suits Martinez, an understated craftsman who values comfort and stability. As a boy, he hid on his grandparents’ roof in Puerto Rico rather than move with his parents to New York, where he was born. He stayed in his village, Maguayo, just as he has stayed in Seattle, his wife’s hometown. They have raised three children here and live about 20 minutes from Edgar Martinez Drive.

“I have met so many good people here, and the fans have treated me so well since the early years,” Martinez said. “And I have never been big on changes. Same thing in Puerto Rico, I stayed with the same team, and here I stayed with the same team.”

Johnson left in 1998, Griffey left after the 1999 season and Alex Rodriguez left in 2000. Even Ichiro Suzuki left in a trade in 2012 — although, like Martinez, he still suits up with the team and helps before home games. The Mariners’ new star, Julio Rodríguez, wants to spend his entire career in Seattle, and Martinez likes what he sees.

The Mariners weathered Alex Rodriguez’s departure by signing Suzuki for 2001 and tying the major league wins record with 116. They won 93 games in both 2002 and 2003, but with only one wild-card spot available (now there are three), they missed the playoffs and tumbled by 30 games in 2004, Martinez’s final season.

The current team, he believes, is built for a longer run of success.

“They’re young; they can play together for a long time,” Martinez said. “There can be good years ahead — and I’m not talking about one year, I’m talking about multiple years that this team can do really well. I believe that.”

The Voice: Rick Rizzs

Rick Rizzs, Seattle’s longtime broadcaster, remembers when the Mariners first attained legitimacy. He says this time will be even sweeter.Credit…Steph Chambers/Getty Images

When a team wins for the first time in decades, the feeling can be terrifying. Just ask Rick Rizzs, the Mariners’ longtime broadcaster, who was 6 years old in Chicago when the White Sox clinched their first World Series berth in 40 years.

“I remember the sirens going off in the city,” Rizzs said. “Scared the hell out of everybody because it’s 1959 and the Cold War was going on — here come the missiles! But it was the White Sox. They finally won the pennant.”

Rizzs was a Cubs fan by day and a White Sox fan by night, Jack Brickhouse and Bob Elson narrating his summers. He wound his way to the majors through broadcast booths in Alexandria, La.; Amarillo, Texas; Memphis; and Columbus, Ohio. In 1983, Niehaus hired Rizzs to join the Mariners’ broadcast team.

The Mariners were 60-102 that season and drew only 813,537 fans, the lowest full-season total in club history. Seven more losing seasons followed until Oct. 2, 1991, when the Mariners finally clinched a .500 record with an otherwise unremarkable victory in Arlington, Texas. The team finished 83-79.

“We went nuts,” Rizzs said. “We were crying in the clubhouse in Texas, hugging Alvin Davis and Dave Valle. It was something special. We weren’t losers anymore.”

Rizzs left after that season for a thankless job in Detroit replacing Ernie Harwell, a beloved Tigers broadcaster who had been abruptly fired, to the fans’ dismay. Rizzs lasted three years in Detroit and returned to Seattle, again with Niehaus’s support, in 1995.

Niehaus was the original voice of the Mariners, tossed the ceremonial first pitch — in full tuxedo — at the new ballpark and has remained a powerful presence here since his death in 2010. Fans line up to sit at the open chair next to his statue beyond center field. Rizzs got to do it for real, and has kept alive a signature Niehaus expression.

“When the bases are loaded, I’m still going to say, ‘Get out the rye bread and mustard, Grandma, it is grand salami time!’” Rizzs said, smiling. “He was one of the greatest announcers of all time, and my job is for his legacy to continue. I want people to feel like Dave Niehaus is still sitting next to me in the broadcast booth. His impact on this organization and in this community — he was our Vin Scully.”

Rizzs was by Niehaus’s side when Martinez doubled home Joey Cora and Griffey to eliminate the Yankees in 1995; “It just continues!” Niehaus cried. “My oh my!” That victory was a long time coming for a 19-year-old expansion franchise, but the next playoff appearance will follow an even longer spell.

“It’s going to be even sweeter, and I’ll tell you why,” Rizzs said. “Because it was a long way to get here — and then the organization asked the fans to be even more patient.”

The Architect: Jerry Dipoto

Jerry Dipoto, right, inherited an expensive team that wasn’t capable of winning. He has remade it through a series of bold transactions.Credit…Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners’ president for baseball operations, knew what he would have to do when he took over as general manager in September 2015. He just needed to put it off for a while.

Four players — Hernández, Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager — took up more than half of the Mariners’ payroll, like skyscrapers scattered among split-level homes. The group was signed through at least 2018 and needed an influx of low-cost, complementary players to compete. Dipoto earned a reputation as an eager, aggressive dealer.

“It was all this shell game of moving on the margins,” he said, and it almost worked. Seattle earned 86 wins in 2016, missing the playoffs by just three games, and improved to 89 wins in 2018 — with the oldest roster in the sport.

After the season, the team’s chairman, John Stanton, met with Dipoto, Manager Scott Servais and other top lieutenants. Stanton, 67, defers almost entirely to Dipoto on strategy, and wanted to know if he could win with this core.

“The answer was no, and that was OK,” said Stanton, who made his fortune in wireless communications. “From my point of view, I had to have the willingness to say, ‘OK, we’ll take the hit.’ We thought we would take a 250,000 hit in attendance, and it was half a million. It was excruciating in a lot of ways.”

Dipoto unloaded most of Canó’s contract by packaging a star closer, Edwin Díaz, in a December 2018 trade with the Mets. He also dealt starter James Paxton, infielder Jean Segura and catcher Mike Zunino that winter, and catcher Austin Nola the next summer. The Mariners had two losing seasons but jumped to 90-72 last year — two games short of a wild card and five behind Houston in the A.L. West.

“The Astros have decided not to get old,” Dipoto acknowledged. “They just continue to be awesome.”

Dipoto, 54, pitched eight seasons in the majors until 2000, when a broken neck and spinal fusion ended his career with Colorado. He has spent more than two decades in major league front offices, standing out as one of the few top decision makers who actually played in the majors.

For Dipoto, that required an openness to new ideas that former players often resist. Dipoto remembers working for the Boston Red Sox in 2003, when the team issued laptops to staffers for the first time. Bill Lajoie, a special adviser who was then 68, asked Dipoto how to turn it on.

“He said, ‘I want to know what’s in there,’ and pointed at the computer,” Dipoto said. “Somebody asked him, ‘Why do you want to know that?’ He said, ‘Because he said what’s in there keeps you relevant.’ That’s true, and I thought it was pretty profound.’”

Dipoto understands that the game is always evolving. He lets technology project a prospect’s tools, urging scouts to concentrate on makeup.

As a result, perhaps, several players from the farm system have made an immediate impact, like Rodríguez, Kirby, catcher Cal Raleigh and starter Logan Gilbert. Others who struggled elsewhere — like Sewald, a former Met — have thrived by applying the team’s B.V.Y. plan: a best-version-of-yourself report that the Mariners create for every player in the organization.

“They gave me information that I was never presented with before,” said Sewald, who learned to throw high fastballs and a slider with more sweep. “I felt like I wasn’t good in New York, so I might as well try this and see what happens — maybe this is the best version of myself. I didn’t have anything to lose, and it worked.”

With buy-in from players and a sound infrastructure, Dipoto believes Seattle is poised for a longer run of contention than teams like Cincinnati, Kansas City and Pittsburgh had in the 2010s.

“We’re confident that we’ve just opened a window and we can stay a highly competitive team that should be a factor in the postseason for years to come,” Dipoto said. “Because unlike some of the small-market clubs, they’re going through rebuilds and cycles where they have to cycle off and then cycle back. We really don’t have to cycle back — we have the market size and the types of revenue streams that should allow us to sustain this.”

The New Boss: Catie Griggs

Catie Griggs became Seattle’s president of business operations in a difficult time for the franchise. Credit…Jason Redmond/Associated Press

Dipoto has a counterpart in the Mariners’ power structure, separate but equal on the masthead: Catie Griggs, the president for business operations. She was hired in July 2021, a tacit acknowledgment that the franchise needed a jolt from a newcomer.

“Sometimes you can get a little sheltered if you don’t invite people from the outside to bring new opinions, new ideas, different ways of doing things,” Dipoto said. “And the Mariners for a long time were very, I guess, insulated.”

That insulation peeled away in an online presentation to a Rotary Club by Kevin Mather, the president at the time, in February 2021. Mather dished about manipulating players’ service time, complained about paying for a Japanese interpreter, called Seager overpaid and mocked Rodríguez’s command of English.

It was a disaster, and Mather resigned his position amid a swift public backlash. Stanton landed on Griggs as a replacement, hiring her from Atlanta United of Major League Soccer, where she had been the team’s chief business officer.

“Half my family’s from Atlanta, and she turned Atlanta, which is a baseball town, into a pretty good soccer town, too,” Stanton said. “So we looked at that, but I don’t think she has a magic formula. She is intuitive and she thinks about fans. She starts with: What can we do better?”

Griggs, 40, grew up in North Carolina, rooting for the minor league Durham Bulls and acing her home-school education. She started college at age 14, at North Carolina State, and eventually earned an undergraduate degree and M.B.A. from Dartmouth. She was a striking departure from Mather, who — long before his incendiary speech — was the subject of multiple workplace complaints from female employees.

“The reality is we had some reputational damage as an organization, both externally and internally,” Griggs said. “By the time I got here, it was more about: Well, who are you? Is this going to be more of the same? Is this going to be different?”

She added: “I believe I’m here for a reason, and I don’t think that reason is simply because I look different than the person who was here before me. I think the reason I’m here is because I’m the right person for the job, and I can help move this organization forward.”

So Griggs scours the ballpark every night, searching for ways to enhance views, reduce lines at concessions stands and take advantage of baseball’s gift to marketers: supply. The Mariners lost half of their paying customers from 2002 (3.5 million) to 2012 (1.7 million), consistent with their tumble in the standings. Yet with 81 games, nearly 48,000 seats, no rainouts and a vast home region to draw from, T-Mobile Park should always be a destination, win or lose.

“The reality is, if we’re winning 116 games, the fans will be here, right?” Griggs said. “That will make our job easier, no doubt. But I think those are the times when we really have an opportunity to, if anything, up our investment. When things are good — and I’m very, very hopeful that we’re about to have a lot more of those moments — that is when you need to be doubling down on your appreciation.”

So far, so good. After the team’s last homestand — which included a three-game series victory over the Atlanta Braves that drew more than 132,000 — the Mariners were averaging almost 28,500 fans per game this season, their highest mark in 14 years.

The Future: Julio Rodríguez

Julio Rodríguez has been an absolute sensation for the Mariners. A back injury has him sidelined, but his new contract means he is in Seattle for the long term.Credit…Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Griggs’s arrival reflected a spirit of creativity that had been missing in Seattle. The long-term contract for Rodríguez, announced in late August, exemplified it.

Rodríguez, 21, landed on the injured list last Friday with a lower back strain. But he had already established himself as the A.L.’s top rookie and the first Mariner in two decades with 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases in the same season. His defense has inspired a nickname for center field: the No-Fly Zone. Shoppers at the team store on Fourth and Stewart are greeted by a table with nine different J-Rod-theme T-shirts, and his No. 44 jersey outsells the others by more than two to one.

“He’s driven to be one of the all-time greats,” Dipoto said. “He wants to be someone who changes the way you see baseball players.”

The Mariners signed Rodríguez from the Dominican Republic for $1.75 million in 2017. He was 16 then and spoke little English, but quickly learned to master the language and the sport. The team, he said, helped him become who he is.

“A lot of things that I do now are things I learned in this organization,” Rodríguez said. “They taught me how to be more disciplined, how to grow like a man, how to be responsible, all that. You might not see it directly in your sport, but it definitely really helps you. So there were many things the Mariners taught me that really motivated me to buy into the organization, whatever they believe. I’ve seen everything that’s been changing here.”

In July — around the time he electrified the Home Run Derby as runner-up to Juan Soto — Rodríguez, his agent and the Mariners opened talks to certify their bond. The result was an innovative, multilayered contract that could end up as the richest in baseball history.

It starts with seven years and $120 million through 2029. After the 2028 season, the Mariners can exercise a long-term option, potentially pushing the deal to $470 million; if they decline it, Rodríguez can pick up a five-year, $90 million option after 2029.

“There’s a lot of trust in that,” Rodríguez said. “That deal was basically our relationship as an organization, me and them. That’s basically as clear as you can get it right there.”

Depending on his Most Valuable Player Award finishes — and the Mariners’ decision on their option — Rodríguez could be tied to the team through 2039, when he will be 38. At that age, Griffey was playing for the White Sox, Johnson for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Alex Rodriguez for the Yankees.

All of them played for Seattle in the postseason, and the Julio generation will soon take its turn. Clinching that chance will be a triumph for a franchise that does things the hard way, but always endures.

“The absence of being in a World Series, we get that; the longest streak without the playoffs in the four major sports, we get that,” Adamack said. “But the fact that people still care enough here — when we just give them a reason to get excited, like they are right now — makes it all worthwhile.”

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