Final Analysis: The Business of Baseball

The Mariners are a bad team; are they a badly run company?

Anyone who plays professional baseball will tell you it takes luck to get to the World Series. So the Seattle Mariners are one of the unluckiest teams in Major League Baseball, right? I mean, only two of the 30 current MLB teams have never been to the World Series—and one of them is the Mariners, now celebrating 35 seasons of futility.

Make that 36. The Mariners won’t be going to the World Series this year, either. At this writing—July 23, the day the Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees—the M’s have 42 victories. To realistically have a shot at the playoffs and, thus, the World Series, they would have to win about 77 percent of their remaining games. It’s not gonna happen.

The only thing the Mariners seem to excel at is slipping on the banana peel and walking into the open manhole. At the same time. But can bad luck explain everything? Or are the Mariners a textbook example of a poorly run organization?

Jim Collins, one of the go-to leadership gurus among today’s CEO crowd, says, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

When the current owners of the Mariners rescued the team from Jeff Smulyan in 1992, greatness wasn’t part of the equation. Geography was. Smulyan had threatened to move the team to Florida. Seattle needed a white knight, and Nintendo of America rode to the rescue with a posse of hometown investors. Ironically, a few years later, these new owners played the good old coercion card. Former Mariners CEO John Ellis famously wept during a news conference in December 1996 to announce that the M’s would be put up for sale because the organization had failed to get the terms it wanted for a new stadium.

The ploy worked. The Mariners got the stadium in 1999, and the organization seemed destined for greatness by 2001, with a team that won more than 70 percent of its games. Since then, the Mariners have failed spectacularly—eight different managers, four winning seasons, no playoff appearances—but the organization has remained mostly profitable, save for a small operating loss in 2008 and another one last season, when it spent $9 million on new scoreboards and other stadium improvements. Not bad, when you consider the Mariners’ record from 2002 to 2011 was 758 wins and 862 losses—a dismal 45 percent winning percentage.

The Mariners pride themselves on providing a wholesome entertainment experience that almost makes the final score irrelevant to a lot of patrons. The ballpark is one of the most beautiful in baseball. The food options are among the best. Ushers and other stadium representatives are helpful and pleasant. It’s a Disney-esque approach that works with many families and casual fans. It would never work in New York or Boston or Philadelphia without a demonstrated commitment to winning every year. But Seattle fans aren’t nearly as passionate, and Seattle’s media coverage isn’t nearly as breathless.

The surprising trade of Ichiro to the Yankees (for a couple of minor leaguers) is an interesting side note. Ichiro asked to be traded so the team could build for the future. It’s a selfless gesture, but you can be certain Ichiro asked to be traded to a team with at least a shot at the playoffs.

As it happens, he joined a team with the best record in baseball at the time of the trade, and a pretty fair track record. In stark contrast to the Mariners, the Yankees have been to the World Series 40 times. They must be very lucky.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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