He takes losses and criticism very personally. But he will stick with his businesslike approach to running his team because there's one thing he has always understood: It's lonely being in charge.
The first time the morning paper arrived carrying the kind of daggers usually reserved for a baseball owner, Howard Lincoln was shattered. It didn’t matter that the offending column referred not to him but to the entire group of Mariners owners. He personalized the attack. The words growled at him, seeping like poison from the pages in his hands, lashing at his ethics, his dignity, the very beating of his heart.
Money-grubbing soulless leeches.
He put down the paper and turned to his wife.
“Listen, Grace,” he said. “Listen to what this guy said, he called me ‘a money-grubbing soulless leech.’ “
Grace Lincoln paused.
“Yeah,” she finally replied. “That sounds like you.”
He keeps a notebook now, a list tucked away somewhere in his Safeco Field office. On this list is everything awful and rotten that has ever been written about him in the five years since he became the face of the Mariners.
“Ordinary pond scum.”
“Ruthless and diabolic.”
And his favorite, with his photograph plastered next to those of team president Chuck Armstrong and former general manager Pat Gillick on the back page of the New York Post:
“Axis of Evil.”
The world collapsed on him last summer. The Mariners flopped, buried alive by Memorial Day. And with every defeat, with every pitcher that got rocked in the third inning and every rally that fell short on another dead bat, the finger of blame pointed his way. The beloved manager who put the team on the map is with Tampa Bay, the star center fielder who was the best player in baseball for several years isn’t coming back, the team just finished in last place and all of it was because of him.
“Howard takes it all very hard and very personally, actually,” says longtime friend Don Bucy.
Lincoln, 64, never saw it coming the talk-show barrages, the newspaper rants, all adding daily nuggets to a rapidly growing list of insults stashed in his desk drawer. The CEOs in the protected business world are always startled when they get into the sports business, where criticism is not only the norm but expected.
For so long, Lincoln’s baseball experience had been a pleasant, if not anonymous one as the powerful chairman of Nintendo America and the conduit to the team’s Japan-based majority investor Hiroshi Yamauchi.
Through all the worst battles, John Ellis, the club’s former CEO, took most of the bullets, whether it was the contentious building of Safeco Field or the threats to sell the club. When Lincoln took over as the face of the franchise in 1999, the stadium had been built and the team began to thrive. For almost four years, it was a honeymoon.
Then, manager Lou Piniella left, grumbling about the money Lincoln wouldn’t spend to bring him an extra player to help Seattle make the playoffs. The winning soon stopped and it didn’t take long for the boos to waft their way up to the owner’s box.
“I think losing a bit humbles people,” says Piniella, now the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. “It makes them look at things differently. Howard’s a bright guy, but I think he was spoiled, though. He came in and inherited a team that was drawing 3.5 million people and won 116 games and thought, ‘This is easy.’
Then Piniella pauses for effect.
“… And it could re-reverse itself, you know?”
It re-reversed itself last summer. It re-reversed itself enough that the tone changed from the top of the Mariners. Suddenly the talk was no longer about saving money but rebuilding a broken franchise. Lincoln budgeted for a loss this year. He said he would do so rather than cut the $95 million payroll.
Yes, it is clear he heard the boos. The long march back begins this weekend at baseball’s winter meetings in Anaheim. Even though Lincoln won’t be there, his image hovers over everything the Mariners will do the next few days. For the first time, the Mariners are expected to be significant players in the free-agent market.
It is a dark autumn day not long after the end of the season, and Lincoln sits in his office near the Safeco Field rotunda. The walls around him are lined with pictures like the foyer of an Italian restaurant, snapshots of baseball players and fishing expeditions. At first Lincoln looks wary, his long face droops. But as he begins to talk his voice gains the life of a man who is accustomed to running things although it is also a voice tinged with frustration and perhaps a bit of bewilderment at the ire that has been directed his way.
“I think it has been difficult for us to make clear that our No. 1 objective is to get this team into the World Series,” he says.
He has always understood the isolation of being in charge. The six years Lincoln spent running Nintendo’s U.S. operations prepared him for that. Many summers ago, he was dispatched to England to perform the draconian task of closing a Nintendo plant in Portsmouth. While searching for an escape from the unpleasantness, he visited the British Naval base there and toured the HMS Victory, which was Lord Nelson’s flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar.
This turned him on to Patrick O’Brian, the author of a 20-volume series of novels, most notably “Master and Commander,” based on the friendship between a naval sea captain and the ship’s surgeon during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. He read the entire collection twice, absorbed by O’Brian’s depictions of the solitary world of the captain, Jack Aubrey.
“One of the things in those books that’s a repeated theme is the loneliness of command,” Lincoln says. “You really can’t let your hair down, and if you’re going to lead an organization, you’re going to have to be the leader. You have to be the boss. So there are some things you simply can’t do.
His heroes are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, mostly because they thrived in perilous times, with bombs dropping and Adolf Hitler on the march. Lincoln loves the way they stood firm in the face of criticism. Churchill, he notes with almost a hint of pride, was subject to a series of no-confidence votes from the British parliament and yet emerged from the war as one of Europe’s finest leaders.
There was a dignity to them, a resolve that leaves Lincoln a bit flushed talking about it.
“They were heroes of mine because of the way they conducted themselves,” he says, “the way they handled it.”
Then, as if realizing he was in a baseball stadium and the subject was a baseball team that had simply fallen into last place and not the guns of Normandy, he quickly stiffens.
“I’m not trying to make a connection to the Mariners,” he says. “But talk about thick skin … You know somebody told me that baseball is not Baghdad, which is another way of getting things in perspective.”
In many ways, though, Lincoln is like O’Brian’s Aubrey. Lincoln, too, was in the Navy, serving as a lieutenant in the service’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps after he graduated from the University of California in the late 1950s.
There is a piece of him that is very much law and order and militaristic. His friends all have stories of the principled Lincoln throwing a man out of his box at Safeco Field for refusing to stand for the national anthem or resisting the internal push at Nintendo to jump into the lucrative market of blood and guts video games. Instead, he decreed, they would plug ahead with the ageless Super Mario Brothers.
“He stands up for integrity,” says longtime friend Dan Friedman, a Normandy Park doctor.
But it is also such decrees that have brought him trouble, perpetuating a belief among baseball people that he is often too concerned with building his team around cultural ideals like unity and selflessness. It is why many fans now believe he disdains the idea of superstars and has been too obsessed with the old need of this ownership group to stop losing money. They also believe he is unwilling to come off a salary cap. This has led many to whisper that he has influenced too many personnel decisions based on this formula.
The complaints suggest this is why Piniella, who was shouted down by Lincoln in a now-famous 2002 dispute over adding a player at the trade deadline, left the team. It is also suggested this is why Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t here.
In the past, Lincoln has given indications that these are his core beliefs, even if he didn’t mean to convey those thoughts. He has suggested, in interviews, that pennants need to be weighed against the bottom line. And since he has not granted many long, introspective interviews, until now, he has left an impression that he’s an owner who would rather have a club of 25 perfect young gentlemen, devoid of anything controversial that finished every year in second place, than a champion filled with egos.
Suddenly now, as the subject comes up, he shakes his head, stiffens in his seat and softly waves his hands. No.
“I think this is one of those perceptions that needs to be commented upon,” he says. “I’m not the general manager. I don’t hold myself out as having any baseball expertise. In any organization where millions of dollars are going to be spent, ultimately the CEO has to sign off on things. But I can’t think of one instance when I vetoed a deal because of financial implications.
“I think it is probably because I have been outspoken about the need to be financially disciplined in operating a baseball franchise,” Lincoln says. “And I think these comments have continued to be repeated, then there is an assumption that we are more concerned about making money than we are getting to the World Series.”
But what about the resistance to big stars? What about his belief that the organization became better with the departures of Griffey, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson? Lincoln’s face contorts into a grimace.
“I read it constantly, too,” he says. “It’s simply not true. I think the 2001 team did prove that if you could get 25 players in lockstep you were in pretty good shape. But we also had some pretty talented people on that team who were superstars, including someone like Edgar (Martinez).
“If we have to bring in superstars including the ones we already have, such as Ichiro, we will do it. If I didn’t like superstars, why would I have brought in Ichiro? But I think too much has been made of this perception because of comments I have made, so let me be clear: I’m not against superstars.”
But the CEO of the Mariners is not a baseball man. Not in the traditional sense of those whose entire adult obsession was to own a baseball team. When he talks about first falling in love with the game, the stories are always about the year the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco, which coincided with his years at Cal. He talks about watching Willie Mays and a young Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, but missing are any stories of a childhood baseball passion.
He says that when the Mariners were first formed in 1977, he did not attend many games, mostly because he didn’t care for indoor baseball. Sitting in his office, he expresses admiration for Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who had recently cut ties with outfielder Jose Guillen after the player confronted Scioscia about playing time. He mispronounces Scioscia’s name, which wouldn’t seem like much except that Scioscia has been a manager in the same division as Seattle for the past five seasons.
So what is Lincoln? He is a businessman, which has been part of the conflict between him and the fans all along. Lincoln is running the Mariners today because he did a splendid job of running Nintendo America with his longtime friend and associate Minoru Arakawa. In many game circles, he’s considered a pioneer in helping lead an industry considered dormant in the 1980s to wild success in the 1990s.
“They were largely responsible for launching the modern video-game era,” says Doug Lowenstein, president of Entertainment Software Association, a video-game trade organization. He also was important in saving the industry from its biggest calamity: the Columbine shootings in 1999. When the angry eye of the country turned toward video games as a way to explain how high-school kids could suddenly open fire on their classmates, it was Lincoln who got a lot of the credit for creating a video-game rating system.
When then-Sen. Slade Gorton was looking for local ownership to buy the Mariners in the early 1990s, Yamauchi showed interest, figuring it could help ingratiate the still fledgling Nintendo America in its local market. Lincoln, as the company’s head, became the point man for baseball.
Eventually in 2000, Lincoln left Nintendo and became the Mariners’ full-time CEO. Even now, he is the team’s main link to Yamauchi and Nintendo, which owns 54 percent of the team. While Lincoln doesn’t speak Japanese, he nonetheless compiles regular reports that are delivered to the Nintendo offices in Japan. Most important, though, the bulk of the franchise’s decisions including approving player signings are Lincoln’s to make.
The business success has always damaged him in baseball dealings. The most common complaint heard about him around baseball is that he runs his team like it is Nintendo.
“Remember he comes from the corporate world, where the balance sheet is important,” Piniella says.
It is the biggest adjustment Lincoln has had to make.
“Yes, we have been fiscally disciplined, and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he says. “In fact, any profits we have made have been poured back into the franchise. There’s never been a distribution of profits and I don’t see that in the near future.”
But there is this, too, about Lincoln: He is fiercely competitive. Everybody says this, even Piniella, who wryly notes that when playing golf the Mariners CEO “likes to cheat on his handicap and wants that long gimme putt.”
Every year for much of the past three decades, he and a group of friends go fishing in Yakutat, an Alaskan village north of Juneau. They stand in the river, just steps away from the bears, and routinely catch 12- to 16-pound salmon. Always he has to catch the biggest fish. When he plays golf, he has to have the lowest score. It becomes a joke among his friends.
Most important, he insists, is his vision of the World Series. He can see it now, even looking out at the rainy streets below his office. He can see the stadium filled with the red-white-and-blue bunting with the stands filled and fans pouring down the sidewalks. It was a picture he allowed to lock in his mind during the 2000 American League Championship Series while sitting in Yankee Stadium. Back then the World Series was so close he could taste it.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had set them up with a luxury suite in the stadium. But, typical Steinbrenner, the suite had an obstructed view.
Seattle had already won the first game and was leading the second, when everything crumbled.
The Mariners let the Yankees score seven times in the bottom of the eighth and the series was never close after that. Lincoln deflated. Even worse, when the series was over, he had to walk over to Steinbrenner’s booth, stick out his hand and wish the Yankees owner good luck in the World Series.
“That was not a pleasant moment,” he said.
The World Series seems so far away right now, lost in the rubble of the season that collapsed. Outside the rain is falling and he watches it. He did not enjoy last season, he says, the one in which the notebook stashed away in his desk began to fill with all kinds of new insults.
As Piniella said, he has been humbled now.
Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|The Mariners have made the playoffs in two of Howard Lincoln’s five years as CEO:|
|2000||91-71||Lost in ALCS|
|2001||116-46||Lost in ALCS|
|2002||93-69||Did not qualify|
|2003||93-69||Did not qualify|
|2004||63-99||Did not qualify|