Ever since manager Lou Piniella left after the 2002 season and GM Pat Gillick departed in 2003, the Mariners have been in The Hot Seat Era with its manager and general manager.
The hot seat, an essential piece of Mariners furniture — call it 21st Century Contemporary — has returned.
Or maybe we should just say it has been brought out of the storage closet, a little dusty after a one-year absence, but still very much intact.
It was September of 2006 when Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, upon announcing the rehiring of general manager Bill Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove following a last-place season, declared:
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“I don’t want to leave any doubt in anybody’s mind: Mike Hargrove and Bill Bavasi are on my hot seat.”
Thus was born a phrase that would have resonance, and staying power. And now, in the midst of a season that threatens to trump all of the bad years in recent Mariners history, it is relevant again, mostly in regard to manager Don Wakamatsu.
But here’s the sad truth: The entire stretch of Mariners baseball that followed the departure of manager Lou Piniella (who opted out of his contract to go home to Tampa Bay after the 2002 season) and GM Pat Gillick (who stepped down after the 2003 season) can be termed The Hot Seat Era.
It’s been a steady procession of managers and GMs, innuendo and outrage.
Bob Melvin lasted two seasons as manager — one of them good for 93 victories — before he was fired. His replacement, Mike Hargrove, was in the midst of his third season when he abruptly (and still mysteriously) resigned in early July of 2007. John McLaren finished the year, was given the permanent job — and got fired in June of his first full season in 2008. Jim Riggleman took over as interim manager but was not retained after the season, giving way to Wakamatsu. And we all know his tenuous status.
On the GM front, Gillick’s replacement, Bill Bavasi, was seemingly under fire from his first year (a 99-loss debacle in 2004) until his last (the unmitigated disaster of 2008). Bavasi was fired in June of that year — just a few days before his successor, Lee Pelekoudas, fired McLaren. Pelekoudas gave way after the season to Jack Zduriencik, who, after being hailed a genius last year, is attracting his own share of heat after numerous offseason moves have backfired.
Even when the Seattle brain trust escaped firing — as in 2006, despite a winless road trip (0-11) in August that ended Seattle’s remote contending dreams — the speculation has been almost non-stop, and debilitating.
That’s what happens, however, when you have just two winnings seasons in the six years post-Piniella/Gillick, and heading toward a potential 100 losses in Year 7.
In one of those winning years, 2007, the Mariners were 20 games over .500, one game out of first and leading the wild-card race in August when they went on an epic nosedive of 15 losses in 17 games. The result was more endless debate about the job security of McLaren and Bavasi before Lincoln announced at the end of the year that both were coming back.
In the course of explaining the decision, and lauding both men, Lincoln told reporters, “One thing I will say: Fans don’t understand how disruptive it is to switch a GM or a manager.”
While I argued at the time it didn’t always have to be disruptive — the Mariners made the playoffs in Gillick’s first two seasons — those are words Lincoln should take to heart as once again the M’s ponder a manager’s future.
Yes, many fans are out for blood — an understandable visceral reaction to a season of epic collapse. And in baseball, when there’s a crisis, the manager is invariably the sacrificial lamb.
But Wakamatsu is the same guy whose deft handling of the clubhouse last season restored camaraderie where before there had been chaos. He’s the same guy who pushed all the right buttons in transforming the Mariners from 101 losses to 85 victories.
This season, he was handed a roster that turned out to be, in many ways, dysfunctional. He was forced to deal with a Ken Griffey Jr. situation that was no-win — bench a legend, or play a designated hitter that couldn’t produce.
Yes, he has made mistakes, but the answer is not to sweep out the manager after one bad season — even one disastrously bad year. That approach has not served the Mariners well. It’s time to give continuity a try. If the Mariners thought Wakamatsu was the man to lead them out of the wilderness a year ago — and he did get them to where they could at least see the light — now is not the time to give up on their belief system, to use Wak speak.
The Mariners should put the managerial hot seat back in storage.