For nearly three decades, from George Argyros to Jack Zduriencik, from the Kingdome to Safeco Field — from rags to riches back to rags in the standings — Chuck Armstrong’s stamp on the Mariners has been large and loud.
He was a hail fellow, a boisterous, back-slapping presence who was deeply involved in saving the franchise for Seattle — not once, but twice — and for bringing the long, complicated quest for a new stadium to a successful conclusion. During the darkest hours, both outcomes were far from guaranteed.
But Armstrong’s pending departure, announced Monday and taking effect Jan. 31, is a welcome development for a Mariners’ franchise that desperately needs cleansing. He has become irretrievably linked to the decline of the franchise, and it is beyond time for a new vision at the top.
While CEO Howard Lincoln, who at age 73 is two years older than Armstrong, shows no signs of leaving his post, the sudden vacancy at team president opens up a world of possibilities for the Mariners.
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Here’s hoping they get a baseball man who can restore the plummeting faith of a fan-base beaten down by bad baseball and clumsy off-field machinations. Heck, I’ll even throw a name out to start the wish list: Tony La Russa, who has indicated that he is open to returning to Major League Baseball in a front-office position.
La Russa, linked often enough to the Mariners in the past to make one think it’s possible, could give the organization what Nolan Ryan provided to the Rangers — instant credibility.
But if that’s not feasible, and 76-year-old Pat Gillick is content in his retirement, Armstrong’s successor will at least have the advantage of being a new face and fresh voice, untainted by the current disrepair into which the organization has fallen.
Let’s be honest here: The Mariners are toxic right now. Every move they make is presumed to be a mistake until proven otherwise — and far too often, the initial diagnosis has turned out to be accurate.
Managers come and go with alarming regularity; whatever vision exists for producing a winning ballclub has either been faulty, or prematurely abandoned. Fans have responded by staying home in increasing numbers. Attendance at Safeco has been cut in half in a decade, and the most recent disappointing season — 91 losses in 2013 — hardly seems primed to reverse that trend.
All that falls, ultimately, on the CEO and president, and Armstrong is most closely responsible for day-to-day operation of the ballclub. From a purely business standpoint, Armstrong has been spectacularly successful. Under the watch of Lincoln and Armstrong, the value of the franchise has skyrocketed, the Mariners have turned a steady annual profit, and now they have their own regional sports network to boost the bottom line even further.
But Armstrong said in a news release that “the goal always has been to win the World Series,” and they appear to be as far away from that as ever. The Mariners are one of just two teams to never win a pennant, and the other, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, were in the playoffs as recently as 2012. The Mariners haven’t tasted the postseason since 2001.
It’s only fair to point out that those 2001 Mariners, who won an American League record 116 games, also happened under Armstrong’s watch, as did each of the other playoff years (1995, 1997 and 2000).
He was president when they went over the head of then-owner George Argyros to draft Ken Griffey Jr. with the No. 1 overall pick in 1987. Armstrong nixed a trade of Mark Langston to the Mets in February 1989, paving the way for a better deal with the Expos later in the season, netting Randy Johnson.
Armstrong also fought Argyros when it was believed he was attempting to sell the Mariners to a group that was going to move them to Miami. And when the next threat of departure occurred under the ownership of Argyros’ successor, Jeff Smulyan, Armstrong was involved in securing the ownership group that wound up purchasing the team, and navigating through the initial reluctance of MLB to have a Japanese businessman front the group.
But most fans will tell you that, while noble, it is all ancient history, and that the statute of limitations has expired on the goodwill meter. Armstrong has had a good, long time to get things right again, and they keep spinning out of control. It’s time for new blood.
Buster Olney of ESPN recently wrote a column stating that the Mariners are regarded as a sleeping giant in the industry — a team in a beautiful part of the country with a great stadium, passionate fan base and bountiful financial resources.
All that is true, but what has been missing so long is the right architect at the top to guide the Mariners out of the wilderness. It is an organization that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Now they have a chance to start the renaissance.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry