John Stanton, who officially took on the role of Mariners chairman and CEO in August, recently spoke at length about the organization and a little about himself and how he got here. Why get involved in baseball? “Because I love it,” Stanton said. “I loved it growing up.”
His reluctance wasn’t a desire to remain out of the spotlight or a fear of being brought into it.
It was more of a logical unwillingness to take any attention away from the organization or the people representing it on the field in the last month of the season.
To John Stanton, he wasn’t a story to be told in the final month of the baseball season. He had officially become the Mariners’ chairman and CEO when the ownership transfer that had been announced in April was approved by Major League Baseball owners in August. But the focus, Stanton believed, should remain on the team and the people driving a late push for the postseason.
Full name: John William Stanton
Net worth: Estimated at more than $1 billion
High school: Newport (Bellevue)
Colleges: Whitman (BA) and Harvard (MBA)
Family: Lives in Bellevue with wife Theresa Gillespie, two sons.
Business: Pioneer in wireless industry, where he worked with Craig McCaw to form the first nationwide cellular network in the 1980s. Also led Western Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless. Chairman of the board for Trilogy International Partners investments, and is on the board at Microsoft, Costco and Columbia Sportswear.
Did you know?: Stanton is 6 feet 4 … He lost an election for student-body vice president at Whitman, then ran again for president — and won. … Also was a minority owner of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics.
There is also a level of privacy that he’s been able to maintain through the years as he’s become one of the most successful businessmen in Seattle and in the wireless communication industry.
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A spotlight, unwanted or unwelcomed, still comes with the territory of his new position. He has accomplished plenty in his business career — built three major wireless companies, sat on the boards of Columbia Sportswear, Microsoft and Trilogy International Partners. But the role of CEO of the Mariners, the ownership representative to Major League Baseball and the team’s fans could overshadow everything he’s accomplished. His predecessor, Howard Lincoln, admitted as much. For all of Lincoln’s successes as a corporate attorney with Nintendo, he understood that his legacy would be defined by the successes of the franchise.
Companies have customers. Sports teams have fans. There is a unique passion mixed into expectations that is unlike any business dynamic.
The 61-year-old Stanton has been part of the Mariners ownership group long enough to have an understanding of it and how he wants to approach the job.
“Let’s start with what I don’t want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be George Steinbrenner. I don’t want to be outspoken. The focus needs to be on the team. I’d much rather have you being in an interview with Robbie (Cano) or Nelson (Cruz) than doing an interview with me. I think they are the story. The leadership that Scott (Servais) and Jerry (Dipoto) provide in terms of the style of play and who’s going to be on the team. I think that’s far more important. … If I’m never out front, that’s probably because everything is going great and there is no need and value to my being there.”
With some prodding, Stanton agreed to talk at length about the organization and a little about himself and how he got here. But for the fans of a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001 — the longest playoff drought in baseball — it isn’t so much about who Stanton is or what he has accomplished. They care about what he plans to do to change the recent fortunes of an organization.
His message to them is simple:
“We’re committed to winning. We are committed to treating our fans well and part of that is doing everything we can to win. It’s a very important part of what we do. Our responsibility to our fans is to deliver a great product on the field, a great experience in the stadium. And it’s hard to say it’s a great product on the field if winning isn’t involved.”
Sept. 29 — A walk in the park
It’s 2 p.m., and Safeco Field is essentially empty. There are a few workers zipping in and out of stands on the concourse while the grounds crew does its daily manicure of the playing surface in preparation for the final series of the season against the A’s.
MLB key dates
Monday-Thursday: General manager meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Tuesday: Start of free agency.
Dec. 5-8: Baseball’s winter meetings in Washington, D.C.
The Mariners are still alive in the postseason race. They can’t lose a game and they need help from other teams to sneak into an American League wild-card spot or force a play-in game on the following Monday.
Hopeful excitement fills Stanton’s voice. And when he is excited, he talks fast and loud and animated.
“I really think we can do it,” he said.
Hours before the Mariners will put 29,522 into the stands — which isn’t enough to his liking — Stanton walks and talks.
“I love to talk to the seating hosts,” he said. “They are like the customer reps in the wireless or cellular business. They are the first people that deal with customers.”
The beginning of those conversations start the same way.
“First thing I want to know is where they are from and what their experiences have been,” he said. “You get to hear what they are thinking about and they in effect hear what our customers or our fans are thinking about. That’s important.”
Stanton’s curious nature becomes evident as he passes a man doing some work on a large exposed seam in the floor of the concourse in left field.
“I’ve never seen this,” he said and politely asks if it’s a drain.
The man explains that while it does offer some drainage even when the cover is placed back on the space, it’s actually an earthquake expansion joint. Safeco Field is broken up in pie-like sections all the way around.
“You’ll see these all over and it’s for earthquakes,” he said.
Stanton seems pleased with his discovery and returns to answering something that isn’t so simple.
“I could ask you the same question,” he said, grinning. “Because I love it. It’s addictive. I loved it growing up. I probably love it because of my family. I have vivid recollections of playing catch with my father in the backyard and having him score all of our games when I was in Little League. I coached my kids as they were growing up.”
True love for baseball is nurtured through experiences and moments.
“When I was in college, I would work 12-hour shifts, get off at 6 and go home to watch a summer-league game,” he said. “I went to grad school in Boston and I was the stupid guy that bought the ticket off the street that said view obstructed. I didn’t really understand what view obstructed in my limited experience with pro baseball in Sick’s Stadium. I literally was sitting behind a pole and doing this (craning his neck) trying to watch. I was there in ’78 — the one-game playoff where (Ron) Guidry beat the Red Sox.”
There is reverence in his voice as he describes his relationship with the game.
“I just love the game,” he said. “I loved everything about it. I love going. I love the social aspects of it. … And it’s in the summer and it’s outdoors. It’s all the things about baseball that make it fun.”
The demand for local ownership of the Mariners became louder during the playoff drought. It was always something that Stanton and the minority ownership group envisioned happening.
With Lincoln ready to retire, Nintendo viewed it as a time to move on.
“Frankly, it was pretty easy once he said the timing was right,” Stanton said. “People keep forgetting that Nintendo isn’t a public company in the U.S. the same way that Microsoft or Boeing are, they have constraints and issues on them as a company in Japan. They are very rules-oriented. So the timing was really prescribed by their need to do their year-end report. It took about two months from the point where we started talking. Feb. 2, he sent us a letter describing the way they would like to do it, and then we announced on April 27.”
With the transfer of sale, Stanton was a logical candidate to represent the group based on his past experience in the business sector.
Did he have reservations?
“What I knew is that I wanted to continue to have local ownership of baseball in Seattle,” he said. “I don’t want to sound overly modest because I’m not. It wasn’t about my having the role. It really is a partnership. People don’t think of it as a partnership. For me, it was the opportunity for us to have an effective transition from Howard’s leadership to our group’s partnership and to be able to continue to build on the good things that have been done here.”
The stroll moves to the 300 level where Stanton beams at the kids’ batting cages and simulated field. He even grabs a Wiffle ball bat and swings it.
En route to Lookout Landing, he stops and looks out at the waterfront and the city expanding behind it.
“This is a view you really don’t see anywhere else,” he said.
He stares at a rapidly growing city and the squadron of construction cranes that are trying to keep up with that booming population and economy.
Where does his team fit into this community?
“Memories are current,” he said. “The first thing you think about the recent games. The first thing they think about is guys like Felix and Robbie and winning and losing. We are measured on that. It’s been a great year, but it’s been 15 years since we’ve been in the playoffs.”
But he isn’t finished.
“I think the second thing that people think about is this place,” he said. “The neat thing about Safeco as we stand here, yeah, there are 81 games here, but what people don’t understand is there are 400 events here during the year. This place, Safeco, is a critical part of the community.”
It’s apparent this is something he’s thought about before.
“The third thing I think about is the kind of citizen we are as an organization,” he said. “The kind of people we are. We take it very seriously.”
He lists off charities and boards that certain members of the front office sit on. He mentions Mariners Care and what that means. There is a social responsibility.
“I think we have a sacred trust when it comes to baseball,” he said. “I don’t want to overstate the Mariners’ role in terms of philanthropic and community activities because I think there are a lot of great organizations here that do that. You’ve got hundreds of great organizations and I’m not trying to diminish anyone else’s role, but I’m just saying that it’s part of what we need to be as an organization.”
And yet there is a perception that the Mariners’ goal is profit over playoffs. Money means more than success.
“The fact that there are comments about this ownership and leadership group not caring about winning, but caring about making money, it’s patently false,” he said. “But I can only say it a certain number of times. Whether it’s reading it in the paper or hearing it on the radio, I can’t do anything about some of those things. I’m not going to be cynical about the folks that are saying it. But we need to win. We need to win because it’s the right thing to do and because this community deserves it.”
His face is red with emotion.
“This is factual, leaving aside Nintendo’s sale to us, no one has ever taken any money out of this. In the 24½ years, no one has taken money. We don’t pay dividends. We don’t do things that would cause people to make money.”
He mentions the Kingdome falling apart, Jeff Smulyan’s plan to move the team to Tampa and the process to get Safeco Field built.
“And now I’ve gone on defensively,” he said, laughing. “This group is highly focused in having a winning baseball team in Seattle and creating what really is an institution. I look at organizations like the Cardinals that win every year and have a great player-development organization, deeply embedded in the community and heavily involved. … We are constantly trying to learn from other organizations as to how to do it better.”
Sept. 30 — Two innings of emotion
The idea was to sit with Stanton for an entire game. But it’s apparent minutes into the top of the first inning that his preferred focus is on the game. He keeps score either on his iPad or on a scorecard depending on what’s available. And distractions — like questions about his childhood, his family and the Mariners’ place amongst Seattle’s sports teams — have caused him to miss balls and strikes and even a play. A scorebook that isn’t updated is displeasing.
“I’m falling behind,” he said.
The art of keeping score is a rite of passage that he learned from his father and taught to his two sons.
“There was a game that Greg Maddux pitched here,” he said. “It was on Father’s Day and my younger son scored the whole game, right down to the columns and rows added up. I kept it and got it framed.”
Stanton smiled at thoughts of his own youth, growing up in Bellevue.
“I’m an only child and my dad was a Boeing engineer,” he said. “My mom was, for a time, a stay-at-home mom. My dad got sick when I was about 10 years old so my mom went back to school. She got a Master’s in speech pathology and started working at the Seattle hearing and speech clinic.”
He admitted to being a little spoiled as an only child.
“They both lavished whatever they could and whatever I wanted,” he said. “I generally didn’t want much. But I do have great fond memories of playing catch with my father in the backyard and going to Sonics games and sitting in the top row and going to Sick’s Stadium to watch the Pilots play.”
The 6-foot-4 Stanton is standing and yelling and clapping as the Mariners grab an early lead. The game brings out reactive emotion in him like an ordinary fan. He grouses about foolish swings at bad pitches and comments on good defensive plays. Those imaginary games he would simulate with his baseball cards on the floor of his room have now come to life, and it’s an addictive and magical feeling.
“This is a great start,” he said.
Though he once considered becoming a lawyer, Stanton doesn’t speak with an attorney’s measured calculation. He says what he thinks and feels. A comment about a proposed Sodo Arena led by Chris Hansen at his introductory news conference brought criticism from sports fans. He won’t run from it.
“If you have a nice house and someone builds an ugly house at the end of your driveway, you’ve got the right to have an opinion,” he reiterated. “The point was that we do have a right to have an opinion and that’s what I was trying to say and what we as an organization had difficulty communicating.”
Stanton was a former minority owner of the Sonics.
“I’d love to see basketball here,” he said. “We operate this stadium. It’s a trust. It’s very important to us that our fans can safely and comfortably get in and out of our stadium. That has been our primary concern we’ve tried to express. I think that Hansen’s group has done a number of things that are helpful, and we still have some concerns and we are free and willing to express our concerns.”
Oct. 31 — Stanton’s office at Safeco Field
It’s now been 30 days since he watched the Mariners get eliminated from postseason contention in a crushing 9-8, 10-inning loss in the second-to-last game of the season.
“It was such a great game,” he said. “In some respects, it’s OK that it ended like that. I’ve got friends who are athletes that say I’d rather lose 30 to nothing in football or get blown out than lose a close one. I’d much rather have the emotions and the ups and downs and the lead changes. It was a fun game. I wish the crowd had been bigger. But it was a good-sized crowd, lot of energy in that crowd. … I just hate to lose. I hate to lose.”
Stanton rarely ventures to the clubhouse before games. But before the final game of the season on that Sunday, he walked through and thanked each player for their effort in 2016 and chatted about offseason plans.
“The players were excited about the prospect of 2017 and what it means,” he said.
He’s in 2017 mode now. He’s had multiple meetings with Dipoto, Mariners president and COO Kevin Mather and fellow owner Chris Larson about the offseason plan.
The issue of money comes up. According to Spotrac, a website that tracks financial dealings in all major sports, the Mariners’ ending payroll was just under $150 million. It’s the highest in franchise history and 13th-highest in baseball.
Will it go up? Stanton won’t say. He won’t give an exact number, but it’s unlikely to go down. With Cruz under contract for two more years and Cano and Hernandez aging, the optimal window for success may be in 2017 and 2018. Stanton knows that payroll won’t necessarily guarantee success, particularly with a thin free-agent market. But he also knows talent — acquired by free agency or trade — comes with cost.
“If Jerry came to us and said there was the one piece that I think we needed to be successful, I think we’d go out and get it,” Stanton said.
He watched the playoffs and can’t help but envision what it would be like for the Mariners.
“The goal is the goal I said on April 27 — the goal is to win a World Series here,” he said.
But it’s more than just that. Sustained success is something he also craves.
Where does he see the organization in five years?
“Consistent. Playoff. Team,” he said as his fist clenches.
And 10 years?
“Consistent. Playoff. Team.”
The enormity of those goals propels him forward and gives him energy. John Stanton, the baseball fan and John Stanton, the businessman, have combined to face a new and daunting challenge.
“You have to continue to keep your brain energized and your body energized in taking on new things,” he said. “I’m not going to learn to play the cello, but if I can figure out how to help this organization to be successful, it will be very satisfying and help me live longer. It stimulates me.”