On the morning of the Mariners’ 82nd game of the season, sitting at the mathematical halfway point of the 162-game marathon, Mariners chairman and managing partner John Stanton sat in the suite belonging to team president and CEO Kevin Mather, reading the day’s in-house game notes and comprehensive minor-league report. He’d already perused a morning email with links to coverage of the team.
Winning or losing, traveling or at T-Mobile Park, this is part of his daily routine. A one-on-one interview with The Seattle Times about the state of the 2019 season interrupted that routine. While not as reclusive to the media as previous team chairman Howard Lincoln, Stanton carefully chooses his availability, preferring coverage to be about the organization and not himself.
In a few hours, he’d walk down to his normal seats in the first row of the park, ready to keep score, which he does at every game.
This was a busy game to score. The bad Mariners crushed the worse Orioles, 13-3, aided by an eight-run third inning.
Seattle won the four-game series against Baltimore and finished the seven-game homestand, during which it faced two teams having worse seasons, with a 4-3 record.
One of those losses was a 9-0 drubbing by the Kansas City Royals, who took two of three games. Stanton was at the MLB owners meetings in New York and sat across from Royals owner David Glass while that game was being played.
“It friggin’ killed me,’” he said. “It was so bad.”
There have been plenty of games eliciting similar feelings from fans who know a postseason drought — the longest in major professional sports — will continue for another season and probably more.
After 82 games, the Mariners have a 35-47 record. A brilliant 13-2 start was followed by a run of bad baseball, including a 7-21 May. It might have been one of the most underachieving stretches in the team’s past 15 seasons.
In his third season as chairman of an ownership group that replaced Nintendo of America in August of 2016, Stanton approved general manager Jerry Dipoto’s “step-back” plan this offseason. This strategy hasn’t been employed by the franchise in the last two decades — don’t mistake losing seasons for rebuilding plans. This is different. This was clamored for by a large portion of fans. As for Stanton, he believed in Dipoto’s assessment they needed to reboot the roster and farm system to gain true sustained success beyond a second wild-card appearance.
Stanton approved a plan that saw Seattle decline to re-sign Nelson Cruz while trading stalwarts Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, James Paxton and Mike Zunino to gain prospects and remove bloated contracts. With an almost entirely new roster and minimal financial investment in certain aspects of the team — specifically, the bullpen — the Mariners have struggled, as predicted. Their defense is abysmal. The bullpen is a revolving mass of relievers acquired via trades, waiver claims and minor-league signings with a few carry-overs — all trying to prove they are credible big-league relievers, most with minimal success.
“I think we’ve done exactly what we’ve set out to do,” Stanton said. “I try to resist the temptation to take a snapshot of a movie — even the midpoint of the movie. I view us as on a journey to have a sustainable, championship-caliber team as soon as we can.”
And yet the losses — many of them blowouts and plenty of them noncompetitive — that has to bother Stanton, right? The Mariners have been beaten by five runs or more 17 times and given up double-digit runs to an opponent 17 times.
Did he think they’d win more?
“It’s in the range,” he said. “I would’ve loved to have had a few more wins. I think about a few that we lost.”
But he understood this was a possibility.
“The number of wins so far this season isn’t, for me, the important metric on how we are doing,” he said. “It’s the success of the players. I’m not going to point to all the players in the minor leagues. But I’m also excited that some of the guys we picked up are exceeding expectations. Some may be performing a little under expectations, but I think we are exceeding expectations overall in terms of the quality of guys that we have added.”
This interview felt like Stanton was going through talking points at times, but he went off on anecdotal tangents, mentioning the three-error inning by Dylan Moore and how he embarrassed his wife with his anger in the moment. The losing still bothers him.
“That’s a frustration,” he said “I hate to lose. My 23-year-old, when he went back to school that fall, he said, ‘Dad, you need to enjoy the wins as much as you hate the losses. We can’t get you to hate the losses any less, but you’ve got to enjoy the wins as much as possible.’ I’ve tried. It’s hard to take advice from your 23-year-old son. I have tried really hard. But we all collectively need to enjoy the wins more. All the people here, we hate to lose.”
How they’ve lost games isn’t enjoyable. He mentions the 9-0 loss again, apologizing to any fans who spent money on that game as the one game they might see this season.
“If they came to that game, they were disappointed,” he said. “And I’m sorry we didn’t play better than that, that day.”
The poor play is galling at times. And he has to remind himself he approved the moves that led to it.
“I sit there with a pencil scoring every game, and the letter ‘E’ frustrates me,” he said. referring to the 83 errors the Mariners have committed this season, easily the most in MLB. “There have been times where we’ve had a bunch of errors in a game. Those frustrate me. Those are probably the times.”
But that isn’t his biggest frustration in what is the nascent stage of this process. He loathes some of the misconceptions about a situation he feels they’ve been relatively clear about since implementing it. He’s put faith in Dipoto and his staff to make this work. It was a decision that came neither easily nor quickly.
“I feel like part of my role is to make sure I keep people focused on the notion that we’ve got a long-term plan and we stay focused on the plan. We are building our organization for the long term,” he said.
“I guess if there is a point of frustration, I think it’s being in a position, where sometimes, and even occasionally some members of the press, that there is a lack of understanding of our plan. Even though I think we’ve been as transparent as maybe any organization can be, beginning since last October. We were talking about what our plan was and what we were going to do.
“The big trades, the decision to not bring Nellie (Cruz) back and be in a position where we get as much as we possibly can. When people don’t get that, that becomes frustration.”