A passion for the sport does not a great CEO make, of course. Time will tell if the Mariners take the next step.
The new frontman of the Seattle Mariners has deep and abiding baseball roots. John Stanton may have made his fortune in the wireless business, but he says his dream job would have been playing center field in the major leagues.
“That evaporated when I was 14 and cut from my junior-high team,” he said with a laugh.
Stanton’s two sons like to joke that their dad lettered in debate rather than baseball in high school and college. Yet Stanton’s profound love of the game never left him. On Wednesday, when he was introduced as the successor to Howard Lincoln as the Mariners’ chairman and CEO, Stanton eagerly put forth his hardball bona fides.
Stanton recalled sitting in Sicks Stadium with his dad, marveling at its vastness, only to realize later what a bandbox it really was. He cried as a teenager in 1970 when the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee, foreshadowing his “enormous disappointment” as a Sonics minority owner when the team was sold by Howard Schultz to Clay Bennett’s group — a transaction he voted against.
Stanton has said his favorite movie is “Field of Dreams,’’ particularly moved by James Earl Jones’ character’s soliloquy about what baseball has meant to America. He is an investor in the minor-league Tacoma Rainiers as well as the Walla Walla Sweets and Yakima Pippins. The latter two are wood-bat college summer teams about which Stanton waxes rhapsodic.
“You’re up close, and you get to really get a sense of the game,’’ he said. “The cliché you can smell the grass and all that. It’s a lot of fun.”
The story goes that Stanton, Seattle-born and Bellevue-bred, would charter planes to get back in time to coach his sons’ youth baseball games. Both became college players, one still active. Stanton says he has already seen 46 games this year — 36 of them college tilts, the rest involving the Mariners.
A passion for the sport does not a great CEO make, of course. But it’s as good a place as any to start on a seismic day in Mariners history. Lincoln deserves all due credit for his key role in keeping the Mariners in Seattle, and for securing the funding for Safeco Field. Yet confidence in his stewardship had waned to the point that a new voice at the top is both overdue and welcome.
The Mariners’ ownership machinations have always been murky and tinged with mystery, particularly under the reign of Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, who died in 2013. Yamauchi, who appointed Lincoln as his ownership representative in 1992, never once saw the Mariners play, and there was always a sense of disconnect, fair or not.
Now, for the first time, the entire 17-member ownership group is local. Though there is no majority partner, Stanton will be out front as CEO. He began his news conference on Thursday by saying, “I suspect a lot of you are wondering, who the heck is John Stanton? I’m sure most of you have never heard of me.”
That may be an exaggeration, considering Stanton is a billionaire who played a prominent role in building McCaw Cellular, the first nationwide cellular network, and also built Western Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless, which became what is now Bellevue-based T-Mobile US.
But any semblance of anonymity for Stanton is about to disappear, as Lincoln learned, sometimes painfully, when he became Mariners CEO in 1999, replacing John Ellis. Asked if he was prepared for the slings and arrows that come with the job, Stanton replied with a smile, “I’m sure I’m not.”
He added, “I enjoy the fact I live in a community where there’s an awful lot of people who have had a lot of success in different fields. He probably would be annoyed to hear me say it, but I see Jeff Bezos in the grocery store periodically. I run into founders of Microsoft playing tennis occasionally. It’s a community where, I think, you can lead a relatively normal life, and I’m going to try hard to do that.”
Stanton said he had received two kinds of emails and texts after the story of his new position became public — the ones congratulating him, and the ones telling him he was crazy.
Stanton, who won’t officially take charge of the ballclub until approved by MLB, likely in August, gave some glimpses of his style and beliefs. He expressed full confidence in team president Kevin Mather, and said that although “payroll matters, it’s not just about buying the expensive free agent; it’s also about making sure the guys, like a Felix (Hernandez), like a (Kyle) Seager, who are committed to the team and want to win, are here for a long time, hopefully their whole careers.”
Stanton lauded the role of creativity in team building — “doing things and seeing things a little differently” — and added, “I think the pieces are all here, and I believe this team can and will win.”
In fact, the Stanton first-day statement that most Mariners fans will cling to, even though it’s hardly revolutionary, is this one: “The No. 1 goal of this ownership group is to win a World Series. We want to win a World Series here in Seattle and have a celebration of that event. I think it’s time we have that accomplishment.’’
Whether he succeeds in that endeavor, or if the Mariners continue to be stymied in pursuit, Stanton is now front and center as the symbol of their successes and failures.
From this day forward, everyone around here knows who the heck John Stanton is — and they’ll be watching intently to see what kind of stamp he’ll put on a Mariners team still searching for its first parade.