Armstrong opens up about club's future
President expounds on GM search, direction of Mariners
SEATTLE -- Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said this week that an intense determination to get the Mariners back on course via a "collaborative and inclusive" management style that worked well in the past keeps him in the position that he firmly believes he belongs."The easiest thing would be to declare victory and walk away from what we have accomplished here -- building a beautiful ballpark, having the best record in baseball from 2000-03, winning a record 116 games and going to the playoffs in 1995, '97, 2000 and 2001," Armstrong said. "Maybe someone else could walk away and feel good about it, but I can't. I care passionately about this place and this organization, and I am more determined than ever to help get this turned back around." Armstrong, 66, and Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln are dealing with the disappointment from a team that was expected to compete for a playoff berth. Instead, it couldn't overcome a slow start, injuries and off-years from some key players en route to losing 101 games. Sitting in his fifth-floor office at Safeco Field, overlooking First Avenue and Edgar Martinez Drive, Armstrong spent nearly an hour in an exclusive interview with MLB.com, discussing the organization's past, present and future and explaining why it's so important for him to stay on board during one of the most crucial offseasons in franchise history. "I trust my own ability to make good decisions," Armstrong said. "I trust my instincts, both personal and business. I honestly believe that I am the best person to be the president of this club and to hire the next [general manager]. "This is an extension of who I am, and I want to help find the right general manager, help put together a comprehensive plan, take that plan to ownership and then execute that plan." Armstrong said he understands that it will take a series of good decisions to get the Mariners on the right track. The first one is hiring the next GM, something he has been working on since June 16, when Bill Bavasi was dismissed after four-plus years. According to Armstrong, the Mariners' next GM will have less power than Bavasi did -- especially during his fourth and fifth years with Seattle -- and probably have a smaller player payroll. Armstrong said the organization is looking for a "new approach" in evaluating talent at all levels and the construction of the Major League roster. "We need to have new, fresh thinking and get to the point where we're solid year after year, not just patch it together," Armstrong said. "We're looking for some fresh blood, someone with a new perspective and good leadership skills." As the point man in the search process, Armstrong has made numerous phone calls to colleagues in the industry and assembled a list of about 60 potential GM candidates. He said that list has been whittled down to around 10, and they are now in the process of being interviewed. The list will be reduced even further, and it's possible the next GM could be selected as early as a couple of days before the World Series starts or as late as a few days after the Fall Classic ends. The candidates have various degrees of front-office experience, Armstrong said. Former Mariners GM Pat Gillick, though not a candidate, has offered some advice, as have other general managers and club presidents.
|"I trust my own ability to make good decisions. I trust my instincts, both personal and business. I honestly believe that I am the best person to be the president of this club and to hire the next [general manager].|
|-- Mariners president Chuck Armstrong|
Armstrong has kept Lincoln and the Mariners' board up to speed during the process. Lincoln and Armstrong will select the GM and take their recommendation to the board for final approval.So who will it be? And what can the new GM expect? Some in the Seattle media have suggested Armstrong and Lincoln would not offer a GM enough autonomy, but according to several GMs contacted for this article, one would be hard-pressed to find any Major League franchise with which "complete autonomy" and "general manager" are mentioned in the same sentence. "I don't think that happens anywhere," said Padres GM Kevin Towers. "I don't think anybody in baseball has the autonomy to just go out there and make deals. In this day and age, with the economics the way they are, dealing with multi-million dollar contracts, several people are involved in making decisions. The scouts that help put together a deal are involved, the club president is involved and the owner is involved. Before you make any sort of decision, everyone has to be involved in making the decision. "Any deal we make, regardless if it's a zero-to-three minimum salary guy, the owner deserves to know what you are doing. Sometimes, a deal might make baseball sense, but it doesn't make financial sense, so it isn't made. I don't think it's any different anywhere else." Armstrong said he believes communication from top to bottom is the key to a smooth-running operation, and the next general manager must believe in the same "collaborative and inclusive" form of management. It was the method used during the organization's most successful seasons -- from the first American League West championship in 1995, to the AL-record 116 regular-season wins in 2001 and more than 90 victories in 2002 and '03. "If your management style is not collaborative and inclusive and you want to fly solo and do this on your own, you are not going to be our GM," Armstrong said. "That's not going to work here. "We think the most successful form of management is one that major decisions are not made in a vacuum by one person. When ideas are discussed as a group, so that everybody in upper management has had a chance to have their say, then the best decisions can be made." That's the way, Armstrong said, the Mariners operated from 1995-2003, when winning 90-something games a season was commonplace. As with all clubs, that does not mean there's not some internal dissent. In late 2000, both Gillick and manager Lou Piniella thought it was a bad idea for the Mariners to pursue a singles-hitting outfielder from Japan named Ichiro Suzuki. If they had not been overruled by their bosses, Ichiro probably would have spent the past eight years breaking 100-year-old MLB records, and getting one foot in the Hall of Fame door, while playing for the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Tigers or Twins -- five other organizations known to have submitted posting bids for Ichiro's services. Also, if a proposed trade by then-GM Woody Woodward with the Mets in 1989 had not been blocked by a higher club executive in the organization, the Mariners never would have acquired left-hander Randy Johnson from the Expos. Woodward agreed in principle to trade pitcher Mark Langston, right fielder Jay Buhner and shortstop Omar Vizquel to New York for third baseman Howard Johnson, pitchers David West and Sid Fernandez and the choice of pitchers Kevin Tapani or Wally Whitehurst. That one was nixed by upper management, and Woodward eventually worked out a five-player swap with the Expos -- sending Langston and a player to be named later (pitcher Mike Campbell) to Montreal for Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris. The collaborative and inclusive style of management worked well, leading to enough good decisions that the 2001 team, which did not have a slam-dunk Hall of Fame player on the roster, set an AL record with 116 victories. Armstrong acknowledged that not all of the ideas proposed and accepted by upper management will be good ones. But he said that he believes decisions made in a "collaborative and inclusive" style have a much better chance of succeeding. "We invite dissent. We do not want a bunch of 'yes' people," Armstrong said. "We invite dialogue back and forth. We don't want someone who is afraid to express their views, although they might be different than ours."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.