Seattle Mariners Managing Partner and Chairman John Stanton faces a franchise-defining crossroads. The path Stanton chooses will be abundantly clear once the Mariners replace former President and CEO Kevin Mather. If the team makes an internal hire, it signals the organization prefers staying within its comfort zone at a time when getting outside help to challenge deep-rooted paradigms would be the best course of action.
Let’s face it, Seattle’s baseball club has been mired in mediocrity, unable to get out of its own way for nearly two decades. Hanging over the team like a dark cloud is the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports. It’s an organization desperately needing a facelift, not more of the same. Promoting from within facilitates remaining an afterthought on the national stage rather than becoming an industry leader.
Strong words, I know. But my opinions on leading an organization were forged by decades of experience in the U.S. Navy. A baseball team may seem a far cry from a military unit, but the same basic leadership tenets apply to both. Leading through personal example, moral responsibility, self-accountability, open dialogue, and sincere interest in people.
Editor: Luke retired from the Navy in 2014 with the rank of Commander. He worked in the Naval Aviation community making seven forward deployments on four different aircraft carriers. His assignments included leadership roles with combatant commands, various DOD agencies, and even a tour at FEMA HQ in Washington, D.C. His 33-year career culminated as a Commanding Officer of a unit stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.
And that brings us to Mather and the culture permitting his improper behavior to persist for an extended period. Let’s not overlook the fact Mather had been with the team for 25 years until resigning last week following outrageously insensitive and inappropriate comments to a Rotary Club breakfast group. The disrespectful views publicly expressed towards people inside and outside his organization wasn’t a first-time transgression for the long-time club executive – far from it.
Thanks to diligent journalism by the Seattle Times, we know the Mariners made financial settlements with women filing sexual harassment complaints filed against Mather over a decade ago. But he wasn’t a lone wolf gone rogue. Mather’s predecessor as team President – Chuck Armstrong – and now-former Executive Vice President Bob Aylward were also named in grievances. Inflaming the situation, all three men remained within the Mariners family with Mather being promoted twice into positions of greater authority and influence.
Defenders of Stanton and his partners can say majority ownership of the Mariners was in the hands of others at the time of the sexual harassment incidents. True, but Stanton and the minority owners comprising the new partnership are holdovers from the previous regime. Mariners chairman emeritus John Ellis emphasized this point at the time of the sale’s approval by MLB.
“There’s not a soul, other than the people retiring, that will be impacted, because all of these same partners are still involved.” – Mariners chairman emeritus John Ellis
Essentially, the transfer of team ownership more resembled a game of musical chairs in the boardroom than an actual changing of the guard.
Then, there are Stanton’s own words. During a press conference following Mather’s resignation, Stanton, a minority owner since 2000, stated more than once he didn’t agree with the assertion Mather’s recent public comments created a trust problem with its fan base, staff, and player personnel.
Stanton declared, “I don’t agree with the premise.” He later commented, “I don’t think that the trust has been completely eroded” and “You build trust over time, and you build that relationship by communicating honestly, consistently.” Stanton’s statements remind me of a phrase uttered daily in the Navy.
“One ‘aw, shit’ wipes out a thousand attaboys.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Stanton, your former CEO’s commentary in front of a group he perceived as friendly erased a tremendous amount of goodwill your organization has built up. Particularly when the controversial statements came from a senior executive with sexual harassment complaints on his résumé. In reality, Mather burned through a great deal of your club’s reputation-equity during a 40-minute Zoom call.
Perhaps trust in the organization hasn’t completely eroded. But the Mariners certainly face a crisis of confidence. Winning back the faith of skeptical fans won’t be easy or a short-term undertaking. That’s why now is the time for a fresh message delivered by a new voice, not a familiar face.
Hiring an outsider would go against the Mariners’ normal status quo approach. But an agent of change is what this team needs. Someone not tethered to franchise history or personal relationships. A leader with the necessary authority to enact change and the charisma to sell employees, players, and the fan base on the team’s new direction. It simply can’t be someone with ties to Stanton or other owners.
Assume for a moment the Mariners were willing to hire someone from outside the organization with a national profile. The name mentioned most often is former Cubs and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who currently works for MLB. Epstein’s credentials are exemplary. He led two organizations with World Series droughts spanning over a century to championships. But there’s a critical factor to consider when discussing Epstein or other qualified candidates from the outside. The appetite of ownership to change course with an unfamiliar face at the helm.
An outsider will address uncomfortable truths with people throughout the organization – including ownership. Will team leadership, who has a reputation for being allergic to criticism, embrace the concept of self-assessment and potentially receiving negative feedback? The truth will set you free, but it can hurt.
It is plausible ownership opts to split Mather’s President and CEO duties between two people. Doing so would make sense. Perhaps giving one person so much authority negatively affected the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the franchise. In that case, adding an outsider CEO and promoting Executive Vice President and GM Jerry Dipoto to the President’s position would have merit.
Dipoto is the best thing to happen to the Mariners’ baseball operations since Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick left Seattle after the 2003 season. Perhaps elevating the sixth-year GM permits him to avoid undue influence from a President/CEO more focused on dollars and cents than building a sustainable winner the way Dipoto believes is best.
Moving forward, the competence and character of ownership will determine whether the team regains the trust and confidence of its fan base. Mather’s inappropriate behavior and the organization’s willingness to retain and subsequently promote him speaks volumes about its culture. Not just to fans, but more importantly, to employees forced to work under someone with a documented history of disrespect and intolerance.
A team owner, like a Navy Commanding Officer, sets the moral tone for the organization. As managing partner, Stanton can pivot his organization in a new and much more promising direction with the counsel of an outside voice. The alternative isn’t as appealing. More of the same. Big promises. No results.
That would be an unfortunate outcome for all involved.
My Oh My…
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