Revenue dreams

How Safeco Fraud—er, Safeco Field—allows the Mariners to bilk their fans.

SEATTLE MARINERS MANAGEMENT finally destroyed fans' faint hopes for a postseason playoff spot on July 28, when the team traded the only Mariner who could play first base. The trade was a premeditated move toward ownership's avowed goal for the 1999 season: Make money. In other words, win profits rather than ball games and pennants.

The roll-out of Safeco Field guaranteed the short-term success of that plan, and it seems to have made inevitable the replacement of experienced talent with inexperienced potential. The plan forces the M's to lose games in the present in exchange for allegedly laying the foundation of a more competitive future team. This process is euphemistically called "rebuilding," and it is a common practice in the major leagues. Teams that believe they can't win in the current season trade players that have value (those that other teams believe will help them win) to teams looking to win in the present.

In those few seasons when the M's thought they might make the playoffs, they were on the other side of the equation; they would acquire talent after the All-Star break in the hopes that it would make a difference in the season's stretch run. Their acquisition of higher-paid talent in exchange for promising Mariner minor leaguers was a signal to M's players and fans alike that the franchise was serious about making, and trying to win, that season's playoffs. This year, they did the reverse, reverting to Mariner tradition by cashing in experienced talent—David Segui, Butch Huskey, Matt Mieske—for current playoff-contending teams' future assets. Stripping down like this can deliver two advantages: In the present, you cut payroll, sending away guys making perhaps $420,000 a month and bringing up minor leaguers making about $38,000 per; in the future, you have additional young ballplayers who may amount to something for you.

Rebuilding is not inherently bad. Few teams, in fact, can avoid it forever. But the M's front office is trying to sell its de-construction project as a pennant-race strategy—a spin-control effort that amounts to outright fraud.

The weirdest thing about this depressing return to Mariner practices of yore is that it was brought on by the very thing that was supposed to stop it. The building of the new ballpark and its "revenue streams" brought the strip-down from the realm of the possible into the realm of the irresistible. Rather than allow the Mariners to spend at market rates for top-of-the-line talent, Safeco Field allows them to get away with gutting the roster for the sake of monstrous profits. Because it is a novelty, the Safe is guaranteed to sell a lot of tickets even if the product on the field is playing .500 or .400 baseball. What owner is his right mind would spend $69 million on payroll to make the playoffs (and perhaps be eliminated in the first or second round) while playing to a full house, when they can spend $41.7 million and play to the same full house? The income model at the Safe makes winning games an obsolete strategy for making money. The powerful entertainment and marketing lure of a new stadium is enough to make the place the equivalent of a destination theme park.

REBUILDING—OR, AS IT might more accurately be termed, "profitable losing"—can either be a one- to three-year strategy or a permanent way of doing business. Either model has a long tradition in baseball. Montreal and Pittsburgh, for example, have made an art of permanently rebuilding, developing young players on their major league club rather than in the minor leagues, then trading them for youngsters when their skills develop enough to demand major league-level pay. This might best be termed the Sisyphus Strategy, since it is unlikely ever to produce a pennant-winning season. (Montreal, the prototypical Sisyphus, has run out of luck with this strategy but is hoping to revive its fortunes with—voila!--a new ballpark.) A Sisyphus may have a season when it is playing competitively through early August, but the long, grinding schedule in the majors winnows out talented but inexperienced teams 19 years out of 20. In that one season out of 20, a Sisyphus may get enough breaks, have enough hot streaks, get enough youngsters synchronized with surprising seasons, and have enough opponents suffer enough bad luck to allow it to slip into the playoffs. But this is not part of the team's plan; it is merely a fortuitous occurrence.

The question before Mariner fans is whether the team is legitimately rebuilding (of course, the team itself insists it is not rebuilding but still trying to win "this year"), or whether it has gone permanently Sisyphean. Or, possibly, the franchise has settled on a "quick-rebuilding" strategy designed to leverage the honeymoon period brought on by the new stadium. By purging the present roster of pricey talent and replacing it with minimum-wage scrubs this year (and perhaps next) while still playing to big audiences in the low-cost, high-income new park, team ownership may be hoping to accumulate enough cash to sign Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez—two of the most expensive stars in the game. They figure to be betting that they can build a team around those two superstars by developing talent in their farm system, with the idea that they will be a contending team two or three seasons from now.

There is, however, a fourth possibility—one that might be called the "dressing-up" strategy: the preparation to sell the franchise.

When people dress up a house to sell it, they focus on meeting checklists, passing inspections, perhaps installing some low-price kitchen fixtures that look new to potential buyers but are guaranteed to tarnish or need replacement soon. They don't invest a lot in expensive long term - return features, leaving those hassles to the new owners.

This is how Mariner ownership has behaved this year. It has dressed up its farm system, stocking it with attractive potential talent acquired in exchange for veteran Mariner talent. It has brought on line the nation's most expensive ballpark, graced with one of the most generous leases in the country. Ownership has just staged the sports equivalent of a corporate layoff during exceptionally profitable times, resulting in a lower-than-average payroll and better cash flow. This is classic corporate "buy me" behavior.

Fans trying to divine whether Mariner ownership is trying to build a championship ballclub, as it claims, should watch in the coming months for some telltale clues. If the media keep pumping out more stories on this year's rookies and next year's hopefuls than on established, proven players, if puff pieces about the "experience" of baseball in the new stadium keep popping up, and if either Griffey or Rodriguez are traded for prospects rather than signed, you can bet the team is intent on either Sisypheanism or sale. On the other hand, if Seattle owners trade for a lead-off hitter with an on-base average above .375 over the last two seasons and for a first baseman who has played more than 500 major league games at his position, and if they finally attempt to fix the Mariner bullpen realistically, you can bet they are bent on contention. (This is known as the "dream on" scenario.) "Realistically," for purposes of our study, doesn't mean taking flyers on older guys with good arms but a history of frequent injury (Butch Henry, Mark Leiter) or taking flyers on career head-cases with great arms (Joses Mesa y Paniagua, Bobby Ayala, Heathcliff Slocumb, etc.) or taking flyers on minor league kids (Todd Williams, Steve Sinclair). It means acquiring a reasonably steady veteran with both a better-than-average track record as a reliever and a better-than-average medical history.

Serious fans will look for the Mariners to solve at least two of their three major weaknesses; if they fix none by the start of spring training, the future will be clear. Sisyphus will be pushing that boulder up his hill—with a For Sale sign hanging from his neck.

 
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