Bette and other “Divas” used in a Sports Analogy? Huh?

Mariners not in the market for a diva
Friday, November 8, 2002


For those persuaded that the Mariners bosses have completely fried their mental microprocessors, yesterday they gave you Edgar Martinez back.

For those still unconvinced, owing to the fact that Dusty Baker will not be the Mariners manager, we offer a Seattle sports analogy by way of explanation that the Mariners themselves will not provide:

George Karl vs. Wally Walker.

It’s not precise, but the drift is clear.

However, if your preference for reference is Hollywood, try this: Having parted ways uncomfortably with Bette Midler, the Mariners were not eager to sign Diana Ross.

First Avenue South at Atlantic has become a No-Diva Zone.

After watching the departures of Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, the secret long had been out.

Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen. The Mariners have the proof of a 116-win season to suggest great things are possible without superstars. More recently, there is also evidence, in the form of a third-place finish in the four-team American League West, that there is virtue in having Barbra Streisand around for some high notes.

Baseball championships are won both ways; this year’s World Series displayed excellent examples of each species. The San Francisco Giants were covered in peacock feathers, while the Anaheim Angels were mostly hairnets and orthopedic shoes.

The fact that the Angels won the tournament was not decisive, given that the margin was a single game. The previous champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks, also winners by a single game, were largely a busload of Ethel Mermans.

So baseball success is at least as much about fashion and taste as it is scientific formula.

Almost always, the paying customers will clamor for grandness; at the prices they are asked to pay, they are indeed entitled to elephants, clowns and trapeze artists at every seat.

But if you’ve ever tried to housebreak an elephant, you know it’s one shovelful after another.

After 10 mostly great years of Lou Piniella, the Mariners bosses are tired of shoveling. Much as Walker, the Sonics president, wore down dealing with coach Karl’s demands and neuroses, general manager Pat Gillick lost tolerance for Piniella’s more private rants.

While offering no specifics on the past, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln yesterday made clear what he had in mind for the future.

“Ultimately, the manager we pick,” he said, “is the one the general manager says, ‘This is my guy, the guy I’m comfortable with, who will work with me.’

“So much goes on behind closed doors that fans and media don’t see. What fans don’t understand is how critical the relationship is between the general manager and the field manager. As much as he has to do on the field, the manager has to have a close relationship with the general manager, and vice versa.”

Obviously, there wasn’t much relationship left between Gillick and Piniella. But that tends to be secondary to fans, who will almost always side with the guy they know is a proven winner, be it Piniella or Karl.

The only way for Gillick to come out ahead is, for example, to have Luis Ugueto turn into the next Nomar Garciaparra by about early April.

You may recall the young shortstop, a Rule V acquisition, spent more time on the bench than trainer Rick Griffin. But he occupied a roster spot that became a waste because Piniella, along with others, didn’t think the kid could contribute in 2002.

Baseball rules dictate that Ugueto had to stay on the major league roster or be lost to his old club — a decision deemed worthwhile by Gillick, but in obvious conflict for a contending team with Series potential.

So Piniella started off with his “I need another bat” monologue in spring training and never let up. He was right, but his frequent laments drove the bosses crazy. Nor was the episode isolated.

The uneasy coexistence worked for three years of success, but as tends to happen with human nature, fell apart under pressure.

Although they won’t say so, Gillick, Lincoln and other Mariners saw in Baker the potential for reprise, a strong-willed ego that would demand control, attention and talent befitting his résumé.

“We didn’t think he was a fit,” Lincoln said. “Just as we didn’t think Bobby Valentine was a fit. The 12 people we interviewed were fits.

“Just as we’re not going to explain the reasons for those not making the final four, we’re not going to go into the details of why others didn’t make our original list. So working our way through it, we felt it would have been wrong to interview a guy who we didn’t think would fit in the first place.”

The friction in the Mariners front office was not unlike that which ushered Baker out of San Francisco, despite 10 years of success and the Series appearance. Across the Bay, Oakland general manager Billy Beane had his issues with manager Art Howe, who despite three remarkable years with the low-budget A’s, leaped at the Mets job taken from the fired Valentine. All Valentine did was get the underdog Mets to the Series in 2000.

Think about it: In the last month, four managers who pulled off some of the most remarkable single-season feats in recent baseball history found themselves at least temporarily out of work. And Baker might land with another team who will fire its manager to make room.

Feel free to make sense out of all this, because you will be the first. But as your brain inevitably cramps up, relax it again upon these thoughts: Baseball talent has a lot more to do with seasonal outcomes than baseball managing, and Edgar Martinez remains a Mariner.

As divas go, he’s not much. But as a provider of classic standards, the listening is easy on the mind.

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