Don Wakamatsu didn't have a chance
Mariners leadership made the mistakes, but fired manager paid the price
Over the weekend, Seattle shortstop Jack Wilson slipped in the bathroom and broke a hand. A couple weeks ago, first baseman Russell Branyan said he injured his foot when a table in his hotel room fell on it. In other words, the 2010 Mariners can barely navigate their way around their own rooms, so what chance do they have circling American League basepaths? The answer: Not much. They are on pace to score fewer runs this season than they did in 1994, when they didn't play the final seven weeks of the season due to the strike.
Yet somehow, Don Wakamatsu was supposed to win with this club. Because he did not, because all those satisfying one-run victories last season turned into frustrating, low-scoring losses this year, the Mariners fired Wakamatsu on Monday and replaced him with Triple-A manager Daren Brown.
"The truth of the matter is, I have lost confidence that Don, [bench coach Ty Van Burkleo] and [pitching coach Rick Adair] are the best long-term fits for us this season and as we move forward,'' general manager Jack Zduriencik said, reading from a prepared statement. "New leadership is needed and it is needed now.''
He's right about that. Unfortunately, the problem is leadership at a higher level: CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong.
The Mariners logo prominently features a compass, but the club has been directionless since Lincoln chased off Lou Piniella at the end of the 2002 season. Brown will be the seventh Seattle manager since 2002 and Zduriencik made it clear he is an interim manager, so most likely, the Mariners will have an eighth manager by next spring. Take away the 10 seasons Piniella managed and Seattle has changed managers an average of every 260 games (Wakamatsu was just above average with 174). Firing the manager is as much a Seattle baseball tradition as singing "Louie, Louie'' during the seventh inning stretch -- and happens almost as often.
The constant turnover is crippling the Mariners. Firing Bob Melvin after one bad season and hiring Mike Hargrove ultimately cost the team pitching coach Bryan Price, and Monday's firings cost them Rick Adair for no apparent reason. Adair helped turn Felix Hernandez into the consistent ace the organization long expected him to be, and he also helped Jason Vargas become one of this season's top pitchers. Zduriencik went so far as to call Adair a great pitching coach but fired him anyway because, he said, he didn't think he would be able to work without Wakamatsu. He did not say why. Carl Willis, who replaces Adair, is very good at what he does but why chase off good pitching coaches?
Most every move paid off for Zduriencik last year, but most every move has backfired horribly for him this year. Those sorts of things happen -- it's not necessarily the general manager's fault when a player struggles -- but the recent moves have simply been confusing. If the Mariners are trying to develop young players, why do they keep signing so many old veterans well past their prime?
Over the winter, they picked up a two-year option on Wilson even though he was frequently hurt and unimpressive when healthy last season. They opted not to re-sign Branyan because his salary demand was too high and they were concerned about his back. In June, they traded for him after they already were hopelessly out of the race. A couple weeks later they traded Cliff Lee for another first baseman, Justin Smoak. Then they signed 35-year-old Jamie Wright, who has pitched for eight teams since 2002.
And it's Wakamatsu's fault because he couldn't make the roster work?
Granted, some of it was. Zduriencik declined to go into specifics, but there clearly were clubhouse issues with Wakamatsu. Earlier this year, Milton Bradley erupted after Wakamatsu yanked him from a game, left the stadium while the game was still being played and was pulled over for speeding on the way home. Last month, Chone Figgins had to be separated from Wakamatsu after the manager benched him for a poor play. Ken Griffey Jr., who was homerless and batting less than.200, abruptly retired after Wakamatsu stopped playing him -- Griffey was so upset that he didn't even tell the Mariners he was retiring until he had already driven to Montana.
The players were in the wrong each time, but the Mariners didn't always back Wakamatsu, and left him to dangle in the wind after the Figgins altercation. On Monday, they fired him.
Maybe they will hire a good manager to replace Wakamatsu, maybe they won't. But nothing is going to improve until Seattle changes the people truly responsible for the mess, Lincoln and Armstrong. Otherwise, we'll simply go through this routine in another season or so.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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