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Absent Ownership Only Goes So Far

I haven't forgot about the Musings, I promise. Long story short, there isn't much free time for me these days with some significant commitments related to the whole "real life/career path" stacking on top of each other through mid-June. What free time I have is getting sunk into draft prep, because nothing says relaxation like pouring over a spreadsheet filled with juniors and seniors from across campuses that some day a new acquaintance in my life will be impressed I've heard of.

That's not entirely true. The college campus thing is totally true, but the free time thing is a bit extreme. I'm also catching parts of M's games here and there, until I hit my bedtime. I am also interested in the NBA for the first time since the Sonics left - thanks in large part to the idea that the Sonics might come back.*

* Though I also watched an entire Grizzlies-Thunder game, probably the first whole NBA game I've watched in at least five years

This is a baseball blog, so I won't spend much time talking about the Sacramento Kings situation, even though it is the topic I'm most interested in at the moment. Long story short, Chris Hansen wants to bring the Sonics back badly, but unlike 99% of Sonics fans as passionate as him he's got some deep pocket$$$ and a chunk of land he can build an arena on, along with plans for said arena and thumbs up from the local government (more formally referred to as a memorandum of understanding).

However, Chris Hansen's offer isn't enough to bring the NBA back to Seattle - at least yet. Seriously, the situation is crazy, and I hope you have been paying attention to it. The bidding war for the Kings is unprecedented.

Personally, I wish every sports owner had a little more Chris Hansen in their soul. Hansen seems to view a professional sports franchise as a civic entity, which is rare in today's more corporate sports world.

In fact, a part of me wants Chris Hansen to somehow take over the Seattle Mariners.

Hansen will never be the Mariners owner. Baseball isn't his sport; basketball is. The more I thought about Hansen though, the more I realized how strange the Mariners ownership is.

The owner is not a player, manager, or GM. A different Mariners owner might not prevent the dumb trades and ill-advised free agent signings the Mariners have made a bit too frequently to morph from pretender to contender. The owner can't go in the batting cage, change their stroke, tweak their wind-up, or learn a new pitch. In fact a good owner, to some degree, lets people do their jobs unfettered.

The owner sets a tone for a franchise though. A report surfaced that Phil Jackson, the Zen Master himself, is waiting to figure out his next step in the NBA in part because he hit it off well with Chris Hansen. Jackson brings a credibility, and a long track record of success. Jackson is the kind of hire that makes a statement about a franchise's potential - and he would not be an option without Chris Hansen.

The Mariners sort of pulled this move a couple times before. Hiring Lou Piniella was a major step towards credibility, and it ultimately manifested in the "Refuse to Lose" glory years of dingers, dinger, and more dingers in the mid-90s, with too many bullpen meltdowns to make the World Series. The Mariners added some more credibility at the turn of the millenium when they hired Pat Gillick, and in short order he built a 116-game winner.

Both Piniella and Gillick were hired under the current ownership, so perhaps the point I'm about to make is hypocritical. However, even with Piniella and a crazy talented core (Griffey, Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, all in their primes) the Mariners never built a strong enough supporting cast to make the World Series. Even in the 116-win season they did not look hard for additional pieces at the trade deadline, even though Piniella campaigned for one more hitter.

The Mariners were doing lots of things right, but a little something was missing. Maybe it wasn't something missing on the field, but rather the missing pieces on the field were a manifestation of an absence much higher up in the M's leadership.

Watching Chris Hansen pursue the Sacramento Kings, I wonder what the Mariners would have been under his helm. Would Johnson, Griffey, and A-Rod have left like they did? Would a Hansen-led M's team have found a way to build a respectable bullpen in the '90s? Would Seattle have acquired the bat that Piniella desired in 2001? Who knows, this is all hypothetical, but it's hard to imagine a sports team led by Chris Hansen just shrugging their shoulders. The Mariners, at critical points over the past 15-20 years, have appeared to shrug their shoulders and hope for the best.

And that's my whole point. The Mariners ownership is not a problem, but it is not a solution either. The Mariners ownership does not care about the team, quite literally. A guy like Chris Hansen clearly cares about the Sonics and what their return would bring to Seattle. Maybe Hansen would (or will?) turn out to be a bad owner, but there's little doubt he would care.

If an owner doesn't care about a franchise, what incentive is there for others in an organization to care? Most of them will still find a way, but likely through tangential values. Maybe they like the fans and the city. Maybe they want to build a good reputation for wherever their next job in baseball ends up being. Few will pull a Felix Hernandez, and pledge an allegiance to a franchise without success or an owner that cares. For instance, Magic Johnson (yes, another NBA reference) credits most of his post-career business success to the late Jerry Buss. The former Lakers owner mentored Magic when he was on the team, and continued to mentor him after he retired.

Can you imagine someone high up in the M's leadership taking King Felix under their wing? I suppose Chuck Armstrong did this to a degree with Ken Griffey Jr. in the 1990s, but still, Armstrong wasn't really the owner. The Mariners, for about 20 years now, have had the equivalent of an anti-puppet government. It is just plain weird.

As easy as it is to look on the field and say the Mariners need some more hitting, a bigger payroll, some of their prospects to pan out, and other things that would seem to lead to more wins, I no longer think any of those things are the biggest thing the Mariners lack. They could use a real owner more than anything. It has got to be easier to win a championship when the owner knows the score of last night's game.