By Shannon Drayer
The Mariners' search for a new president now takes a front burner on the hot stove.
Chuck Armstrong will remain on the job through Jan. 31, and after that someone else will take the reins. That someone will be chosen by chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln, who will consult with the ownership board in making the decision.
The process has only just begun. According to Lincoln, Armstrong's retirement had not been in the works for some time; the decision was made recently.
"This was a decision that I think he has been thinking about for some time," Lincoln told me in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "And it is a tough decision. No one wants to go out after a losing season. He feels that way just as much I do. It's just the way things go sometimes."
Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, right, says he is unsure if the team will redefine the role of its president once Chuck Armstrong, left, retires at the end of January. (AP)
Currently, the president of the Mariners has four executive vice presidents reporting to him. Kevin Mather (finance and ballpark operations), Bart Waldman (legal and governmental affairs), Bob Aylward (business operations) and general manager Jack Zduriencik (baseball operations) all report directly to Armstrong, who reports to Lincoln.
"That is fairly typical of a business organization or a business organization of baseball," Lincoln said. "You have exceptions where, for example, the baseball ops is separated from the business ops but most club presidents cover all four. It is a very large job and requires not only business skills that would be necessary in operations in any business – sales, marketing, accounting – but also a knowledge of baseball."
When Lincoln refers to "knowledge of baseball" he is referring to the knowledge of the entire scope of baseball. This, he believes, will be the hardest thing to replace.
"Replacing the business side will be easier than replacing the baseball side. He is very knowledgeable of baseball, of all of the arcane rules of baseball regarding trades, free agency," Lincoln said of Armstrong. "He's very well acquainted with virtually all of the key player agents across the country, including Scott Boras, and also a great knowledge of just the game itself. In Chuck's case he also has been very, very involved in the operation of MLB itself, on the International Committee, on the Commissioner's On-Field Committee."
This is the first opportunity since 1992 that the Mariners will have to redefine the position if they so choose. In hiring a replacement for Armstrong, Lincoln could go in one of two directions. Does he prefer to hire for continuance or change? It is a decision he has yet to make.
"I want to duck the question because I haven't reached that point," he answered. "I know that there are various alternatives. I could look outside, we could look within, we could rearrange deck chairs, there's a variety of options available. Right now I am just considering all of them and not trying to exclude any. I have an open mind about every possible iteration or every possible way [we could go about this]."
Lincoln clearly values the connections Armstrong has established in his 28 years in baseball. As he pointed out, finding a business person with the baseball experience may be a tough task to accomplish. It is not seen much in baseball, but is there a chance he could split the position? Would he consider going with a president of baseball operations and a president of business operations?
"I really don't want to make a comment. I am open to anything because I haven't even gotten to that stage," he said. "But certainly, let's put it this way: I am very cognizant of the fact there are various ways to [go about it]."
Whoever takes over the job(s) should be set up nicely in regard to finances. While we have yet to see the impact, the new television deal is a game changer, one that I see as perhaps being on par with the building of Safeco Field. Lincoln agreed with that thinking.
"The majority ownership of this regional sports network is a very, very significant development in the history of the Mariners," he said. "It will ... make the Mariners competitive if you combine the cash flow and the rights fees. It will be competitive with the Rangers and the Angels, and that is a huge thing we were able to put together. It certainly is comparable to putting up Safeco Field."
It's something that should make the job in Seattle very attractive provided there is no question about an ownership change. On that matter, Lincoln echoed what he said shortly after the death of Hiroshi Yamauchi.
"I have indicated there are no present plans to sell the Mariners," he said. "I can't speak for the future."
As for his own future, I asked if he had any plans to retire.
"Well, I am not getting any younger," he said with a laugh and then a pause. "Let's put it this way: I don't have any plans."
In truth, should an ownership change take place, there is a good chance it would be sold to a minority owner – someone who is already sitting on the board of directors, someone who will have input in hiring the new president. That process will start soon.
"I plan to talk to the directors one-on-one, take some time to reflect on what the various alternatives are, both in terms of personnel and in terms of structure, and I want to take the necessary time that that entails and then make some decisions," Lincoln said. "I don't anticipate that we are going to have anything before the holidays."
Armstrong will remain on the job and the plan is for him to attend the winter meetings in two weeks in Orlando, Fla. as Lincoln searches for his replacement. After that, there is much work to be done.
"I'm going to miss Chuck's friendship," he said. "He's a great partner. We've had a great run. We've had some tough years but we have also had some great years. I just wish that we could get this baseball side of this business turned around, and that is what we are all focused on."