Opinion: Mariners president Kevin Mather’s dyspeptic comments capture what’s wrong with Major League Baseball

In a strange sort of way, baseball may ultimately owe Kevin Mather a debt of gratitude.

Mind you, it’s not because of anything he’s accomplished in the game, where he’s existed largely as an executive numbers-cruncher until 2014, when he was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the Seattle Mariners.

No, Mather ensured his legacy not with a deft hiring of a general manager or an industry-altering innovation, but rather by stepping in front of a Zoom camera for 45 minutes of truth-telling in a session with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club.

Consider his performance, captured by an eagle-eyed Mariners fan, Exhibit A for what’s wrong with Major League Baseball.

And consider taking what Mather has said and done in his career, and doing the opposite as a road map to repairing the game.

We’re not sure if there’s a three-mimosa minimum before regaling the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, but Mather’s candor in front of a friendly audience was a startling glimpse into the men who control the teams you cheer for.

In the Mariners’ case, it’s a 58-year-old golf aficionado with a disdain for players who don’t capitulate to management, a streak of ethnocentrism bordering on racism and a history of inappropriate workplace behavior toward women, according to multiple former employees.

In an era when baseball is desperate to amplify its current and emerging stars, here’s the very first thing Mather had to say about 20-year-old outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez:

“He is loud. His English is not tremendous.”

At a time the game likes to boast of its international cast of players yet fails to match the NBA and NFL for global appeal, here’s Mather’s take on Asian players, like former Mariner pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, requiring translators:

“When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma X, but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. His English suddenly got better, his English got better when we told him that!”

As the highest-ranking executive on a team with the longest playoff drought in North American team sports, Mather is not nearly as interested in the Mariners’ playing in October than he is making free agents come begging for a job:

“We have taken the position that there are 180 free agents still out there on February 5 unsigned, and sooner or later, these players are going to turn their hat over and come with hat in hand, looking for a contract.”

Mather talking about expecting free agents to come “hat in hand” begging for a contract… pic.twitter.com/C1w03iFmpV

And in an industry that tries to at least pretend it does not artificially suppress salaries or make good-faith efforts to field the best roster possible, Mather stunningly admitted in multiple passages that the Mariners did and will do just that with outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert:

“There was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park,” Mather said of the pandemic-altered 2020 season in which the Mariners allocated precious spots in their player pool to several top prospects, noting “you might’ve seen my big tummy out there in left field” if the team ran short of players.

As for Gilbert?

“You won’t see him April 1,” Mather said, letting the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club know the club will blatantly steal a year of service time from Gilbert, even if he faces 50 batters and strikes all of them out in the Cactus League.

It’s the same deal for Kelenic, a confident and wildly talented outfielder, the sort of chap you’d want to market around, sell a few tickets, hopefully win a few games.

Mather? It sounds like he hates the guy, for no reason other than the 21-year-old had the stomach and, apparently, the short-term financial security to reject what surely was a grossly team-friendly deal that would have tied him to Seattle well into his free agent years.

It’s an unseemly and increasingly popular maneuver with teams — rather than letting talent determine if a kid makes the big league roster, threaten a banishment to the minors unless you sign away multiple free-agent years.

Worse, Mather frames this as a matter of virtue, giving first baseman Evan White a pat on the head for agreeing to a deal guaranteeing him $24 million before playing a major league game, while castigating Kelenic for rejecting it.

Never mind that White was far less vaunted a prospect at the time of the offer than Kelenic.

“I like Evan White,” Mather said, moments after noting White opted not to heed the union’s advice in signing the deal. “He’s a nice young man, and he made the comment, he said, “I have ($24 million) guaranteed. That changes a person’s life. I’m signing the deal. And if I’m good and they pick up my options, I’ll have $55 million guaranteed. That changes my family’s, my grandkids’ lives.” I like the young man.”

Jarred Kelenic is one of the top prospects in baseball. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

As for Kelenic?

Well, Mather’s depiction of Kelenic daring “to bet on himself, as he put it,” so confused one of the well-fed and curious members of the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club that they asked Mather if Kelenic was already on the outs.

And that says a lot about the bare-knuckle, nickel-saving, fan-unfriendly industry that is Major League Baseball: That a president of a ballclub would rather castigate a rising young star to the most prestigious gathering of international service organization breakfast appreciators in all of Bellevue, rather than promote him.

That one minute, Mather can express his love for Kyle Seager, that he “whispered to him he’s probably going to be a Mariner Hall of Famer,” yet in the next breath say he’s “probably overpaid.”

The Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club probably nodded along to that statement, since Mather didn't also tell them Kyle Seager was paid $540,100 in 2014, when he was an All-Star and a Gold Glover.

And we wonder why the union might not trust management?

Not when these clubs want it both ways — to harvest prime production at minimum wage in early years, while moving the goalposts on free agency and then waiting out the glut of unsigned players for bargains rather than, you know, proactively try to win.

It also tells you that teams view deals like White’s — that they sell as “fair” to audiences like the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club — as virtually no risk. White batted .176 in his first taste of the big leagues; Mather doesn’t sound worried.

“Some we’ll win on, some we’ll lose on, but we’re going to try to get three or four more players signed on these long-term deals over the next two years,” he said to a virtual audience likely pining for the omelette bar.

Some two weeks passed between Mather’s comments and their public surfacing, and he got churned, Ted Cruz-style, through the news cycle Sunday. Rodriguez tweeted his disgust with Mather’s remarks, which not only were harmful but also, by multiple accounts, grossly inaccurate. By day’s end, Mather had cobbled together a statement apologizing for his actions and noting he was making amends with the many people. “I will do whatever it takes,” he said, “to repair the damage I have caused to the Seattle Mariners organization.”

Statement from #Mariners president Kevin Mather: pic.twitter.com/3r2MpuyZjq

Funny, that sounds an awful lot like his statement in July 2018, after the Mariners acknowledged Mather was named by two female employees in workplace complaints. “I am committed to ensuring that every Mariners employee feels comfortable and respected, and can contribute to our success both on the field and in the community,” Mather said in a statement then. “Can we do better? Of course.”

The complaints were made in 2009 and 2010; clearly, they didn’t impede Mather’s promotion to club president in 2014.

Are you exhausted yet?

Add it all up and it’s hard to imagine Mather survives this; he has hardly distinguished himself in his role, with his signature hire, GM Jerry Dipoto, for now best known as the guy often fleeced by the Tampa Bay Rays in the trade market. Mather admits the club is highly unlikely to play into October this year, extending the playoff drought to an even 20 years.

The Mariners haven't reached the postseason since 2001. (Photo: Joe Nicholson, USA TODAY Sports)

Yet in a broader sense, does it really matter if Mather keeps his job?

Certainly, we won’t equate potentially collusive and competition-suppressing baseball decisions with sexual harassment. Yet it’s clear the industry won’t move off any of these behaviors unless forced.

We’d like to think Mather’s comments to a pancake-loving gathering of community pillars will mark an inflection point in the game — that ham-handed management is choking out growth opportunities and the ability for fans to truly love the teams they root for.

Alas, whether Mather is tossed aside now, to great fanfare, or more quietly in the future, the systemic ills in the industry will likely continue.

And that’s too bad, because rarely has an executive showed us so clearly what needs to be cleaned up.

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