|Jul/Aug 2012 Reviews & Interviews|
Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Mariners
Epicenter Press. 2012. 271 pp.
There are few teams in professional baseball more forgettable than the Seattle Mariners. With the exception of talented and charismatic Ken Griffey Jr., few players can be linked to the team by anyone other than the most diehard fans and when listing teams in general, most sports fans will fail to even mention the Mariners. It's not that they are disliked or maligned by the competition, just that they are so easy to ignore. In their 35-year history, the Mariners are the only American League team to never make it to the World Series. Never. Ever. They don't have a rousing fan base like the Cubs or Red Sox,* they don't have buckets of flash and money, they don't even have a rivalry worth following. The Mariners are a team that nobody can seem to rally behind and that alone makes them a subject worthy of serious study. How does this happen in the 21st century in a country that loves losers as much as winners and a city that adores not only their soccer team (the Sounders) but their WNBA team (the Seattle Storm) as well?
Jon Wells, editor and publisher of the monthly magazine The Great Salami that has been following the Mariners since 1996, knows this team like few others and, in his new history title Shipwrecked, is more than willing to dig into every dark corner and point at every management villain responsible for the team's desultory record. In brief organized chapters he takes readers through the early seasons, into the Lou Pinella years, through the "best and worst trades in Mariners history," the free agents, the ten best and worst all-time players and the long, long, LONG history of poor front office decisions. He mines the Grand Salami archives for great cartoons, memorable quotes and "the ones who got away" while also providing a primer on the business of baseball. It's easy to make a comparison to Moneyball (I'm making one right now), with Shipwrecked but it's also important to do so. The Mariners are a very specific case of serial bad business decisions and readers interested in the sport (or in how to chronically lose money in an industry that excels at making it), need to see just what the heck has been going on in Seattle.
Beyond all the business nuts and bolts however, Wells really sings (and provides the most valuable lesson for future sports management executives) when he writes about the fans. In the chapter entitled "Gouging the Most Loyal Fans in Baseball", he describes the increases in season ticket prices and so-called "premium day" surcharges (where the Mariners charge more for Opening Day or games against the Yankees and Red Sox as well as summer weekend games against less stellar teams). By 2010 the surcharges were expanded to the point where a summer Saturday game against the Yankees cost $7 more for fans—and the Mariners expanded the number of games against so-called premium teams forcing fans to shell out more for standard season tickets. The whole thing was such a blatant price-gouging scheme that it could not be ignored and while the Yankees and Red Sox used to be reliable sellouts, in 2011 attendance was way down. The recession, which prompted other teams to reduce ticket prices did not have a similar effect on the Mariners and the rising prices resulted in a last place team losing many of those who were willing to follow them to the bottom. Wells is rightfully outraged at this sort of behavior and while making the point-by-point case as to why the Mariners could and should be more successful (and there are a lot of reasons why they might be turning things around), his emphasis on the fans can not be ignored. This is the primary reason why I think Shipwrecked has a readership that extends far beyond Seattle, to anyone who has an interest in how professional sports should be viewed as a business enterprise.
I hope the Mariners front office receives hundreds of copies of this book—and I hope (but doubt) they are smart enough to read it.
* I should probably note here that I am a lifelong Red Sox fan so I know something about supporting a losing team but even my sports-loving father could not explain the Mariners to me. They were, he said more than once, not worth paying attention to. He would have loved Shipwrecked though; it's the kind of book that manages to transcend even ambivalence. Hell, it made me care about the Mariners!