Sports·Opinion

Mather's rant highlights a tone-deafness no organization wants to be associated with

While cutting costs and suppressing young players' service time are mainstream ideas in today's MLB, former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather's mistake was letting it reach a general public skeptical of ownership's motives.

Mariners CEO resigned Monday after off-colour comments surfaced from recent speech

Kevin Mather, seen above in 2018, resigned from his position as Seattle Mariners CEO on Monday after video surfaced of him making inappropriate comments about the club's organizational strategy. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press, File)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In the rambling, ill-delivered speech to a local rotary club that led to him stepping down as the Seattle Mariners' president, Kevin Mather nearly gave us too many places to start skewering his logic.

Should we focus on how casually he copped to manipulating top prospects' service time to save a few dollars?

"He thinks after six years, he'll be such a star player that the seventh, eighth, ninth year options will be under value," Mather said of outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, who likely will begin the 2021 season in the minors. "He might be right."

What about the effortless way he smeared veteran third baseman Kyle Seager, who makes $18 million US a season, as "overpaid"? This willingness to alienate both youngsters and the greybeards tells you that, as Mariners president, Mather was committed to a type of equal treatment.

Or we could zero in on how comfortable he felt spouting this stuff in front of a live online audience, and then question whether he understands today's media ecosystem.

But fundamentally, this controversy isn't about Mather's message.

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Cutting costs, and suppressing young players' service time, are mainstream ideas in today's MLB. Mather slipped up in letting that sentiment seep out of his bubble, where baseball people, and the class of fans who cheer management, would accept it without questioning, and reach a general public skeptical of ownership's motives.

Among his peers, and people with a similar disposition, Mather can brag about placing a glass ceiling above promising young employees. In their world, it's a cunning business move. But to people who just want to see the best players play, or who don't view baseball through the prism of potential cost-savings for wealthy owners, it's somewhere between counterproductive and cruel.

But let's start with language.

Mather, who spent seven years as the club's president as of Monday, used the online town hall gathering to grumble about paying a translator for Hisashi Iwakuma, a former Mariners' pitcher who rejoined the organization as a scout.

"I'm tired of paying his interpreter," Mather told the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club. "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."

Hisashi Iwakuma, right, and interpreter Anthony Suzuki seen during a game in 2014. During a speech to a local rotary club on Feb. 5, former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather groaned about the organization having to pay $75,000 for Iwakuma to have a translator. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Later he complained about outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez' alleged poor command of English.

Reporters who have covered him note that Rodriguez works hard at his new language, and even conducts interviews in English. Rodriguez, for his part, responded on Twitter, posting a photo of his face superimposed on the Michael Jordan's "And I Took That Personally" meme, and proving he's already more fluent in social media than Mather could ever become.

Still, Mather's message here contains, in the most charitable interpretation, xenophobic undertones. It's also unambiguously cheap.

If a Latin American player, signed at 16, arrives in the majors speaking sub-par English, that's the club's fault. On language, MLB clubs have three options. They can invest in English instruction, so high school-age pros from overseas transition more smoothly to the U.S. They can also ante up for translators to help players uncomfortable doing business in English navigate interviews and meetings. Or they can pay whatever the inevitable communication breakdowns cost in poor play and sour relationships.

These are all expenses that come with international business. None of it is free.

And $75,000 for Iwakuma's interpreter? Pocket change for a club valued at $1.6 billion. The team might spend more every year keeping the dugouts stocked with chewing gum and sunflower seeds.

'Unfiltered look into club thinking'

Mather's rant and the fallout from it – the rapid negative reaction and his subsequent resignation – highlight a tone-deafness no organization wants associated with it. They also reflect a profound misunderstanding of the modern media environment, where all mics are hot and all online presentations are just a few clicks from going viral.

The players' association issued a statement calling Mather's comments "a highly disturbing yet critically important window into how Players are genuinely viewed by management… It represents an unfiltered look into club thinking."

From a public relations standpoint, Mather messed up the messaging. But from a baseball industry perspective, the message itself was tame. Yes, when discussing Iwakuma and Rodriguez, he could have made the racial coding tougher to decipher. But the cheapness driving a team president to gripe about a translator's five-figure salary is mainstream in MLB, where extreme cost-cutting, like advanced stats, is part of the modern industry.

Mariners outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, seen during an intrasquad game in 2020, was one of the players former club CEO Kevin Mather spoke about when referencing the topic of service time manipulation. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Mather isn't, after all, the first high-level executive to approve of baseball-side decision-makers engaging in "service-time manipulation," intentionally keeping MLB-ready players in the minors longer than necessary. By delaying a future star's salary arbitration by a year, teams hope to scavenge a season of prime production at a rock-bottom, rookie contract price.

The Blue Jays took heat after starting the 2019 season with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Buffalo, where the blue-chip prospect put on nightly hitting clinics, batting .343 with a 1.013 OPS in 39 career games for the Bisons.

Last year Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant filed a grievance, hoping to regain the season of service time he contended the team cost him by delaying his promotion to the majors. That he lost the case didn't matter. Service time suppression is an open secret in Major League Baseball, and one more issue over which ownership and the players' union will grapple as they try to hammer out a new collective agreement.

"It's pretty annoying and frustrating," said Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo to reporters asking him about Mather and service time manipulation. "I'm glad it's out there in the public now and people can see how it is."

In a subsequent video news conference, Mariners chairman John Stanton told reporters that Mather, as president, didn't make personnel decisions, like which players got promoted, and when. The statement is correct, but not as reassuring as Stanton thinks it is to spectators who just want to know the Mariners intend to put the best possible team on the field this year.

Left unsaid is that the decision to save a few dollars by letting top prospects languish in the minors came not from the president, but from baseball operations people, who all remain with the club after Mather's departure. So, whoever replaces Mather might find $75,000 to pay a translator, or congratulate Rodriguez for learning English.

But the new president doesn't have to oppose service time manipulation, which, by now, is a standard tactic. They just have to be sharp enough not to admit to it in public.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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