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Home Biz of Baseball - Interviews Interview - Chuck Armstrong - President - Mariners

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Interview - Chuck Armstrong - President - Mariners PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Monday, 09 January 2006 12:00

Chuck ArmstrongChuck Armstrong has been through the bad, and now, good times with the Seattle Mariners. This interview touches on how he came to work for the Mariners, what options they were looking into after a tile fell from the roof of the Kingdome, how the team is now marketed as a "regional" club, marketing of Ichiro, and how the Mariners plan to work with Kenji Johjima. Armstrong also touches on the use of Safeco's roof, whether the field dimensions might be changed, how a team in Portland might be viewed, fiscal discipline as it pertains to player payroll, and much more.


 
The Emerald City. The Space Needle. Lattes.The Seattle Mariners.

They’re all linked together now. Seattle is a solid market, and moreover, its MLB franchise is a success as a business--better, than many may even know (I’ll get to that in the interview). There was a point in the '70s and '80s when the idea of MLB and Seattle, well… that market just wasn’t going to fly.

Bowie Kuhn says he believed in Seattle at the time he was commissioner. Even when the Pilots collapsed in 1970 and some guy from Milwaukee known as “Bud” carted the team off, there were those that believed that the Pacific Northwest would be a growing and untapped market for Major League Baseball.

It surely didn’t start as much when the Seattle Mariners were christened in 1977. The club arrived via expansion after the City of Seattle and the State of Washington brought litigation against the AL over the move of the Pilots to Milwaukee. Entertainer Danny Kaye and five local Seattle businessmen had stepped up and purchased the club. The club failed miserably in the standings as well as failed to draw in the overly spacious Kingdome, which the Mariners shared with the NFL’s Seahawks.

In 1981, California real estate magnate George Argyros purchased the club and, while there was little change initially, things started to slowly move in a more positive direction.

Chuck Armstrong was the general counsel for Argyros’ real estate holdings and had moved up quickly through the ranks to manage Argyros’ growing business assets. In 1983, Argyros brought Armstrong from Southern California to Seattle to assume the role of president of the Mariners. The club had just come off an abysmal 102-loss season, and Argyros was looking to turn around what few fans the club had from something more than casual apathy.

As they say, “winning cures all ills” in sports, and in 1984, the Mariners got to respectable 74 wins.

In 1989, Argyros sold the team to Indianapolis communications mogul Jeffery Smulyan. That meant Armstrong was to be out of work. He soon landed back in Seattle when he accepted the position of interim athletic director for the University of Washington for a short time, after which he left to work at a Seattle law firm. At the behest of then U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, Armstrong was recruited with a number of other business leaders to try to keep the Mariners in Seattle when Smulyan discussed relocating the club to Tampa Bay. Eventually, a group headed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi purchased the Mariners in 1992, and Armstrong was, once again, brought in as president of the Mariners.

Since that time, the Mariners have vaulted out of the cellar in the standings and moved into a new facility in Safeco Field. The club has become, by all business standards, a stunning success. The key, as Armstrong details it, is in marketing the Mariners as a regional sports entertainment option, not just a “Seattle” team.

In the following interview Armstrong touches on the early days of his of his career, how the Mariners were turned around, and the marketing of the club–from key players such as Ichiro to their newly acquired catcher, Kenji Johjima. Other topics include fan comfort and the use of Safeco Field’s roof, whether Safeco’s dimensions might be changed, how another team in the region might impact the Mariners, team payroll restrictions, other uses of Safeco as an entertainment facility, and much more.

With SABR 36 being hosted by Seattle in late June and early July 2006 , its members will be able to see the fruits of Armstrong's labor of love up close and personal. – Maury Brown


BizBall: You had an unbelievable intersection of events in life, with your bar exam, your military draft, and your marriage all happening right on top of each other. Can you tell us about this event and if it had any influence on how you deal with pressure in the business?

Armstrong: You know, it was 1967, and I’m from Louisville, KY. Muhammad Ali–he was known as Cassius Clay in those days–was a conscientious objector, and the whole focus of the draft was on that draft board. So that was the toughest draft board in the country.

I had graduated from law school--I went to Purdue for Engineering and then went on to Stanford Law School, and was studying for the California Bar Exam. I got my draft notice and had my induction physical in the summer of 1967. I figured if I was going to go in, I would rather go in the Navy. So, I filed dual applications with the Navy as a line officer and for the JAG Corps. They only accept you as a JAG Officer if you’d passed the bar. The California Bar Exam was given the last week of August, and I got married on September 1, 1967. So, it's a 3-Day bar exam. On the second day of the Bar Exam, I opened my mail and here’s my induction notice, informing me that I’m supposed to be inducted into the Army on September 1, which was my wedding day. So I took the California Bar, got inducted into the Army, but instead joined the Navy the day after the Bar Exam, and I got married a day or two after that…. and yeah, that is stress and pressure. Fortunately I passed the Bar, I’m still married over 38 years, I have three wonderful children, and I had a great experience in the Navy.

In the Navy, probably the best job I ever had was Officer of the Deck underway for Flight Operations on an aircraft carrier. That was just an amazing experience. That’s stress and  pressure as well. So, all of those experiences did teach me how to deal with stress and pressure.

It kind of reminds me, our new shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, was asked this year before his first major league game whether he was nervous and anxious or felt any stress. And he said, “No, why should I? Baseball is just a game.” Stress was when he had escaped from Cuba, was in the middle of the Caribbean, hadn’t seen land for two days, and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to live or not. My situation was nothing compared to what Yuniesky faced.

I think that all of us in life are tried in the crucible of stress from time to time, and we find out how we deal with it. And sometimes we surprise ourselves, one way or the other.

BizBall: What was your reaction when George Argyros said he was purchasing the Mariners, and asked you to be President of the franchise?

Armstrong: Actually, I was running George Argyros’ real estate operation at the time. I joined George in February 1980. He told me then that he wanted to diversify out of real estate. And what’s ironic–and he reminds me of this every time we talk–in February 1981, he bought the Mariners and in April 1981, he and another Orange County, California, real estate developer by the name of William Lyon–Bill Lyon–bought Air California. George had set up an Executive Committee of himself, and me, and his Chief Financial Officer, and another who he worked with for years. And when he came up with the idea that he wanted to buy a sports team, I thought it was such a bad idea, I had a partner in McKinsey and Company come down and explain why this was not a good idea. All the others were excited about buying a sports team, and I voted ‘no’, but of course George had the deciding vote. He reminds me that here I am–having done this now, I just finished my 20th season–and I was the guy who didn’t want him to buy a pro sports team.

I did not initially come up to Seattle–he bought the club in February 1981, and Dan O’Brien, the president of the Louisville Colonels AAA team, was someone who I had known by reputation, was the president of the Mariners when George bought it. George had it for 1981, 1982, 1983, and I really respect and admire Dan a lot, but it was clear that he and George weren’t getting along. In 1983, George terminated O’Brien–I had become friends with Dan–his son, you know, is now the general manager for Cincinnati. I turned George down when he first offered the job of president of the Mariners.

Finally on October 19, 1983, I said “Yes.” And the guy who really helped talk me into it was Tal Smith. He was not the president of the Astros at that time. He had been out of baseball, head of Tal Smith Enterprises Consulting. George had hired him as a consultant to find the new president for the ball club after George had terminated Dan. So George had it for three seasons before I came up.

BizBall: It’s funny you should mention that because I have a question from Tal Smith. The question from Tal is, “I’ve frequently heard Mr. Armstrong refer to his charter membership in the Grover Cleveland Association.” Can you tell us what that is?

Armstrong: Tell Tal that we need to raise [the standard]–it’s the Grover Cleveland Society–not the Association. Tal coined this. There are four members right now, and Tal is our chairman. There are four of us who have been the president of the same baseball team twice, like Grover Cleveland was the President of the United States twice. So, Tal was president of the Astros twice, I’ve been president of the Mariners twice in that interval, Dick Freeman was president of the Padres twice, and Bob Graziano was president of the Dodgers twice. But he’s now out, so we don’t know what’ll happen if he goes back a third time or goes back into baseball. So right now there are three active members of the Grover Cleveland Society–Tal, myself, and Dick Freeman–and Bob Graziano is a member as well. So that’s what it takes to be a member of the Grover Cleveland Society.

BizBall: Early on, the Mariners didn’t exactly draw particularly well. What were some of the ways that you tried to promote the Mariners when it was so difficult to draw fans in the ‘80s?

Armstrong: ‘84 was my first year, and in ‘83, the Mariners lost 102 games and we drew 813,000 fans. In 1984, we were the most improved team in the American League. We won 74 games–14 more than we won in 1983–the second most improved team in baseball after the Cubs. Under my leadership, the attendance skyrocketed from 813,000 all the way up to 854,000 (editor’s note: Actual attendance was 870,372). Not great, but we fought then and we carried those principles through.

Randy Adamack was our vice president of communications then, as he is now. We’ve always tried to market ourselves as a regional team. You have to go 1,000 miles to find another major league baseball franchise, either to the San Francisco Bay area or to Denver. We were looking for ways to turn our geography from a liability to an asset. We tried to market ourselves as a regional team.

Remember, we had the trident as our logo at that time. George Argyros is Greek and his mother told us that in Greek mythology, Poseidon never held the trident pointing down, he always held the trident pointing up. So, when we considered at one time turning the Trident around so it became a “W” and becoming the Washington Mariners--like you had teams, [like the] California Angels or Arizona Diamondbacks that speak for a whole state or a whole region--but we decided against that. We did start to try and market ourselves as a regional team, and that worked a little bit.

What had the biggest effect on that was finally getting a cable television contract. It was an act of Congress that allowed sports teams to allocate television territories, and I have been astonished at the impact of cable television. While we don’t have that many people in our market, we have the largest territory in terms of square miles. We have Washington, Oregon (although we share the six most southern counties with the A’s and the Giants), Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and then as against all other U.S. teams, we have British Columbia and Alberta. Getting that cable contract increased our reach and made fans in Montana, Oregon, Alberta, and British Columbia, and Alaska of course. We turned them into Mariner fans.

BizBall: In July of ’94, one of the ceiling tiles in the Kingdome came crashing down in center field and set into motion quite a variety of events. My understanding is that if the Angels had not objected to playing in minor league facilities--in Cheney Stadium or BC Place (Vancouver, BC)--those venues would have been seen as options for the club to use while the Kingdome's structural integrity was being addressed. Would you have considered moving on these options?

Armstrong: Yes, we actually had. Bobby Brown, president of the American League, dispatched Dick Butler out here. We looked at Cheney Stadium. We had arranged with a company that had bleachers to increase the seating capacity of Cheney. I think we could have increased it to 25,000 or 30,000. We also contacted the folks up at BC Place in Vancouver, BC about playing games there. You’re right. It was the Angels and the A’s who complained to the Players Association and eventually put the quietus on it.

BizBall: How much influence did that event have on the push for the new ballpark–for Safeco?

Armstrong: That didn’t have that much effect. What happened was when our new ownership came in (they took over July 1, 1992), they knew we had to have some changes in our  venue. At that time, the Kingdome was the largest park in the American League but yet it had the fewest number of good seats. Former governor Gary Locke was a King County executive at the time, and the first thing he did was appoint a task force to study what they could do to make the Kingdome work better for baseball. The task force reported back that the Kingdome wouldn’t work for baseball and the Mainers needed to have a new facility, and we went to work on that. That task force, harking back to the days of the old Pacific Coast League where the Seattle Rainiers had one of the highest attendance [totals], thought that we didn’t need a roof. But I had been keeping reports on the weather for the last 50 years. We projected that we would need a roof between 25-30% of the time. Interestingly, since Safeco has been open, we have had relatively dry summers. We’ve either played closed or the roof has had to be moved 22% of the time.

BizBall: Has it been one of those situations where the roof has been closed with the threat of rain or other conditions?

Armstrong: The manager puts [fills out] the lineup card, the general manager makes some other decisions. The one decision I get to make every day is that I decide whether the roof is going to be open or closed, which is always controversial. Our criterion is fan comfort. We want our fans to be comfortable. We have Doppler radar. If the temperature with the wind chill is going to drop below 55°, we’ll close the roof, even if it’s clear. We’ve only had to do that once or twice in six seasons. It’s always been rain or a threat of rain, not wind. It’s been rain.

BizBall: What do you feel are the most important changes in the business side of baseball since you started in the industry until know?

Armstrong: Obviously, the huge increase in salaries, coming along with–fortunately of late–an increase in revenues.

I think here in Seattle it has been an increase in fan interest. I just can’t say enough about our great fans. We’ve marketed hard to the women and families demographic.

I have two mantras that I tell our gameday people, and they’re tired of hearing me say this, "I want you to pretend two things: One, I want you to pretend that every fan at Safeco Field is sitting next to a seven-year-old child, and if behavior is not appropriate for a seven-year-old child, you warn them. And if it’s still not appropriate, you ask them to leave. The second mantra is that even though you cannot affect what is going on the playing field, and even though you see the same ticket holders every day, I want you to pretend that this is the only day in that fan’s life that they will come to Safeco Field, and we want them to have a positive experience.”

In order to get the roof–because it was a huge expense–I personally went down to Olympia and lobbied with the legislature and told them that it was our goal that, within five years, we wanted Safeco Field to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in the entire Pacific Northwest. Last year, in 2004, our fifth season, Zagat’s Family Guide ranked Safeco Field as the No. 1 family tourist attraction in the Pacific Northwest–ahead of Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, Snoqualmie Falls–all those things. I think that’s what we market to, and that’s one of the reasons why our attendance has done so well in spite of our poor record on the playing field the last two seasons.

BizBall: How do you approach marketing the club to the Pacific Rim and Japan specifically?

Armstrong: Well, we really can’t do that. It goes back to the 1920s or '30s when the big barnstorming teams were the Yankees, Dodgers, and the Giants–all teams out of New York. But, baseball passed a law back then that any and all revenue generated outside of North America must be split evenly among all teams after expenses are paid, and that law is still in effect today. Every Mariner hat that is sold in Japan is split evenly. The Florida Marlins get as much out of that as we do. I think that’s fine, so anything out of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Dominican–and we don’t market down there much. The Far East marketing, with the phenomenon of Sasaki and Ichiro, everybody else gets as much of that revenue as we do. In fact, we don’t really do any marketing over there. Major League Baseball Advanced Media and Major League Enterprises do a lot of that. We’re helpful, and we think it’s helpful that it spreads the Mariner name and when certain players want to come over here, like our recently signed catcher Kenji Johjima. They televise our games over there because we’ve had guys like Ichiro, Kaz, and Hasegawa. It helps us, but it doesn’t help us dollar-wise.

BizBall: Have there been any considerations to changing the field dimensions to make Safeco more of a hitter-friendly ballpark at any point?

Armstrong: Yes. When we designed Safeco, we went through a lot of wind-tunnel studies as every park does, but you never really know how a park is going to play until you play in it. In fact, originally, in what we call the “ball-catch” area in center field, that was supposed to be our architectural quirk. That was going to be 420 feet deep, because the wind-tunnel studies showed that the prevailing wind was from the southwest, and when the ball would get out in that jet stream, or slip stream, it would blow out there to center field. Ken Griffey Jr. didn’t want to play out there with a field that vast. We also found that when we played with the wind blowing that hard from the southwest, that usually means that rain is coming, so we usually have the roof closed.

 When we designed Safeco Field, we didn’t want it to be like Camden Yards that didn’t have any flexibility. There is flexibility [in Safeco Field]. We can bring it in some or take it out some. I told the baseball guys, “You tell me if you want to change the dimensions.” Thus far, they have felt that we are better off leaving the dimensions as they are—most of us think it is a fair park. They have the ability, if they want to change the dimensions, to make those recommendations and then we can change them and advise Major League Baseball. But so far, they don’t like the cheap home runs and they think it helps us to have these dimensions. Clearly, one reason we went after Carl Everett was because we need to get more left-handed pop. Left-handed hitters love it here. I think it’s the favorite park for Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmiero, Mo Vaughn loved it, and David Ortiz. A lot of left-handed, pull-hitting power hitters like hitting here.

BizBall: Was it difficult to market the club last year with so many players going through the system?

Armstrong: Yeah, it was a little bit. In our commercials, we have featured our players. Our fans even came up with a slogan which our advertisers adopted: “You’ve gotta love these guys” slogan and “Refuse to Lose.” We’ve always tried to have top-quality citizen-players, and our fans have identified with them. We did have so many players coming through that the fans didn’t know how long they were going to be here. It was hard to market and create name-familiarity, face-familiarity, and identity. We’d like to have a more stable situation and I think we’re building to that. Along those lines, Bill Bavasi and his people have been doing an excellent job of rebuilding our farm system, so we’ve been trying to tap our youngsters coming up through he system so the fans will know who they are when they arrive. They all knew who Felix Hernandez was when he arrived. They also knew who Chris Snelling was, but he just keeps getting hurt. They heard of Jose Lopez. We try to do a good job of telling the fans about potential future guys out there.

BizBall: I know you said you can’t really market in Japan given the structure of shared revenues, but the Mariners do have Johjima now and you’ve got Ichiro, who is highly marketable. Ichiro is viewed as an intense player when it comes to preparation, and Johjima apparently is another guy who is extremely intense when it comes to his effort. Do the Mariners plan to market around Johjima and continue to market around Ichiro, or is it going to be one of those things where you’re going to ease Johjima into the culture and environment?

Armstrong: The first year Ichiro was here, he was the MVP, which nobody counted on. It’s hard enough getting acclimated to another culture, another style of play, so we, right now,  do not plan on featuring Johjima in our marketing and our advertising. We certainly do feature Ichiro. He’s been here. He’s an established star. He has set records every year he’s played here. While we didn’t feature him in 2001–the team was so incredible that year and he performed so incredibly that people knew who he was–he was the MVP that year and the No. 1 vote-getter for the All-Star ballot. We do allow balloting online, and I think the Japanese vote helped carry Ichiro to the top that year. We are not going to emphasize Johjima at all. He’s just another player. We want him to settle in and get relaxed and not feel any additional pressure.

BizBall: Forbes wrote an article in April this year entitled, "Best-Kept Secret", which went on to mention that the Mariners have been the most profitable of all the clubs the last five years, with an average revenue of $163 million. The operating income of the Mariners for 2004 was $10.8 million. By comparison, the Yankees had an operating loss of $37.8 million for the same period.

Running the club is a business, and even when there are profits in hand, at what point do the Mariners say, “We’re not going any higher,” in relation to player payroll when weighed against the need to be competitive in a free-agent market?

Armstrong: We do that all the time. We set a budget and we don’t exceed that budget. We don’t necessarily have to spend up to it if we don’t find values. Right now, with the signing of Washburn and what we anticipate we’re going to be paying our other guys in arbitration and putting together our roster, we’re right up against our 2006 player payroll budget.

BizBall: Do you make exceptions if you are at the stretch run and you’re close in the standings to a playoff position?

Armstrong: Yes. There were in 1995 and we tried to make them (although the media would have you believe we didn’t) in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, though we didn’t find any fits. We did go back to the ownership and we did get dispensation to make some add-ons during  those years. I think we added a couple smaller pieces. In 1995, we added some big pieces (Andy Benes, Vince Coleman, and others in 1995). We do have the ability to do that. We operate under strict financial controls, and really, that’s the only way to do business or you’ll get carried away. You have to maintain some financial fiscal discipline. And that’s my job; I’ve got to make sure that happens.

BizBall: The Pacific Northwest is growing at a rapid rate. You mentioned that the Mariners became what they are today due to looking at themselves as a regional sports entity. Given Portland’s interest in the Expos and the current consideration by the Marlins for relocation, do you see a point when another club in the Pacific Northwest is a viable option for baseball and acceptable to the Mariners?

Armstrong: I really haven’t studied that. We have specifically stayed out of that issue. That’s up to the Commissioner’s Office and the Relocation Committee. I’m sure if that time comes, they would talk to us about it. No one here is on that committee and we’re not involved in that decision.

BizBall: Looking at some of the transactions that have occurred this off-season–some of which have been done by clubs such as the Blue Jays, which have been unable to make any real, substantive free-agent signings in the past few years–how do you view the health of Major League Baseball at this point in time given how those transactions have been conducted in this off-season by some of the lower-revenue-making clubs?

Armstrong: That’s a good question. I think that great financial progress has been made in the last two, three, four years. I don’t have those numbers in front of me. Of course, I’m not privy to the Blue Jay’s numbers. To get the answer to those questions, you’d have to talk to someone in the Commissioner’s Office.

BizBall: Are there any events, or planned changes to Safeco Field in the future that may be of interest to fans?

Armstrong: Well you know we had the WWE WrestleMania here a couple years ago. I think that’s the biggest event we’ve ever had here. As far as improvements to the facility--we’re improving it all the time. It’s coming to the age where it’s going to be like the Golden Gate Bridge project, where once you start to paint it, you have to keep doing it. The Public  Facilities District, our owner and landlord, closely watch us, and I think we’re kind of the best park. If you go and travel around and visit other ballparks–I know my objective is to have us be the best ballpark in baseball, and have the cleanest park and the best-run facility. I think most of the reports that the public facilities district has gotten back is that we’re right up there. I haven’t been to all of them every year, so I can’t say myself, but we’ve gotten good reports back and we plan to maintain that. We’re always trying to liven up the game show. We have a couple ideas on the back burner that we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about maybe getting some concerts in here. We had a chance to get the Rolling Stones this year, but we declined hoping that we would be in the playoffs and there would be a conflict, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

BizBall: The last question I have. You know, SABR is planning on having their National Convention just up the street at the Madison Renaissance Hotel–just a short walk from Safeco. Do you plan on being there at all this year?

Armstrong: I would like to be there. I’m keenly interested in all the work that SABR does. You know, Tal [Smith]–when I first got into this game–put me onto the work SABR does.

He taught me that in games, teams shouldn't sacrifice as much. I’m one of these guys, if I had a criticism of most major league managers, I think they sacrifice too often and too early in the game. The out is the most precious thing in baseball. You only get 27 of them, and if  you give one up, even when you try to sacrifice, over time at best, you’re only successful somewhere between 65% and 70% of the time. The work that SABR has done also shows that you have a greater chance of scoring if you don’t sacrifice with a runner on first and nobody out than if you do, but you can also avoid the double play, which counters that. It depends on the situation. So, to answer your question, yes, I would like to come up [to the Convention].


Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 12/19/05.
Transcribed by Steven Charnick and Kenneth Mendes

Edited by Maury Brown and Gary Gillette
Graphics and layout by Maury Brown

 
 
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