By JOHN LEVESQUE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST
Who knows? Mike Hargrove may be the wrong guy to lead the Seattle Mariners.
If he is, however, he will be Bill Bavasi's wrong guy. That perception alone is the key to why Hargrove could indeed become the right guy to take Seattle back to baseball prominence, maybe pre-eminence.
Fairly or not, first-time manager Bob Melvin -- he of the 156-168 record over two seasons -- was perceived by some Mariners players as ownership's guy, Howard Lincoln's eyes and ears in the clubhouse.
That's not necessarily a bad thing in every organization. All of the Yankees' managers since Billy Martin could rightly be perceived as George Steinbrenner's stoolies, no matter how independently they behaved. But in a franchise where more than one veteran over the years has questioned management's willingness to do all it takes to win a World Series, it's a bigger deal than not getting the right toppings on your pizza.
Actually, what it meant in terms of the respect Melvin received from his players is impossible to compute. For example, did the Mariners fail to run through walls for Melvin last season because they didn't respect him, or because the walls were just a little too thick?
Most likely a little of both, but as Melvin had no track record managing in the big leagues before arriving in Seattle it was easier to disrespect him in a milieu where a baseball man is esteemed if perceived to be his own individual and held in somewhat lower regard if thought to be malleable.
Like him or not, Hargrove has a reputation as a baseball man tougher than pine tar. The lantern jaw and broad shoulders don't hurt the overall impression. At 54 -- 55 in five days -- Hargrove also is a half-generation older than Melvin, which will be important as the Mariners get inevitably younger and require the influence of an eminence grise a la Lou Piniella. He has managed 12 years in the majors for two different organizations, winning the AL Central with Cleveland five years in a row. He has been to the World Series twice.
"And I deeply want to get back," he said yesterday.
Bavasi's continued tenure as general manager also hinges on getting there, or at least getting close enough to sniff the peanuts, which is why the hiring of Hargrove -- and the firing of Melvin, for that matter -- have been portrayed as Bavasi's doing. Neither CEO Lincoln nor team president Chuck Armstrong were in the spotlight for the announcements.
Such wasn't the case at Melvin's hiring two years ago. Lincoln at the time was especially eager to say how much he thought of Melvin's character and qualifications.
Obviously, Lincoln and Armstrong have given their blessings to Hargrove's joining the organization. And Lincoln was in the background for yesterday's news conference at Safeco Field. But the message being sent to the guys who will be playing for Hargrove next year is plainer than one finger for fastball, two for curve, and it's that Hargrove is his own man, hired strictly for his experience and ability to lead the team.
Yes, this manipulation is all humorously transparent. But Lincoln and Bavasi have said in the past that perception is reality. So if the Mariners players perceive Hargrove to be an autonomous agent free of front-office sway, then he is.
With Cleveland, curiously, Hargrove was the rookie manager granted sufficient time and resources to establish his reputation as a winner. In Seattle, he is the savvy veteran replacing the rookie manager who was told to get savvy somewhere else.
It points up some of the silliness inherent in the game's practices, but when I asked him if fans, the media and the front offices tend to get too caught up in the decisions made by people who manage baseball teams, Hargrove said: "Somebody's got to drive the bus."
As to why he should be the one at the wheel, Hargrove said: "I think I'm pretty good at what I do."
Hargrove quickly apologized in case anyone took that last remark as arrogant. If anyone in Mariners management was offended, though, it wasn't apparent. Rather, the implication from Mariners central is that Hargrove possesses everything Melvin did not, namely, a bit of swagger and a lot of self-confidence.
Whether he wins the respect of his players won't be known for some time, but the process has been made simpler by requiring that the players merely value the decisions of their general manager, who is a baseball man, as opposed to those of their CEO, who is not.