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May 25, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Program Challenge

by Derek Zumsteg

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Walking down Occidental to a Mariners game is a great experience. There's the smell of brats on grills, roasted peanuts and kettle corn, the bad music of persistent street musicians and the chatter of fellow fans walking south to the stadium...

...And guys selling programs. Independent programs. Many teams only have one program, the one the team puts out, but in Seattle, we have a choice.

I bought both this week to compare, and the results...man, I pity people in cities without competition, if their team-issued programs are anything like this.

"The Official Seattle Mariners Magazine", put out by the team, is glossy, over 100 pages, bound, and costs $4. The Grand Salami is $3, also color, staple-bound and just under half the size of its official rival. Seems like kind of a rip-off at first. Except I counted the pages of content and Grand Salami has about 40, and Mariners has only 10 more, and that counts the puff pieces on the stadium, the broadcast team, the Mariners and their charity work, duplicated Japanese content (more on that in a second), and so forth.

As I write this, the Mariners are 15-28, last in their division, competing with Kansas City and Tampa Bay for the worst record in baseball. Their offense, once one of the best in baseball, is now one of the worst (with Kansas City and Tampa Bay!). Their defense, stellar last year, has become average, pulling the carpet out from under pitchers with low strikeout rates who came to rely on that defense. Almost every off-season move has backfired, the team's dedication to good clubhouse guys who are positive community figures and veteran leaders leading them to ruin.

Reading Mariners Magazine is like finding a press release from the team in the middle of the off-season. Reading Grand Salami is like reading a sports page unencumbered by allegiances to inside sources or even interested in making the happy fan feel secure. There's freedom in not being chummy: The Mariners already give them a hard time for press credentials and photo access, it's not like things are going to get worse for telling it like it is.

There are a few areas where we can directly compare the two rival programs:

  • Scorecards: If you've read this column lately, you know I'm a stickler for my scorecards. Mariners Magazine offers an eight-page card-stock fold out. Sounds cool, huh? The back four are slick glossy color ads. The program is also sold separately for $1. The actual keeping-score section's half a page, with half a page of ads. The actual scorecards have rosters by general position (pitchers/catchers/infielders/outfielders) with names, vital stats, and uniform numbers on them...and a quarter-page ad, leaving about 8.5" by 5.5" for the actual card, which is further squeezed by a numeric roster with number/name/position. It's a weird duplication of information, and the end result is a scorecard you'd have difficulty writing on with those super-fine ink pens comic book artists use. No room for subs. Five pitchers, despite being the scorecard for a manager who thinks La Russa's too hesitant to play matchups.

    The Grand Salami scorecard, by contrast: One page, front and back, on card-stock. Three players per lineup slot. Six pitcher slots. A game notes section. Spots for writing down the bench and bullpen. A Grand Salami logo that's maybe 1' by .5", all of which leaves enough space for the scoreboxes to have ball/strike boxes. My wife, who doesn't know scoring from chiseling Linear B into stone, took one look at the two cards and said: "Even I can I see which one's better." Yup.

  • Visiting Teams: Mariners Magazine has a sentence on each team ("The revitalized Orioles are anchored by former A's star Miguel Tejada and ex-Braves shortstop Javy Lopez").

    The Grand Salami has three pages on each team: An in-depth profile with depth charts, a complete stat page with salaries and cool little call-out notes on different interesting points, plus a batter-pitcher matchup page.

  • Player Profiles: Mariners Magazine offers a picture, some brief info (bats/throws, age, height, weight, contract status etc.) and a positive quote about the player ("Q is a valuable player to have on any team. He can play all three outfield positions, he runs well, he's a switch-hitter and is great in the clubhouse"--first base coach Mike Aldrete on Quinton McCracken. I can play all three outfield positions, run well, switch-hit, and I'll even do the laundry if it comes to that--can I be a major leaguer?)

    The Grand Salami player and front-office profiles are sharp and sometimes mean ("Is it just us, or would the M's be better off in the public relations department if Howard Lincoln could just keep his mouth shut?"). Commentary on expected declines for pitchers who relied on the defense are mixed with tidbits on their early-season performance, or concern about Ichiro's late-season swoons.

  • Other Stuff: Mariners Magazine has a page with minor league affiliate information. Grand Salami has two pages on the top 10 Mariner prospects.

  • Head to Head Interviews: Mariners Magazine runs a dumb interview with Freddy Garcia, where Freddy completes sentences: "LIFE IN VENEZUELA is crazy. But it's very beautiful there." The art of the interview is lost. Seriously. As a nation we're reduced to: "Tell us about that play you made in the fourth", "Did it feel good to take that three-two slider deep?", "Word association, what's the first thing that comes to mind when I say 'syntactically'?", and these ad-lib questions where a player completes the sentence or provides an adverb ending in -ly for the reporter.

    Grand Salami has an interview with Dan Wilson where they actually ask him about the team's crappy start (he wants to look at the positive), Freddy Garcia's struggles...Sure, Wilson gives standard answers, but they asked.

Where the two publications may differ most is in Mariners feature stories.

Mariners Magazine's "Relief in Sight" offers a positive view on the team's bullpen struggles. "What it all comes down to, according to Hasegawa, is the new relief corps maintaining confidence through hard times. 'If you believe in yourself,' he said, 'you'll be fine.'" Shigetoshi Hasegawa is now 1-3 with a 6.20 ERA in 20 innings so far this year. I guess he's not believing in himself hard enough.

Another one entitled "Artist at Work." Jamie Moyer changes speeds. Also includes a half-page on Moyer's charity bowling tournament. And a half-page on Moyer learning about wines.

One called Homecoming--a short introduction and interview with Raul Ibanez. Ibanez is portrayed as a returning hero, that during his years away from this team he developed into a "sweet-swinging left-hand hitter," a "productive everyday hitter" who for some reason never got his chance with the Mariners. Ibanez then answers some softball questions ("What are your impressions of your new club thus far?") and says some stuff I forget so quickly I can't even type it up.

Next Article: "Ninety-three wins was nice last year; watching the post-season was not. So the front office reshaped the team to give the 2004 Mariners..." "That Extra Edge" is the funniest thing in the magazine. It's an attempt (again) to make fans forget the team's unfortunate honesty about their goals: to field "competitive" teams without necessarily building toward a championship. The article is an attempt to be poetic in tribute to the gritty gamers the Mariners have brought in, and it's made funnier by the choice of pictures, including one of Rich Aurilia, who has played lousy defense and hasn't hit at all (.234/.298/.292...mmm, gritty goodness).

"Sure, ever athlete wants to win, and the Mariners have done a whole bunch of that in recent years. But some guys talk about it while others show it game after game."

I couldn't make this stuff up. There are paragraphs lauding Aurilia, and Scott Spiezio ("It was his clutch three-run home run...") gets a lot of ink as a guy who "always plays at a championship level" (Spiezio's hitting .273/.319/.462 at third base). Ichiro Suzuki "is a speedster on the bast paths..." (four doubles, one triple, seven stolen bases, five times caught stealing). And the conclusion? "That's it--guys with an edge who will give the Mariners that extra edge in the brutal West."

The author of this one is Kieran O'Dwyer, credited as "executive editor of Professional Sports Publications." Sounds prestigious...except no, wait, they're "a leading publisher of game programs," that also publishes Mariners Magazine.

To skip ahead for just a second, Grand Salami features an article, "Nice Guys Finish Last" from Paul DeBruler, a Mariner blogger, about how the team's fixation on good character guys is ridiculous and hampers the team's performance..

Back to Mariners Magazine, which gets better and better. "Just Win Baby" is also by O'Dwyer. It carries this sub-head: "For second-year manager Bob Melvin, the game is quite simply about winning, regardless of approach or style."

So uh, 15-28, that's not going so well, is it? The article has the same kind of standard non-fiction opening (note that I did it at the start of this column): Americans love to compare and categorize. From entertainment (Is she the next Madonna?) to politics [...] labeling seemingly helps us gain a better understanding of the person we're analyzing."

What? It does? How? Doesn't labeling, at best, summarize our understanding of a thing? Is this how I can get to be an executive editor at Prospectus, by writing this kind of thing?

Many people enjoy a cold beverage. From the Coca-Cola split between sweethearts at the soda fountain to the Red Bull shotgunned with vodka at an illegal rave, the cool drink has been a part of American culture. Baseball fans heading to the ballpark have more choices to quench their thirst than ever before.

Another Mariners article attempts to assure fans that even though Mike Cameron is in New York, making their pitchers look good, Randy Winn's natural position is center and he's going to be much better off there, thank you. Don't worry, it's not like the team's going to start allowing a whole lot more extra-base hits with him there...right? There's another article: "A Beauty to Behold: Despite new faces and position shifts, the Mariner defense remains a major obstacle for opposing batters"...ummmm, not so much anymore, no.

There's one good article in Mariners Magazine, written by a freelancer on the team's Dominican Republic academy. It's not news to anyone who's really into player development, but it's interesting stuff and well-written (and the opening's good, too). The only other interesting thing is the Mariners' stadium guide, schedule, and ticketing information again in Japanese.

That's the official magazine: One article worth reading and a worthless scorecard.

So what else is in Grand Salami? Interviews with Vladimir Guerrero and Arte Moreno, for starters.

There's a terrible column ("Garcia worth the risk") by Mike Gastineau, a local sports radio guy, who argues that since Freddy had a good couple of years before his disastrous year-and-then-some, the team needs to sign him to a long-term deal. After all, plenty of great pitchers had off years early in their careers.

It's a flat stupid argument. If you look for similarities between Player X and various great players, you can always find them somewhere--that doesn't mean that X is a great player himself. The test is if the reverse is true. If you believe that Player X will be a Hall of Fame pitcher because he's got cool hair and Hall of Fame pitchers mostly have cool hair, the test of whether that's true would be to look at all the pitchers with cool hair and see how they fared as a group. When PECOTA looked for comparable pitchers to Freddy, it didn't turn up a stellar crew of inner-circle Hall of Famers; t turned up Jim Clancy, Joey Hamilton, and Bobby Jones.

The rest is pretty solid. Jim Caple (one of my favorite sports writers) has a quick one-page piece about how cool box scores are. Jason Barker has an interesting piece, writing about the trouble with being a fan of a team that doesn't make good decisions--do you root for the team, or against them in the hope that management will be replaced and long-term hope restored?

I didn't expect the official magazine to be so bad. Bad I expected, but to be so weirdly out-of-sync with reality is unacceptable. With modern layout and printing, there's no way they couldn't have responded, even optimistically, to the fact that the team tripped off the starting blocks and went down in a cloud of dust. To see the team still standing on the track, dusting themselves off and wondering where everyone else went while the official magazine screams "Go! Go! You're right there with them!" makes me think they're suffering some kind of group delusion, like the Mariners' front office has.

That's what's up in Seattle. There are two other competitions I'd like to see in Baltimore and Boston (and if you can get me a copy of both official and unofficial programs, drop me a line, I swear I'll pay you back). So far, though, it's clear that for value over blank paper, you're getting a lot more when you buy your program outside Safeco, and I suspect that'll be true as I look at the other cities.

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