Fifteen minutes with the men at the top

Howard Lincoln’s office at Safeco Field isn’t the ornate throne room you might expect of the CEO of a big company _ or a major league baseball team.

There’s a desk, a lot of photos and baseball memorabilia on the walls and shelves, and a cool life-sized cutout of Lincoln with a 15-pound silver salmon he caught on a spinning rod a few years ago.

On the other side of the room is a small conference table. That’s where news happened Thursday, when Lincoln and team president brought reporters one-by-one into the office and announced that general manager Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren would return for the 2008 season.

Here’s a word-for-word account of my 15 minutes in that office. You’ll find many of these quotes in my story covering the announcement in Friday’s newspaper. Others probably will appear in future stories as I dissect the state of the Mariners.

Kirby Arnold: “You’re bringing Bavasi and McLaren back. How do you base those decisions?”

Howard Lincoln: “In the case for John, it was based on Bill Bavasi’s recommendation. It was a strong recommendation and one I strongly concurred in.

“John was unexpectedly thrust into the field manager’s role. I think he’s done a great job. He’s guided the team to a winning record, which is extremely important to the franchise. It cuts through those three years of losing seasons.

“There’s no question he has the confidence, support and trust of his players. They’ve continued to play hard after they were eliminated. It seemed to all of us that John was most deserving of another season.

“In the case for Bill, Chuck (Armstrong) and I feel that Bill has met the challenge we gave him, the old hot-seat challenge. By the way, we’re not going to use that term anymore.

“The challenge was to at least get this thing turned around and have a winning season. We did it with players he brought in who helped contribute to the winning season.

“It’s so easy to give up on people and fall into the trap of fans who are yelling for people’s heads all the time. But I thought when I made the decision at the end of the (2006) season to keep Bill and Mike (Hargrove) that it was the right decision, and it turned out to be the right decision. They did, in fact, produce a winning season.”

Kirby Arnold: “When this season began, even before spring training began, there was a lot of talk within the club about having a team that could win the division. Now that it’s over, are you disappointed? Are you satisfied?”

Howard Lincoln: “It’s mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, I’m pleased that we had a winning season. That puts us on the next step to getting to the playoffs, particularly since so many pundits were projecting us to finish fourth in the American League West again. This winning season is really important. In that respect, I feel very good.

“Not making the playoffs when we came so close to doing so, when the team lost 15 out of 17 games, was extremely disappointing to everyone in the organization. Not just the players and the front office, but everyone. It was unexpected and it really stung us all.

“We had to balance the disappointment of not making the playoffs against the winning season that we have. On balance, we come out feeling that we are making steady progress. Certainly not as much progress as I was hoping for when we started the season, but nevertheless progress.”

Kirby Arnold: “Can you look at the season and see the extenuating circumstances that contributed to what has happened with this team? Things like the snowouts in Cleveland in April and the travel that was a result, the Mike Hargrove resignation?”

Chuck Armstrong: “Richie Sexson came out of spring training hitting the ball well, and then it all stopped. To have those guys sit around for four or five day sin Cleveland and do nothing, and then to have to make those cameo trips in there… We’re always going to travel more than any team in baseball, but to start the season with the four snowouts in Cleveland, then to lose a game the next series in Boston, then another later in the season at Texas… To have to make all of those games up _ we were 1-5 in makeups _ that was very hard for us.

“But on the other hand, the team came together and continued to play hard. They rallied for McLaren. That’s one of the things we took into consideration. They never quit on him, and it would have been easy for them to do that.

“As down as they were after losing 15 of 17, they hitched up their pants and fought hard all the way to the end. I hope we finish strong the last four games and finish 88-74. We’re going to finish second in the American League West, which I feel is the toughest division in baseball.

“The Angels turned out to be a better team that I thought they were when I saw them in Arizona. We came out of Arizona thinking we needed to win the West. Then we found ourselves up 3½ games in the wild card ahead of the Yankees and the Tigers. It was ours to lose, and we lost it.

“Nevertheless, to get over the hump, to go from 78 wins to the 84-plus that we have now, that’s huge. They know they can win. If they leave this season and go to the offseason and prepare for next year, I think you’re going to see a Cleveland situation with the Mariners next year.

“The Detroit Tigers had the best record in the American League and everybody said they would repeat in 2007, yet they didn’t. On paper, Detroit is a far superior club than Cleveland, but look at how Cleveland has played. We’re disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs, but it’s been a successful year.

“I can’t say enough about our fans and how quickly they snapped back. We’re going to go over 2,660,000, up from 2,481,000 last year. There’s a lag effect in baseball and it usually takes two years. But they came back fast.

“We’ve maintained the second-highest (TV) ratings in all of baseball. That’s phenomenal, especially with so many games coming out of the Eastern time zone. We’re gratified about that.”

Kirby Arnold: Now that decisions have been made on Bavasi and McLaren, what needs to happen this winter for the team to take the next step?

Howard Lincoln: “We’ve asked Bill and Mac to go home and think about it for a couple of weeks. Then we’re going to begin formulating our plans. Bill and Mac will come back with recommendations.”

Kirby Arnold: “Will there be the financial support from ownership to improve the team?”

Chuck Armstrong: “During this down time, our ownership has never failed on making the financial commitment. We’re gong to finish sixth or seventh in all of baseball in player payroll. We haven’t finished our budgets, but I don’t see our player payroll budget ($113 million) to go down. But I don’t think it will go up much, either.

“Obviously, starting pitching is important for us. But look at what happened with the big free agents last year. Last offseason the three big names were Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Thank goodness we didn’t get any of them. We got Miguel Batista, and he’s been the best sign of any of those starting pitchers.

“We hope our scouts have some good ideas and we’ll try to work harder.”

Kirby Arnold: “With free agents such a high-stakes gamble, especially for the top pitchers each year, how much more importance does that place on drafting right and player development?”

Howard Lincoln: “This is one of the reasons Chuck and I feel so strongly that Bill should remain our general manger. We know how he has changed the scouting, bringing in Bob Fontaine. Our drafts the last few years have been much better though out. Fontaine was a master when he was with the Angels and the White Sox.

“Bill has changed the thinking at the player development level, putting the most importance on moving key players through the system as quickly as possible and putting the maximum challenge on them, instead of leaving them for a year at places like Wisconsin or Inland Empire.”

Chuck Armstrong: “We’re trying to develop players for the big-league level. It wasn’t but a few years ago that the (pitching) staff at (Class AA) San Antonio ran away with the Texas League. There was Rett Johnson, Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, Cha Seung Baek and Bobby Madritsch. For a while, Madritsch was the only one who had made a meaningful contribution at the big-league level.

“Bill has changed our thinking. As these kids have had success, we have challenged them and moved them along.

This is the first year for every one of our regular minor leagues finished below .500. Yet, I feel better about player development than I have in years when every team finished over .500. The emphasis is good, the instruction has gotten better, Bob Fontaine has been fantastic. Bob Engle is a genius on the international level, finding players like Felix Hernandez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Truinfel. We’ve got more good young catchers than any organization in baseball.”

Kirby Arnold: “How important was it to do this now, before the team clears out for the offseason?”

Howard Lincoln: “We focused all of our attention on trying to make the wild card. Once that went away Tuesday, it was really important to execute some decisions we’ve been mulling over and get these decisions announced as soon as possible so we could move on. There’s been so much speculation.”

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