SEATTLE — One thing I’ve always liked about Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is he readily admits that he’s got a dream job.
While millions of fans revel in being armchair GMs through fantasy leagues, Dipoto appreciates that fact that he gets to do it for real.
It’s not an easy job, particularly when your club is struggling — and even the best clubs struggle at some point during a season. Criticism is constant but, from what I’ve seen, Dipoto’s relentless optimism seldom (if ever) falters.
As outfielder Mitch Haniger noted: “Every instance I’ve had with him has been very positive, and he’s always in a good mood. It’s nice to see that your boss is always in good spirits no matter how we’re playing.”
That’s the Dipoto that I’ve observed, too, but it’s more than just optimism. Every conversation I’ve ever had with him further confirms that he is, above all else, a hardcore baseball fan.
I’ve heard him break down the importance (and, yes, the limitations) of analytics as well as knowledgeably discuss the House of David baseball team. (The latter came in reference to the long hair and beards favored by many Mariners.)
So it was no surprise last week, at a news conference regarding his contract extension, to hear Dipoto acknowledge his “Trader Jerry” characterization by relating a story of how he once loved trading baseball cards.
“And I was freely trading at that time, too,” he airily admitted while revealing his favorite deal, since he was a hardcore New York Mets fan living in New Jersey, came in acquiring a Lee Mazzilli card.
I’ve always viewed Dipoto’s youthful allegiance to the Mets as another mark of being a true fan. There are a lot of hardcore Yankees fans in what was once his part of Jersey but also a lot of front-running, bandwagon types.
But if you were a Mets fan…well, there weren’t many casual Mets fans.
Details of Dipoto’s contract extension remain sketchy. The Mariners, in keeping to their puzzling long-term policy, revealed only that it covered multiple years. That suggests it runs through at least the 2020 season.
Whatever the length and terms of the extension, it’s easy to argue it was merited.
When Dipoto arrived Sept. 28, 2015, he faced the challenge of bolstering a thin roster while adhering to a win-now approach and doing so without the luxury of a strong farm system.
He responded with an ongoing avalanche of trades, waiver claims and low-level signings.
“They don’t all work,” Dipoto acknowledged. “You could make 10 trades or 100 trades — you are going to make bad deals. That’s the nature of baseball because we’re betting on human beings to a degree.”
There have been bad trades, but the Mariners, overall, are better now, and better positioned for the future, than when Dipoto arrived. Club president Kevin Mather acknowledged that reality in announcing Dipoto’s contract extension.
“He has successfully executed that plan,” Mather said, “resulting in a younger, more athletic and, most importantly, far more successful major-league team.”
Fine. Let’s talk success.
Right now, it’s easy to support Dipoto’s optimism. The Mariners are 57-34 and enter the week holding a 6 1/2-game edge in the race for the American League’s final wild-card berth. Mariners fans are already scoreboard-watching.
All of that represents success of a sort but, really, this season will be judged by one standard: Can the Mariners end North America’s longest professional postseason drought by reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2001?
Anything less will be judged as a still another failure for a franchise that has long puzzled the game’s insiders (as well as many casual fans) by its inability to generate even moderate success.
Dipoto recognizes the Mariners are out of excuses: “The combination of a supportive ownership group, great ballpark, passionate fan base and beautiful city gives us all the tools we need to consistently compete for division titles.
“And division titles give us the opportunity to attain our primary goal: Winning the World Series here in Seattle.”
That’s the dream, and the Mariners appear to be on the right track. But optimism, at some point, requires validation. Otherwise, it’s just fantasy. That’s not good enough anymore. Jerry Dipoto knows that.