Hargrove vs. Melvin

It's the kind of thing that's easy to take for granted – having an experienced, energetic, well-rounded major league manager who can get the most out of his players and, at the same time, put each in a position where they can be most successful. The Mariners had that for 10 seasons in Lou Piniella, but since his departure three years ago the club has failed to find a winning formula under its past two managers – Bob Melvin (2003-04) and Mike Hargrove (2005-current).

After only a couple years under the charismatic Piniella, Mariners fans got a pretty good sense not just of the kind of manager he was, but also the type of person he seemed to be. They knew what to expect, and, quite often, knew to expect the unexpected under Sweet Lou.

M's fans knew that after a bang-bang play at first base, Piniella would storm out of the dugout if the situation called for it. They knew that in a close game, Piniella could usually be found on the bench in the dugout raising his feet and nervously clicking his heels against the concrete floor. And when it came to strategy, M's fans grew accustomed to Piniella's way of managing – like how he loved to utilize the intentional walk or how he had a knack for calling upon the right bat off the bench in timely situations.

Then Lou left, and all that Seattle baseball fans came to know about their home team's manager went right out the window. In his place came Bob Melvin, the rookie skipper who had been a bench coach at Arizona under then-manager Bob Brenly.

Melvin, as we all know now, was in over his head from the start. Not only was he doomed from day one because of the fact that he had to replace Piniella, a sports icon in Seattle, but because of his readily apparent inexperience and nice-guy mentality.

In Melvin's first season with Seattle, he was just 42, which at the time made him only a year or two older than guys like Jamie Moyer and Edgar Martinez. Earning the respect of the veterans, not just Moyer and Martinez but also long-time pros like Dan Wilson and Mark McLemore, was too much to ask from the first-year skipper. In two seasons with the Mariners, he never fully was able to do so.

It wasn't that there was bad blood on the team, and at the same time there's an argument to be made that professionals shouldn't have to be "pushed" to produce by their manager. Still, there's something to be said about adopting the identity of a manager and fighting for a common cause. In Melvin's case, his lack of fire and milk-toast approach yielded only negative results with the Mariners. Why? Because that laid back approach DID rub off on the team... in a bad way.

It got so bad that when Melvin would argue a call, it was almost as awkward as it was unbelievable – imagine a 19-year-old boss trying to direct a group of high school seniors.

The common belief at the time was that Melvin would have been a great fit for a young team, but at the time the M's were anything but young. It wasn't until the final months of his tenure in Seattle that the M's ridded their roster of veterans in favor of rookies like Bucky Jacobsen, Justin Leone, George Sherrill and Bobby Madritsch.

Too little, too late. On Oct. 4, 2004, a day after the season finale in Safeco Field, Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi fired Melvin.

Sixteen days later, Bavasi named Mike Hargrove as the M's new skipper, signing him to a three-year deal. Hargrove, known mostly for his days in Cleveland, where he was named American League Manager of the Year in 1993 and 1995, came in with 14 years of big league managing experience on his side. Along with that, he brought a certain grit that many assumed would lead to immediate respect amongst veterans and rookies alike in the clubhouse.

"He's a saltier, more savvy figure than Melvin, more along the lines of Lou Piniella, who will be the gold standard for all subsequent Mariners managers," wrote Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this past March.

With "Grover" in charge, attitudes were supposed to change and the Mariners were supposed to rebound from the dreadful 99-loss campaign under Melvin in 2004. Throw in key free agent acquisitions Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

The new manager's stamp on the team started early in the spring, when he conducted a very competitive camp that included a key position battle at shortstop with Pokey Reese and Jose Lopez. Reese, the veteran, got off to a slow start in March, while Lopez, the 21-year-old baby faced Venezuelan, showed promise with the bat. At one point Reese left the team to go back to North Carolina for what the Mariners termed "personal reasons," and it seemed Lopez had a chance for the starting nod. The message was getting across – the best players would play, no matter the circumstances and politics involved.

At the same time, Hargrove was demanding more out of his team than at any point under Melvin, calling for early wakeup calls and extended spring practices. Under the new leadership, the signs pointed to a reversal of fortune in 2005.

But between early April and early October, the Mariners lack of starting pitching and timely hitting led the team to another disastrous season – this time, 93 losses, only a six-game improvement from '04.

What went wrong? In a word, plenty.

Hargrove, while not the pushover that Melvin always appeared to be, proved to be nothing close to the charismatic figure Piniella was while in Seattle. As was the case under Melvin, the Hargrove-led Mariners lacked not just in the areas of talent and experience, but also in the intangible areas like stealing bases, playing small ball and being able to come-from-behind to win.

Again, they lacked fire. Again, the passion was nowhere to be found. Again, the M's playoff hopes were finished by the start of June.

Now, two weeks into the offseason, the question has to be asked: Is Mike Hargrove the right man to manage the Mariners in 2006 and beyond?

As was stated earlier, Hargrove is signed through the 2007 season, but as we all know that means next to nothing as far as his future in Seattle goes. In order to stay, he has to win, and win much more than he did in '05.

But can he? Can he win with maybe the youngest team he's ever managed? History would indicate the answer is no. All of Hargrove's success in Cleveland came when the team had a star-studded roster full of experienced players like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Dave Justice, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez and Paul Assenmacher, just to name a few. In Baltimore for four forgettable seasons (2000-2003), Hargrove was forced to work with a youthful roster each year and finished with an unimpressive 275-372 record. That isn't to say the same thing would happen if he stays in Seattle, but the stats don't bode well.

The 2006 Mariners will be missing many of the familiar faces of the past, and in their place will be a cast of young, relatively unproven players like Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Jeremy Reed, Felix Hernandez, Yorvit Torrealba, George Sherrill, Rafael Soriano and Clint Nageotte.

So now, three seasons removed from The Sweet Lou Era, the Mariners find themselves set up for next season with Mike Hargrove managing a team better suited for Bob Melvin. How will that work out in the end? Check back with next October, and the answers will be much more clear.

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