TAMPA — The odds heavily favor the likelihood that, until Sunday, you had never heard of Kevin Mather.
Now it’s fair to wonder whether the guy just saved baseball.
OK, a guilty plea to hyperbole there and not a first offense, either. But did Mather, who resigned as the Mariners’ president Monday in the wake of many recent awful comments at one event becoming public, unwittingly fast-forward discussions between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association as they try to carve out a new future for the game?
Because thanks to Mather, there’s no more denying that service-time manipulation, a pox on the sport, exists. In a virtual discussion with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club this month, Mather said the quiet part loud multiple times, confirming how the Mariners prioritized the odious process into their roster management. What’s more offensive, in the context of competitive sports, than a system that incentivizes teams to keep their best players off the playing field for payroll management purposes? That turned the Mets, for instance, into heroes simply because they opened the 2019 season with Pete Alonso on their team?
Speaking of offensive, you could easily contend that Mather’s service-time-manipulation comments marked among his least jaw-dropping remarks to the Bellevue folks. His racist rips of retired Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (who has returned to the club as a special-assignment coach) and Dominican prospect Julio Rodriguez alone constituted grounds for dismissal and continued an impressive, inadvertent campaign for the sport to diversify, Mather taking the baton from fellow white-men-behaving-badly Jared Porter and Mickey Callaway and carrying it up the corporate ladder. Mather also took some shots at face of the franchise Kyle Seager for no good reason and threw out some other nonsense about various people and issues.
Baseball, and the rest of the world, must keep at it to conquer bigotry and general ignorance; history reveals this battle’s slog toward victory. The baseball-specific issue of service-time manipulation, however, of keeping players in the minor leagues to get an extra year of control or grant them one less year of arbitration eligibility, is something that can disappear as soon as the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 1.
Mather spoke of his club’s top prospect Jarred Kelenic, the No. 6-overall draft pick of 2018, whom Mets fans anxiously await to see after their team dealt him to Seattle as part of the package for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. The M’s offered Kelenic a long-term contract, Mather divulged, that would have brought him out of his arbitration years and given the club a chance to control him (via team options) through 2029. Kelenic turned that down, Mather said, as transcribed by the website Lookout Landing, and lo and behold, “We would like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues. Probably [Triple-A] Tacoma for a month, and then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile Park for the next six or seven years.”
If Kelenic had agreed to the extension, he clearly would be starting 2021 in the big leagues.
There was no need to connect dots with another Mather statement, as he looked back to last season: “If our major league team had had a COVID outbreak, or injuries, and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players. Because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service time clock.”
Grounds for a grievance, anyone? The players association not surprisingly put out a statement, calling the Mather comments “a highly disturbing yet critically important window into how Players are genuinely viewed by management.”
To be fair, such views are not universal; the Padres promoted Fernando Tatis Jr. for 2019 Opening Day just as the Mets did Alonso. Nevertheless, they are prominent, and as Cubs veteran Anthony Rizzo told reporters on Monday, “I’m happy it’s out there in the public now.”
The mission calls to put this issue out of there, altogether. It’s on baseball’s leaders to cure this headache so that, if nothing else, the next dumb executive has one less trap to sidestep.