Seattle sports: Holiday feast served cold

The Hawks, the Mariners and the football Huskies all have created splashes. But there are reasons for concern.
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Jack Zduriencik, right, answers a question from Rick Rizzs during a 2011 event.

The Hawks, the Mariners and the football Huskies all have created splashes. But there are reasons for concern.

Events in recent weeks should have bolstered Seattle sports fans' morale:  The Seahawks' exciting run toward a possible Super Bowl appearance; the Mariners' surprising outbidding of the Yankees for star second-baseman Robinson Cano; and the Washington Huskies' signing of former Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, one of the nation's best, to replace the less skilled Steve Sarkisian, who defected to the University of Southern California.

Yet all of these events have been diminshed, in one way or another, by disappointing sub-themes.

The Seahawks' success —and, especially, the excellence of their second-year quarterback, Russell Wilson — has been the most satisfying.  But, last week, star cornerback Brandon Browner received the news that he had been suspended for a year for multiple violations of the National Football League's substance-abuse policies.  Other Seahawks players have committed similar violations and the team, fairly or unfairly, is being characterized by some national sports media as a modern-day version of the old Oakland Raiders, known for their physical play on the field and their outlaw conduct off-field. Has Seahawks coach Pete Carroll adopted former Raiders' coach Al Davis' slogan: "Just win , baby!" — a message that all other factors were irrelevant?

Things don't seem to have gone that far with the Seahawks.  Carroll often speaks of giving "second chances" to so-called high-risk players whose conduct got them in trouble in their college or earlier NFL careers.  How many such players can a roster tolerate? With a late season loss or two, that question will be asked more vocally. In the meantime, winning obscures everything else. 

The Mariners' signing of Cano to a 10-year, $240-million contract — one of the three richest in baseball history — was a stunner.  They outbid the Yankees, his former team, by $60 million. Cano is one of the game's half-dozen finest players. At 31, however, he can be expected to perform at that level for, at most, another five years — leaving another five years on his contract at $24 million per year, about 25 percent of the team's total payroll. The contract contains a no-trade clause, meaning Cano is here for 10 years, period, unless he consents to a trade elsewhere. 

Those applauding the signing said it restored the Mariners' credibility with its fan base.(Attendance has fallen off 50 percent over the past 10 years, as one losing team has followed another). Knowledgeable analysts also noted, however, that at least one other bigtime hitter had to be signed to protect Cano in the batting order and to make the Mariners truly competitive with their American League West rivals: the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has since added hitters Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Franklin Gutierrez, all former high performers plagued in recent years by injury. They can be characterized as low-risk, high-return bets or, if you're less optimistic, as low-cost gambles unlikely to work out.  I personally would be surprised if even one of the three remained on the active roster at mid-season.

Jack Z. told a television interviewer last week that additional big-money signings would not happen unlesss upper management OK'd them. He was concentrating, he said, on trades and signings that could make marginal upgrades in the team. In other words, no big-time hitter on the horizon to complement Cano. That poses a problem since, in order to truly compete, the Mariners must capitalize fully on Cano's talents before age begins to diminish them. That means surrounding him with a stronger supporting cast.

If no big additions are made, the Mariners' 2014 roster will resemble 2013's, except that Cano will have replaced the departed Kendrys Morales in the batting order. That means the team's young returning players — Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Zunino, Michael Saunders, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez in particular — must up their games this coming season in order for the team to contend. Some no doubt will; others will fail.

The Mariners could have signed, as the Yankees ultimately did, two or three upper-tier if not superstar players for the money given to Cano — and for far shorter contract periods. But is it hard to criticize the Mariners for trying and, for a change, succeeding. The outcome could still be successful if — and this is the big "if" — some of the team's young players become the players they once were expected to be.

There was an uphappy prelude to the Cano signing. It was a well-researched investigative story by Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker, a former Mariners beat writer, which contained remarkable on-the-record statements by former manager Eric Wedge and several former senior Mariners baseball-operations executives portraying Zdurencik as out of his depth and as a butt-kisser to upper management while a bullying abuser of those working for him. Present Mariners employees made similar characterizations, although not for direct attribution. Zdurencik issued a general statement of rebuttal, which, not surprisingly, did not respond to specific criticisms. 

Some in national baseball media thus characterized the subsequent over-market signing of Cano as a "desperation move" by Zduriencik to keep his job and salvage his reputation.

The Baker story contained the usual local criticisms of team CEO Howard Lincoln and COO Chuck Armstrong as the big culprits behind the Mariners' 10-year slide in the standings and attendance. Armstrong retires Jan. 31. His successor has not been named.  Lincoln, also in his 70s, has mused about retirement but says he intends for now to stay on the job. That may depend in large part on whether Nintendo keeps its majority ownership of the team or sells to local investors, in which case Lincoln no doubt would exit. Zduriencik's contract runs out at the end of 2014. The only thing certain in the team's future is that it now is in the top five in TV revenues among major-league teams and will have the money to keep upgrading the team, if management chooses to spend it that way.

The UW's de facto swap of Sarkisian for Petersen will, in the long run, no doubt benefit the football Huskies.

Sarkisian, a young USC assistant when hired five years ago, brought enthusiasm and recruiting zeal to the job. The roster he leaves behind is solid and deep. His onfield coaching, however, left something to be desired; he probably lost five games in five seasons through his own inexplicable sideline calls and gaffes. Had the Huskies not won this year's Apple Cup game against Washington State — a close call for the more talented Huskies — there would have been many calls for Sark's replacement.

Petersen, by contract, has twice been voted college coach of the year. He is respected by his peers and known especially for his technical grasp of the game. He also has made an immediate hit with UW alums with a personal approach that is more Northwest and Don James than SoCal and Tommy Trojan. 

As usually happens in such coaching changes, Sarkisian took many of his Husky assistant coaches with him to Los Angeles and Petersen is expected to bring most of his former Boise State staff to Seattle. Several former committed Husky recruits have since decommited, some in favor of USC. Same for former Boise State recruits now headed to UW. There are few vacancies in the upcoming Husky class, in any case, because so few seniors were on this year's roster.

The whole thing became poisoned last week, however, when an assistant Lynwood High track coach told the NCAA that Tosh Lupoi, a Husky defensive line coach expected to join Sarkisian at USC, had given him $4,500 in cash to pay for tutoring services for Andrew Basham, a Lynwood lineman committed to the Huskies last year. But Basham ultimately failed to make his grades and gain admission. The track coach's story contained many specifics.

His wife has backed up his story. Lupoi has tweeted a generic denial.  NCAA investigators are on the case.

A USC spokesman has been quoted as saying that Lupoi's chances of being hired at USC are now "less than zero."  Sarkisian has said he tried to create a climate at the UW in which such violations could not happen. Updated NCAA rules could subject him to sanctions if the charges prove true. The UW also could face sanctions. A sad footnote emerged when a blue-chip line prospect, now committed to Oregon, said that Lupoi, still employed by the Huskies, had contacted him recently on behalf of USC. Late Thursday, a UW-committed line recruit from Arizona decommitted, explaining he had been recruited by Lupoi.

Just as the Geoff Baker story on Zduriencik rang true, so do the Lynwood coach's allegations about Lupoi. If they prove out, Lupoi is probably done with college coaching anywhere.

Husky followers can only hope that other members of Sarkisian's staff were not engaged in such conduct, leaving the school in jeopardy. It no doubt will be many months before investigators can conclude their inquiries. In meantime, the excitement that should have come from the Petersen hire has been dulled. The Huskies play a Hunger Bowl game against BYU in San Francisco on Dec. 27, with a skeleton coaching staff, still including Lupoi as this was written.

Remember when sports were joyful and a seeminly purer pursuit than most parts of everyday life? It's hard to think of them that way as we turn toward a new sports year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of