Mariners' baseball ops takes mentorship lead

Hometown Nine program opening doors for underserved local youth

November 23rd, 2021
Mariners front-office employees Emily Curtis (far left) and McKenzie Mitchell (far right) are driven to provide opportunities in and away from baseball for local youth, especially women.

SEATTLE -- There was an inspiring moment earlier this year at T-Mobile Park that Mariners community relations coordinator McKenzie Mitchell recalls vividly and humbly.

Mitchell was touring the playing surface with Emily Curtis, a colleague who works in baseball operations, and Joy Wilde, the 13-year-old student athlete whom they mentor as part of the team’s On BASE Hometown Nine program, the fellowship created in 2020 to open doors for underserved youth, especially those of color, seeking opportunities in baseball.

Many of the fellows, especially the boys, still have ambitions of becoming big league ballplayers someday. But through H9’s mentorship, a mandatory and key component to the program, many of these participants are opening their eyes to careers in the Majors but off the field. Wilde, who is from Tacoma, Wash., is one of them, and on this day, she describes to Mitchell and Curtis that making player personnel decisions is an area she thinks she can thrive in.

Earlier this year, Wilde -- who has aspirations of playing for the Washington Huskies softball team after high school -- received the Emerging Leader Award among the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Awards.

“I think it's really cool, especially since baseball is mostly like a male sport," Wilde said. "It's really cool to see women like McKenzie and Emily and the front office and working there, and I definitely would love to pursue that as a career, too.

Through Hometown Nine, fellows connect with their mentors at least once per month and are regularly invited to T-Mobile Park.

Seattle’s baseball operations department is like most across the league, comprised of a talented, intelligent, driven staff -- but one that can become more insular given the proprietary and almost secret nature of their work and that sharing those strategies outside the organization is typically a non-starter. Their job functions are to create competitive advantages for players and coaches on the field through analytics, video and other special projects. They also play a growing role in scouting and are extensively consulted on free-agent and trade acquisitions.

Many in these roles are self-professed baseball nerds, and anyone on the outside who can relate think that these employees have the coolest jobs. But that insular nature, intentionally or not, can create barriers for those interested in pursuing a career in this realm. However, they have been among the most active in the H9 mentorship program, in part, to help illustrate the opportunities that could be afforded to their mentees down the road.

“The goal of our day-to-day jobs is just something that doesn't always get seen, I suppose,” said Mariners director of data strategy Skylar Shibayama, who became a mentor for Darnell Carlisle during the inaugural H9 class last year. “We're not really trying to publicize the different things that we're up to on a day-to-day basis, just for competitive reasons. We have a different goal than a lot of other people in their jobs. [Outreach] is not something that we do naturally … so I think a lot of kids just don't know. It's not like they're against what we do, it’s just that they've never heard about it.”

“I would say that we’re guilty of that for sure … I would say that reputation is fair,” said Austin Yamada, a Mariners scouting analyst for and H9 mentor to Gabe Lopez. “Just, we spend a lot of time together. It's a small department. In Arizona in Spring Training, we live together for two months. I think we're just super, super close, super tight knit, and I don't for whatever reason or another, most of us don't branch out to other departments. Not that it's a good thing, just, that’s what happens. I would love to reach out more.”

It’s these barriers that Shibayama, Yamada, Curtis and many others in Seattle’s baseball ops are attempting to break down for youngsters like Wilde. It’s also why baseball ops has made such an aggressive push among the Mariners’ other departments in H9 mentorship.

“It can be kind of like a nebulous fortress,” Mitchell said. “Traditionally, it's been kind of a tough-to-crack environment, and we want to show these kids that they have the opportunity to be here and are welcomed here, and that there are other opportunities to explore outside of just playing.”

Mitchell has been the heart and soul of H9 since its inception in 2020, from top to bottom. From logistics, program awareness among Mariners employees, event planning, the application process and mentoring three fellows -- she has an imprint on everything H9.

So, when mentors were allowed to interact with their mentees in person again this spring as health and safety measures again allowed, and with the addition of the 2026 class nearing in summer, Mariners assistant GM Justin Hollander invited her to a baseball ops staff meeting to encourage mentorship participation. There are now five mentors from baseball ops of the 17 total, and with the addition of nine new fellows each year, there will be even more room to grow.

The Mariners' front office annually hosts the Diamond Dinner, where all H9 fellows take part in a special on-field ceremony.

Players have been at the forefront of H9 involvement, too, notably Kyle Lewis, who has formed a close bond with H9 fellow Tycean Martin, a teenager who has undergone multiple open-heart surgeries. But the front-office members spanning the sales, marketing, ballpark operations and baseball ops departments are just as involved, if perhaps in a more behind-the-scenes manner.

Speaking of, one unanticipated benefit from the H9 mentorship has been the cross-collaboration that the Mariners’ front-office employees have experienced with each other. Each fellow is paired with two front-office mentors, in addition to one player mentor, so those mentors typically work in different departments and in many cases hadn’t interacted before the program.

“I feel like I have a much better kind of connection to folks outside of the baseball operations bubble,” Curtis said. “And that has been really cool to see, and something that I've really enjoyed. I think it's also just generally being a part of this program has helped me feel a lot more of a sense of pride for working for the Mariners.”

H9 is a five-year commitment to nine incoming eighth graders in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties, providing financial, academic, professional, and social support to encourage success in their athletic careers and educational journeys. Mariners Care, the team’s official nonprofit foundation, underwrites the playing fees for elite baseball and softball training, offering H9 fellows equitable access to competitive play.

Thanks in part to a $50,000 donation from T-Mobile as the founding partner of the program, the Mariners will pay all fees associated with travel/select baseball/softball training and equipment, in addition to mentorship, and assist them with academic, professional and social support to help them succeed on the field and in the classroom.