Seattle has Armstrong to thank for Mariners
Retiring club president helped bring stability, success to Pacific Northwest franchise
The countdown is underway for Chuck Armstrong. After more than 28 years as Seattle Mariners president, Chuck will head to the rocking chair at the end of the month.
To most baseball fans, team presidents are invisible. They're not the face of the franchise -- not the general manager, the field skipper or a superstar player.
Oh, there was Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan at the helm as the Rangers became one of the American League's premier teams with back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2010-11. Ryan stepped down in October.
But for the most part, team presidents are about as behind-the-scenes as it gets in Major League Baseball.
Yet, as Armstrong prepares for retirement, it's difficult to picture the Mariners without him. He's one of the most respected club presidents in Major League Baseball.
When Chuck answered the phone Thursday, I asked if he was ready for the rocking chair.
"You're not going to believe this," he said, "but I'm sitting in one as we talk."
And enjoying it.
Armstrong is 71 and says the recent passing of three close friends told him it was time.
"It was a difficult decision for me, but the right one at this time," he said. "After the season, I took the longest vacation of my life -- two weeks. My wife and I and just our three children to celebrate our 46th anniversary, went to Amsterdam, Rome, Florence and Tuscany.
"I've never had time to do this. Baseball isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. I came home and Don James, former Husky football coach, died at 80; our lawyer, Irwin Treiger, died at 81; and the next week Mike McCormack, president and general manager of the Seahawks when I first got here, died at 83. I thought, 'You know, I'm 71 and there are things I want to do.'"
I first met Chuck in 1989, when then-owner George Argyros was attempting to sell the Mariners to an out-of-state buyer. Armstrong was determined to keep them in Seattle.
After Argyros sold the team to Jeff Smulyan, Chuck was pushed out, but he remained in the Seattle area and said the Mariners should do the same thing.
I vividly remember a chaotic three-year period during which the future of Major League Baseball in the Pacific Northwest hung by a thread.
Smulyan, owner of Emmis Broadcasting, had borrowed heavily to purchase the Mariners for $76 million, and when he faced a February 1992 deadline to pay off or refinance a $39 million bank loan, he put the team up for sale in December.
A group from St. Petersburg, Fla., tried to talk Smulyan into keeping the franchise and moving it. But the Mariners had their first winning season in 1991, drew 2.2 million and the fans became excited with players such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
At what seemed like the 11th hour, a Japanese group led by the family that founded Nintendo made a $100 million offer to Smulyan. But Commissioner Fay Vincent was opposed, citing a policy against investors from outside the United States and Canada.
Long story short: Thanks in part to former Puget Sound Energy CEO John Ellis and other Seattle movers and shakers, the deal was worked out and the Mariners stayed put.
Ellis became the team's chairman, and one of his first moves was to bring Armstrong back as president -- a brilliant decision.
So, as Armstrong prepares to retire, he's been president of the Mariners for more than 28 of their 37 years of existence, and for the past 21 seasons.
"But, again, I lament we've never been to the World Series," he said.
Commissioner Bud Selig is a huge Armstrong fan.
"I cannot say enough about Chuck Armstrong," said Selig. "He is such a great baseball man. He was one of the key leaders who secured our national pastime's future in the Pacific Northwest. He guided the Mariners as they became a model franchise in a wonderful ballpark."
The Mariners haven't been to the postseason since 2001, when manager Lou Piniella led them to a 116-46 regular-season record. They won the AL Division Series over the Cleveland Indians but couldn't get past the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
That result had been the same in 2000, when New York also deprived them of the World Series.
"The goal has always been to go to the World Series," Armstrong said. "My only regret is that the entire region wasn't able to enjoy a parade through the city to celebrate a world championship together.
"This is a very emotional time for me. Granted, we haven't been to the playoffs since 2001, but during that nine-year run from 1995 to 2003, we had the third-best record in baseball, after the Braves and Yankees. And then 2000-2003, that four-year period, we had the best record."
After finishing a disappointing fourth in the AL West in each of the past four seasons, there's renewed excitement in Seattle.
There's a new manager, Lloyd McClendon, and the Mariners made headlines when they landed All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano in December, committing $240 million over 10 years for this winter's top free agent.
As Armstrong prepares to walk away, he mused: "Thanks to our outstanding ownership, the franchise is stable and will remain the Northwest's team, playing in Safeco Field."
After that, he added: "I tell people I have four children, three of whom are human. Safeco Field is my fourth child."