The first to leave Seattle was pitcher Randy Johnson — tall, gawky, and lovely as an ostrich, with a fastball that registers triple digits on a radar gun. Mariners fans wept. Next to go was center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., the 10-time Golden Glove-winning, 11-time All-Star who was the pride of the franchise. And Mariners fans draped the Kingdom in black. Last to defect was Alex Rodriguez, the All-Star shortstop who had 41 home runs and 132 RBIs in his final year with the Mariners. He had been lured away by a $252 million deal in Texas.
This time, the city of Seattle cried out to the baseball gods, asking why they deserved such an exit of talent. And the gods heard the fans’ pain and said, “Have patience, children. Pat Gillick will raise you up. He will rebuild it, and you will come.”
Sure enough, in 2001, the Mariners, led by the man that the Sporting News named Executive of the Year, won an unprecedented 116 games and battled the mighty New York Yankees for a berth in the World Series. Talk about a comeback. When Gillick arrived in October 1999, he found a mediocre club, despite its dazzling troika of superstars. “Mariners fans were thinking, ‘We’re victims of the way baseball is constructed. We’re just a minor-league team to three or four other teams in the big leagues,’ ” says Steve Sandmeyer, a talk jock on Seattle sports-radio station KJR.
Yet in less than two years as general manager, Gillick built one of the hottest franchises in baseball. How did he do it? The same way that he did it in Toronto, where he won two World Series, and in Baltimore, where he led the team to the ALCS in 1996 and 1997: by having a keen eye for talent, building a cohesive clubhouse, and paying attention to the many little things that add up to big victories. Fast Company played some pepper with Gillick and got his scorecard for building a winning organization.
Character counts (really). “When I’m scouting, I take character over physical ability every time,” says Gillick. “If we get to the play-offs, we’ll play more than 200 games. Over the course of seven months, you’ve got to have people who get along with each other, who have a common goal. We look for players who put team goals above personal goals.”
Chemistry counts too. “Chemistry is unbelievably critical,” Gillick says. “If you come into a workplace, and there is inconsistency, there are disruptive employees, or you don’t know what to expect, then you won’t be a motivated employee.” The Mariners’ quest for a happy clubhouse includes paying close attention to the wives and kids of the players. Gillick meets with wives early in the season to work out everything from ticketing to security to the potentially inflammatory problem of who sits where (which involves a careful ranking based on hubby’s tenure in the majors). “There can be a lot of one-upmanship with the ladies,” he says.
Invest in a balanced portfolio. “Our philosophy is to balance the payroll. If we have $25 million to spend, we’d rather have five guys making $5 million than one guy making $25 million,” Gillick says. “We also make every attempt to have a salary structure where the best player is also the highest paid. Otherwise, there will be resentment. The most important salary structure is the one within your own club.”
Everybody’s on the team. “When I came to Seattle, we instituted a bonus program for all of our employees,” Gillick says. “For the past two years, every employee — from the minor leagues through top management — has set goals. And for the past two years, we’ve met them. In that type of scenario, everybody stands to win. Now people are seeking us out, looking to work for the Mariners. Treat your assets well, and it will come back to you in spades.”
Winning is fun-damental. “When I got here, I told our guys that our goal was to have fun, and the best way to have fun is to go home happy at least 100 times during the season. Our first year, we won 91 games. Last year, we won 116. So that’s the key: Be positive, be upbeat, be supportive.”
Fans are having fun again too. The new ballpark, SAFECO Field, is setting club records for attendance. Season-ticket sales are at an all-time high. The hand-wringing has turned to high-fiving. “Gillick is a hero in Seattle,” says Sandmeyer. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”
Linda Tischler (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.