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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 1, 2007 4:01 PM

Hargrove's timing a stunner

Posted by Geoff Baker

Sorry about the delay in updating, but as I mentioned earlier, many of us had to fly out to Kansas City today to be on the ground in time for tomorrow night's series opener. Just arrived in Minneapolis and will catch my connecting flight in an hour. What a crazy day. Worked the phones, along with Larry Stone and company early this morning so we could break the news about the stunning Mike Hargrove resignation before it became official. Wanted you folks to have it first. Obviously, none of us had a clue this was coming. I figured the announcement would involve Ichiro or Ken Griffey Jr. Once we learned that Ichiro wasn't involved and that Griffey was in today lineup for the Reds, as one of you pointed out, our curiosity reached a fevered pitch.

Managers just don't up and quit on a team riding a seven-game winning streak and that has just moved 11 games over .500 and to within a game of being the wild-card leader. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this was about Hargrove. My first reaction was fear, that he was ill. That is not the case. So, relief there. Like you, I heard the initial portion of his interview on the pre-game broadcast as I was racing to the airport. Just made it on the plane as it was boarding, then answered the non-stop ringing of my cellphone from our Times team down at Safeco Field updating me on the press conference and what the players were saying inside the clubhouse.

Even my girlfriend, Amy, got in on the act, phoning in updates as we waited for the cabin door of our aircraft to close. Have just spent the last three hours flying and running through the day's events in my head. The timing of this announcement is terrible. At the very least, Hargrove and the club could have waited until the all-star break. If this was about wanting to address the players before they scurried off for the break, then tell them the second-to-last day the team is in Oakland next Saturday. Why now? Hopefully, this wasn't about the Mariners wanting to do the full-blown press conference thing at Safeco Field. After all, this was the last day that would have been possible before the break. Did they want to let Hargrove have one last chance to say goodbye to the fans? That's a nice gesture, but it's the timing I'm concerned about. Disrupting a team the day before an all-star break is one thing. Doing it in the midst of that team's hottest stretch, before a very important road trip, quite another.

And don't be fooled. This upcoming trip is still important. We've already seen the M's go 5-0 to start their last trip, then 0-6 after that. Just because they've aced this first part of the two-week, pre-all-star stretch to prove they should be trade deadline "buyers" doesn't mean they're completely out of the woods. This is, remember, a very streaky club with some issues still to resolve.

So, I don't like the timing of this move. Not one bit.

As for the explanation given by Hargrove, it sounded very suspect to me at first. I mean, what manager feels burned-out, or not ready to give his all, when his team is playing its best ball in years? When Hargrove has a shot at finally winning again, all those years after he left Cleveland.

But then, sitting here on our plane, I thought about it from a different perspective. Forget all the conspiracy theories about Hargrove being pushed out of his job to get John McLaren in there. Forget any talk about a power struggle, or of management having wanted to make this change much earlier and now becoming timid that it may never get another chance if the team keeps winning.

Let's all assume that Hargrove is telling the truth. That he really did first tell GM Bill Bavasi about these thoughts a few weeks back. That would have dated to right around the time the team left on its previous road trip. Seattle had just blown a lead and lost at home to Baltimore, then won a couple of games in San Diego. It was another four-city road swing, the kind that sucks the life out of you. I described it amply a couple of weeks back when seeking a reason for why the M's had dropped the last five games of the trip. Hargrove could very well have been feeling burned out at that point. Don't forget, the team was still slipping well behind the Angels (making up four games so quickly is extremely rare) and was a good distance behind in the wild-card race. All of that has changed in a hurry, with Seattle doing the unexpected of sweeping the Boston Red Sox and taking two games out of two from the Toronto Blue Jays to start this current series. There was very little to foreshadow this a couple of weeks ago.

It is very possible that Hargrove began easing the transition of power over to McLaren the previous two weeks or so. Don't forget, it was only five days ago that the M's had merely taken the first game of the Boston series against a less-than-stellar pitcher. Even five days ago, forseeing that this team would not lose again the rest of the week, that the Angels would be swept by the Royals and the AL Central clubs would begin stumbling, was hardly a foregone conclusion.

So, all of the wheels are put in motion, the dye is cast and the M's brace themselves for a Sunday transition of dugout power. Only problem is, the darned M's just won't lose. Instead of going .500 against Boston and Toronto and staying a good half-dozen back of the Angels and three or four out in the wild-card hunt, Seattle goes on this fantastic winning streak and captures a city's imagination.

Hmmm, about that plan...can we change it, Mike? Well, it turns out the team went ahead with it. If the version being spun for the media is indeed true. As we mentioned in yesterday's blog, suggesting Hargrove had earned the right to finish the year (and perhaps return as a tandem with McLaren in 2008) McLaren has become an enormous help in the dugout. He has been involved in the day-to-day strategy decisions, helping Hargrove do a masterful job of managing the bullpen to avoid total burnout.

Perhaps McLaren was already doing more leading than following. Perhaps this transition is just a natural extension of what has been happening all along. We'll see as the season progresses just how smooth a transition this will be.

As we mentioned back in April and have followed up on periodically, including yesterday, the team quietly gave Hargrove a contract extension through the 2008 season that did not preclude him leaving this year. The extension was granted because McLaren had a two-year deal and it would have looked strange to see him with more job security than his "boss" especially with all of the rumors he would be replacing Hargrove down the line.

The source who gave me the tip about Hargrove's extension, kept quiet because of the obvious foul mood amongst Seattle baseball fans towards the manager at the time, is very plugged-in to the goings-on in major league front offices. One other thing he told me that night, as we chatted about baseball for hours, still sticks and seems very pertinent to what happened today.

My source told me: "Hargrove doesn't give a (bleep) what happens anymore. He got his extension. They can fire him tomorrow and he's laughing for the next two years because he can just sit at home and collect his money. Do you think he needs this (bleep) anymore? He doesn't give a (bleep).''

I keep running over those lines now. Are they really much different from what Hargrove talked about this morning? About not wanting to let his players down when he felt he could no longer give it his all? About not having that fire any more? Maybe he just doesn't give a damn. Not about the team, entirely. But about this whole baseball traveling circus. Maybe for one of those rare occasions, a guy who talks about the importance of family, of being there for the good moments, really means it and is doing more than paying the subject lip service.

Maybe Hargrove wants to forget about surviving another month without being fired, go out on a high note, and get on with living? Get on with forgetting about these four-city road trips, waking up in a dark and lonely hotel room, and worrying how his bullpen is going to get through another series without imploding? Maybe he needs to get away. Strange, isn't it, how he picks this time to leave? Just when he had seemed to be winning back some of that respect from the fans at-large that had been missing for him since leaving the Cleveland Indians.

Hargrove was never much of a "blog guy" to begin with. Used to ask me why I bothered fanning the flames of reader angst. So, it's doubtful he's taken any solace from the nice things being said about him here, at the USS Mariner, Lookout Landing and other places. But he is leaving with this team's future looking brighter than it has in some time. And if that future changes in the next few weeks, or months, it will no longer be his problem.

There's a sense of relief that comes with freeing oneself from that kind of responsibility. In many ways it helps explain the timing of today's announcement a little better. I still don't like it. But a lot of you wanted to see what a McLaren-run team would look like. And now, for better or for worse, we're all about to find out.

All this and we're not even at the all-star break yet. One thing's for sure. The 2007 season will certainly go down as one of the most interesting we've ever seen around these parts. Talk to you from Kansas City.

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