On Kevin Mather: A Matter of Systems and Institutions

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In Seattle, Washington, the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club is a community-based organization whose goal is to “promote understanding, goodwill, and world peace.” Their mission statement reads: “to change lives in our local and world communities through service and financial support.” Their values are inclusivity, coming together in the name of service and ethics, and positively impacting others’ lives.

On February 5, 2021, Kevin Mather, former President of the Seattle Mariners, led a program entitled “Seattle Mariners – Sea Change!” At first glance, this looks like an exciting talk that falls right in line with the Rotary Club’s ethos. The actual presentation did everything to undermine Bellevue’s vision while pulling the curtain back on a damning systemic failure within Major League Baseball.

For those unaware of Mather’s scintillating performance in front of the Rotary Club last week, you can read the transcript here and view some of the videos here. The most troubling comments center around Mariners’ top prospect Julio Rodríguez and former Mariners’ pitcher and current special assignment coach, Hisashi Iwakuma. Rodríguez is Dominican. Iwakuma is Japanese.

When a Bellevue member asked Mather about Rodríguez, Mather replied (emphasis mine), “Julio Rodríguez has a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud. His English is not tremendous.” Rodríguez is arguably Seattle’s top prospect. He’s dynamic. He has an absurd upside. By all accounts, he’s a great kid and teammate. Despite all of this, Mather’s first instinct was to use coded descriptors to answer the question. Being “loud” isn’t a flaw or defect. It describes volume. In this case, Mather meant this as a character trait. How do I know this? Beyond saying “he is,” Black and Brown people have constantly heard this phrasing in a derogatory manner. It is dismissive. In fairness, if being loud is the worst thing Mather could say about Rodríguez, you could shake your head and move on.

And yet, Mather said far worse about his prized prospect. Rodríguez didn’t speak Mather’s native language well enough in the former Team President’s eyes. Victims of ignorance don’t bear the responsibility of explaining away bigotry. We don’t need to evaluate or defend Rodriguez’s capacity to speak English. All you have to do is look at his YouTube channel to realize that isn’t an issue at all. The fundamental issue is the prism through which Mather looks at people who do not look like him. Mather views Rodriguez’s value as a human only through his own lens of stereotypes, oppression, and analytics. Of course, some will brush this away as a mistake. It is just a poor choice of words. Mather didn’t mean it.

Except Mather meant it when he mentioned growing tired of paying Iwakuma’s translator. In only a way bigots joke, Mather said Iwakuma’s English got better quickly once he mentioned to the former pitcher they were no longer paying for an interpreter. No one asked about Iwakuma’s ability to speak English. No one cares about the Mariners translator expenses. Mather willingly shared this anecdote to a curated group of Mariners fans. In a mere 45 minutes, Kevin Mather established a pattern that MLB historically has not addressed well enough.

Major League Baseball has made valiant attempts to address diversity on the field and in the league. There has been admirable progress. Despite that progress, it always feels like we’re having the same circuitous conversations. Why aren’t there more Black ballplayers? Why can’t the league market all these young stars? Surely, we can throw more money at youth travel ball clubs to help a kid get a glove. Of course, companies like Nike and Gatorade can do better at building partnerships with these players. But those suggestions don’t rectify the core problem. This is all systemic. It is a part of the very fiber of the league. The system produces and enables people like Kevin Mather. This is how the system continues to perpetuate itself. It promotes the very things that will help it survive. Kevin Mather is a gatekeeper.

It isn’t a coincidence that Mather made these comments in front of an older, white male section of the fan base. Would he have made those comments in front of Seattle’s robust and vibrant Asian community? I wonder how Latino Seattle Mariners fans would take those comments about Rodríguez, especially if English is their second language. Mather was comfortable making those comments about Latino and Asian players. He thought the audience wanted to hear this. In Mather’s eyes, baseball fandom’s essence sat in on a Zoom call with him at the Rotary Club. If we’re to take Bellevue’s vision statement at face value, it appears Mather made a terrible assumption.

This endless cycle of addressing true diversity in MLB will continue until the system is dismantled. It will happen when the Kevin Mather types aren’t the default choice to wield power. Keep in mind, Mather resigned. The team didn’t fire him. His archetype still reigns supreme. It requires a courage and boldness not yet seen from MLB to truly reimagine that position of authority. At the moment, it is far more comfortable reinforcing itself than reinventing itself.

Now, there are people in the league and in organizations that want real change. I’ve met them. I’ve worked alongside them. We’ve had very real conversations. That spirit does indeed exist. Someone can make the case that Mather’s attitudes no longer reflects the majority. The problem is up until Monday at 4pm, he wielded power and influence. Mather shaped the vision of a franchise. The Mariners were fine with this until Mather got caught.

If your response to all of this is don’t bring race into it, you’re telling on yourself. I didn’t bring race or ethnicity, or language into this. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to write about it. But the former President of the Seattle Mariners brought all of this up. He brought the problem to the forefront. He willingly raised it to a group of people that looked like him because he assumed they all shared the same belief system. This lies at the heart of the matter. It is a system that creates a discerning institution that willingly chooses who can engage and benefit from it.

Many people, including myself, have lamented why things are still the same for far too long. We’ll continue screaming into the void until that belief system is dismantled by those who no longer want to be the only beneficiaries. That is when we’ll know if diversity is truly an ethos or a cute buzzword to satisfy the masses.

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18 Comments

  1. JerryD79

    Looks like the odds are now much higher that Jerred Kelenic is playing LF for the Mariners on opening day! They can always send him down later if he doesn’t hit and save face if they really care that much about service time?

  2. JJ Dools

    I watched a bunch of the clips from this event and I have to say, the comments about Julio Rodriquez do not jump out as being amongst the worst of what he said (I think the Iwakuma comments were worse) – though it is so peculiar that he decided to comment on the fact that his English is not great since that was totally irrelevant to the narrative.

    I actually think the worst comment I saw was about the neighborhood. He basically says he worries about his employees safety, but because he can get so much money for parking in the garage near the stadium he cannot let them park there, so they have to take a risk parking somewhere else. It sounds irredeemably greedy. If I were a player, I would also be particularly angry about the ‘hat in hand’ comments. That is sure to anger players and the MLBPA. Of course, he is pretty sleazy with the service time manipulation comments, but that simply draws light to what nearly all teams are doing, so is more an error in honesty than revealing some dark bigotry or bias.

  3. MikeD

    Never heard of Mather until yesterday, as I generally think of Jerry DiPoto, the GM, and John Stanton, the majority owner, when I think of the Mariners.

    I’ve worked in technology and media for much of my career, and those industries are fairly progressive. My path has interested with some old line industries, such as logistics, at various points, and I felt like I stepped back into what I imagine the 1950s were like. No surprise, btw, that someone like Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, came from logistics. It explains much of what happened in that organization. Anyway, MLB strikes as a very similar to old-line industries, most likely exasperated by being very male and sports oriented.

    This guy being the CEO would have had a significant impact on the culture, directly and indirectly. Let’s hope Stanton views this as an opportunity to change the culture for the better.

  4. Nice piece. Read Class A by Lucas Mann. The author embeds himself in a Mariners minor league team for a season. Although the scenes with Latin ball players are only a small part of the entire tapestry, they given sense of what it’s like for a young man in a foreign country who gets little help from the organization. Rodriguez at least will be a star. 90% of these kids will never make it even to triple a.

    • Randy

      Thanks for the book reco. I’m gonna check it out.

    • MikeD

      It’s crazy that MLB teams will spend so much on talent, but cheap out in other areas. I’d be trying to do everything I could to ease the transition into a new country and culture, especially when these guys are barely old enough to shave.

  5. Nick

    Great post, Randy. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

  6. Mungo

    Nice view and article, Randy.

    I am a glass is half-full kind of guy. Having been on this earth for a while, I will say that while Mather being in position of authority until yesterday is a bad thing, especially as there were other warning signs that even we in the general public were aware of, the good thing is in years past –and I’m not even talking 20 or 30 years past, but within the last ten years — this would have been swept under the rug. The good thing is that did not happen here. He was forced out.

    Change continues to happen and for the better. I will now go sip from my half full glass, filled with a lovely Oban single malt. I highly recommend it.

  7. dasit

    keeping an eye out for unconscious bias does not equal “refusing to find comedy in everyday life”

  8. jw76

    Your article makes a lot of good points but you lost me at the description of Rotary.

    I can’t speak for the demographic mix of that particular Rotary club, but assuming it is all old white males is a fallacy that you have fallen into. My club in Cheyenne, Wyoming is a mix of women, men, young professionals and retirees. You labeled Rotary without knowing what you are talking about. That’s unfortunate and a systematic belief on your part that maybe you ought to look inward about.

    • Randy

      I did no such thing. I clearly wrote that its mission is for inclusivity and even mentioned that it probably doesn’t align with what they believe in as an organization. The actual call with Mather featured mostly older white men. All you have to do is look at the videos. You’re reaching to be contrarian which is a bad look. Thanks for reading though.

      • mikenyc2007

        I really think that you are taking this a little too far…. joking about the player’s English getting better when faced with paying the bill isn’t something “bigots find funny,” just the same way that saying everyone likes free stuff until they have to pay for it isnt a way for rich people to mock the poor.

        Would he resigned if he was speaking about a newly-hired white manager from Louisiana and spoke in a deep drawl, or in a steep-Brooklyn accent and he said “he is loud but speaks English funny – so we told him to slow down so we don’t have to hire an interpreter- and now we can all understand him?”

        we all have become too alert for any potential chance to be offended, we refuse to find comedy in every day life, and are really curtailing the professional careers of folks who haven’t demonstrated any issue in their professional lives which would indicate race plays into their job performance.

        • Old Boy

          Mather had demonstrated plenty of issues in his professional life. They are well documented.
          Some of the point about looking to be offended does ring true. But not here.

        • wendellx

          Excuse me, sir, the Proud Boys meeting is down the hall.

        • Yea because it’s extremely common for people to make those comments about people with deep drawls from Louisiana or a Brooklyn accent…

          • Mikenyc2007

            You are right- no one makes fun/mocks a brooklyn accent …

  9. Eric Scheinkopf

    Well said!

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