OPINION: Mather’s Racist Comments Are Only Further Proof of Baseball’s Failures

by Maggie Mertens, contributing columnist

Kevin Mather said he was “tired” of paying an interpreter for Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who wanted to return to the Seattle Mariners as a coach. Iwakuma’s English, Mather said, is “terrible.” And prospective outfielder Julio Rodriguez? 

“He is loud. His English is not tremendous.” 

And who cares if the ill-fated Mariners make the playoffs or not — it’s only been 20 years. 

“2021 is probably a stretch,” Mather said. These long-winded and offensive comments came during a Zoom call with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club two weeks ago, while Mather was CEO of the Seattle Mariners. A video of the event was made public on Saturday night.

Mather apologized on Sunday night. 

“My comments were my own. They do not reflect the views and strategy of the Mariners baseball leadership who are responsible for decisions about the development and status of the players at all levels of the organization,” his statement read. On Monday, Feb. 22, amidst mounting public pressure, he resigned.

And though this is a positive step, Mather’s removal won’t fix the problem. When the CEO of an organization says things that aren’t right, that probably has at least a little something to do with the organization itself. And if you’ve been paying attention to the Mariners lately, discriminatory speech from the top of this organization is no surprise. In 2018 it was reported by The Seattle Times that Mather and two other Mariners executives had paid off sexual harassment allegations raised by at least three women in the organization in 2009–2010 to the tune of $500,000. All three women left their jobs. 

Mather, then executive vice president of finance and ballpark operations, was promoted. Later that same year, Lorena Martin, then the highest-ranking woman in the organization as the high-performance director, sued the club after being fired just one year into a three-year contract. She alleged sexist and racist behavior in the clubhouse, especially toward the Latino players. Though an MLB investigation found no evidence of the club violating any anti-discrimination law or the league’s code of conduct, the team did nothing besides wholesale denial to ease any concerns fans might have had from hearing such allegations. 

I remember these moments because each one has been a nail in the coffin of my Mariners fandom. If you ask someone who knew me growing up, even into my 20s, about my biggest passions, there’s a good chance they’d mention the Mariners. 

I was raised on baseball. The ‘95 team’s playoff run was the defining sports moment of my childhood. My parents used to cart my four brothers and me down to the Kingdome to spy Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez through binoculars from the cheap seats. Recordings of Dave Niehaus’s voice still give me goosebumps. In my 20s, I planned my life around what time games started, making sure I would be near a TV or radio at first pitch if I could help it. Even when I lived on the East Coast for nearly a decade, I’d at least stay up for the first three innings, often falling asleep by the fourth during those horrible 7:05 p.m. PST start times. Imagine my luck when Felix’s perfect game came during an afternoon game!

The first time the ugly underbelly of baseball pissed me off, though, I was at an away game while living in Washington, D.C. The Nats were playing a rare interleague series against the Mariners, and my partner and I headed to the daytime game early to soak in all we could of the team we only very rarely got to glimpse anymore. As we sat in the outfield seats — right field were our preferred seats so we could witness Ichiro’s defensive heroics close-up — I overheard the men sitting behind us. They were clearly mocking the group of Japanese women in the stands near us, cheering for Ichiro and waving their homemade posters for Japan’s beloved superstar, as groups of Japanese fans did at nearly every game I ever saw that Ichiro played in. My blood began to boil as I realized what they were saying. I whipped my head around and snapped something along the lines of “That is not OK!” To which the men behind us gave me a look like I was a gnat. They did not respond, just paused for a moment. I was a mere annoyance they could ignore. The rest of the game was ruined for me.

When we moved back to Seattle in 2015, one of my conditions for the move was that we get season tickets to the Mariners. And those first two years back I relished the opportunity to see my team live again. At first, it felt like heaven to be back in my happy place at Safeco Field (No, I will never call it T-Mobile Park, sorry). Soon, though, that blood-boiling feeling was coming back regularly. There was the guy who yelled out: “Your panties are showing!” to Kyle Seager when he didn’t swing at a called-strike. Or the man who, after hearing me discuss the fact that they’d probably have to pull the starter soon, looked at my partner and said, “Wow, a woman who knows how to read a pitch count, you should hold on to her!” (For the record, a pitch count is … a count of pitches … but OK.)

These comments might seem small, but every time I heard them they’d act like a sharp nail, puncturing the little bubble of sports joy I’d previously been in. When that happens enough times, you realize maybe this place, maybe this sport, isn’t for you. Maybe this joy isn’t yours. 

I didn’t renew our season tickets. And in the years since, I have felt pushed farther and farther away from a sport that I used to love with my whole heart. Because Mather’s comments do reflect the organization, and perhaps the entire league, as a whole. You just have to go to a game to hear the same ideas repeated in the bleachers that have been rankling the inner workings of the clubhouse.

It’s no secret that the Mariners have been bad, really bad, in this same timeframe. I could sit here and list all the other ways this organization has screwed up from never getting Felix Hernandez to the playoffs, to offloading every young player at the first inkling of success for some mix of spare parts that’s supposed to finally get us to “rebuild.” But it’s possible to care, deeply, about a sports team that doesn’t win and that makes crappy trades. I was happy to spend significant time with a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since I was in elementary school. But when a team loses year after year and they alienate any fan who thinks racism and misogyny are bad? What’s the point?

There’s been a whole lot of hand-wringing at the beginning of every MLB season in recent years about how to make people care about baseball again. The only things this league can come up with is to put a timer on the pitchers and digitize the strike zone. The Mariners have apparently thought the answer lay in renovating the stadium to include, among other things, a virtual golf simulator and strong-arming King County for millions in tax revenue for more renovations that otherwise would have gone to address the homelessness crisis. They think what fans want is to make the game go faster, or I guess, ignore it all together. Well, I’ve got news for the Mariners, and MLB in general: People don’t dislike baseball now because the game is too slow. We’ve stopped watching because the game’s left too many of us behind. 

Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.

Featured image is attributed to jwalsh (under a CC-BY 2.0 license).

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!