PEORIA, Ariz. — When Jerry Dipoto pitched in the major leagues, as a reliever for three teams from 1993 to 2000, he was widely known among players for his vast memorabilia collection.
“Guys would talk about it: ‘This rivals the Hall of Fame,’ ” said Mike Hampton, the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen coach, who played with Dipoto in spring training one year. “They just said, ‘This place is unbelievable.’ He’s a baseball fanatic, a baseball nut. He loves the history of the game.”
Giants of baseball, like Frank Robinson and Buck O’Neil, would visit Dipoto’s home in Colorado to see his shrine, which included an autographed Christy Mathewson ball, a game-used Tom Seaver jersey and a handwritten letter from George S. Davis, a Hall of Famer who broke in with the 1890 Cleveland Spiders.
Alas, Dipoto has reduced his inventory in an itinerant executive career — the door signed by visitors was painted over in one of his moves — but he still spices his conversation with historical references; a Bill Mazeroski here, a Johnny Sain there. Last September, he began his third general managing job, with the Mariners, who own a distinction in the modern game: Seattle is the only current major league city that has never hosted the World Series.
To some, the Mariners’ futility has become a part of their appeal.
“I wanted to be part of something special,” reliever Steve Cishek, who signed as a free agent in December, said. “This team has the longest playoff drought, and I think it would be so rewarding if we had an opportunity to make the playoffs.”
The Mariners last reached the playoffs in 2001, under Manager Lou Piniella. Every other team has made the postseason since then. The Mariners have churned through nine managers since Piniella, with Scott Servais hired last fall to be the latest.
Servais, a former catcher, keeps a tidy office at the Mariners’ training complex here. The coffee mug in his Keurig machine bears the slogan: Are You Ready? A Vince Lombardi beer stein sits nearby, a nod to Servais’s Wisconsin roots. Next to that, within a thick plastic case, is a 1957 Topps baseball card of a Yankees catcher named Darrell Johnson.
“Do you know who that is?” Servais asks a visitor. “You tell me.”
For most, the answer would not be obvious. Johnson had a brief and unremarkable playing career, and in 1977 he became the first manager of the Mariners. The team took 22 innings to score its first run, and did not post a winning season until 1991.
Dipoto has a plan to change the recent string of disappointment, which includes five losing records in the last six seasons. He resigned last summer as the general manager of the Los Angeles Angels, where he had an uneasy alliance with Mike Scioscia, a powerful veteran manager. Servais was Dipoto’s assistant with the Angels and has been a close friend for 20 years.
“It’s very comfortable,” Servais said. “I’m O.K. with him questioning me and I think he’s O.K. with me questioning him. That’s a healthy relationship. It’s really important not to have too big of an ego. I certainly don’t have all of the answers.”
Servais has never managed, but Dipoto praised his baseball acumen, attention to detail and communication skills. They agreed on the type of player the Mariners most needed to add this winter — athletic contact hitters — and Servais said he was not surprised at the extent of the makeover.
Dipoto kept the core pieces intact because nothing was wrong with them: second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz, third baseman Kyle Seager and the ace right-hander Felix Hernandez. He overhauled most of the remaining roster, replacing more than half of the players. Of the 60 players at spring training, only 29 were with the team at the end of last season.
“We had power arms, we had power bats, but our team defense, our overall range, maybe our athleticism on the defensive side — not great,” Dipoto said. “Our base running was lower on the impact meter. And then the overall balance in the lineup, it was low on-base, high strikeouts. And while the power was real, clearly it wasn’t helping us maximize our potential to score runs. And the ballpark really doesn’t lend itself to getting there and banging. We needed to be a little more diverse.”
The Mariners rank 28th of 30 teams in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings. The lack of prospects forced Dipoto to deal largely from the major league roster, so he shipped three everyday players — Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Mark Trumbo — and the team’s two most-used relievers — Carson Smith and Tom Wilhelmsen — in various deals.
The trades and free agent signings have given the Mariners a deeper rotation with Wade Miley and Nathan Karns; a revamped bullpen with Cishek, Joaquin Benoit and Justin De Fratus; better defense with center fielder Leonys Martin; and more reliable on-base threats with Nori Aoki and Adam Lind. The moves also cleared shortstop for Ketel Marte, 22, who played well as a rookie last summer.
“It was a lot to try to keep up with,” Seager said. “But everything’s made so much sense. Once you get here and see everybody on the field together, you start to understand why everything happened.”
Servais has been blunt in his goals. He said he told Hernandez, the former Cy Young Award winner, that it was finally time for him to pitch in the playoffs — and to pull other starters with him. Hernandez said Taijuan Walker, in particular, has a chance to be a breakout star. He is not too familiar with all the newcomers.
“I don’t think I know most of the guys yet,” Hernandez said. “But it’s exciting.”
The players seem to be meshing well, with encouragement from Servais to speak up in team meetings and share personal details. He sent Tony Zych, a rookie pitcher and billiards expert, to buy a pool table for the middle of the clubhouse. Zych found one with a Mariner-blue carpet — and Cano, who is starting the third season of a 10-year, $240 million contract, paid for it.
“Everyone seems like they’re getting close here,” said Cishek, who meant that they were bonding as teammates.
Are they closer to contention? That is no sure thing in the deep A.L. West, but the Mariners’ tortured past gives them a chance to make a lasting imprint if everything breaks right. Their architect, the baseball history buff, relishes the chance.
“So far,” Dipoto said, “I couldn’t be happier with how it’s going.”