Jerry Dipoto remembers two lessons he references frequently.
The first dates back to his own playing days, when he was a reliever for eight seasons between the Indians, Mets and Rockies, but he embraced it when he first transitioned from wearing jerseys to sport coats following the 2000 season, only because he broke his neck and spinal fusion effectively ended his career.
The scout that signed him, Roy Clark, who noticed Dipoto pitching at Virginia Commonwealth University, reached out.
“He said, ‘I’m going to give you one bit of advice: The day that you look back and realize that you never asked anybody to do anything on the field that you weren’t willing to do yourself will be the day you know you got it right,’ ” Dipoto said. “I always try to remember that.
“I’ve been in the trenches, and I have worked with the players. I’ve scouted at every level there is to scout. I won’t ask anyone to do anything I won’t do myself.”
And the second lesson?
He said it came from John Hart, who was most recently the Braves’ president of baseball operations and now works for MLB Network. Hart told Dipoto to always look at players who are former first- or second-round draft picks.
“And then look again,” Dipoto said. “At some point some team thought enough of that player to pick them in the first two rounds. I’ve used that guidance so many times. I think he mentioned something about wear good clothes and always look at the first or second rounders."
You can see that in his trades for former first-round draft picks Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales. Even 33-year-old Wade LeBlanc, who's career has blossomed in Seattle, is a former second-round pick.
It needs to be noted that it hasn’t always worked. Dipoto traded then-shortstop Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for pitcher Zach Lee, a 2010 first-round pick. That goes into the flop folder.
But now the Mariners are 57-34 with a week remaining before the All-Star break and on pace to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2001 season behind some key deals Dipoto has made and a team that has so far thrived in dramatic situations. They lead the majors in one-run wins with 26.
You don’t get that many close wins without a manager pushing the right buttons when most needed. Scott Servais, a former catcher of 11 major-league seasons between the Astros, Cubs, Giants and Rockies, is wired similarly to Dipoto in many ways.
“Not asking anybody to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself – Scott is still wired that way,” Dipoto said. “He’ll get a pair of shorts and T-shirt on and climb in the cage with an A-ball kid to work on his swing, or get behind the plate to work on catching technique with a rookie-ball catcher in major league camp. He’s still a coach at heart and a teacher in what he does.”
Servais deals in the myopic, Dipoto the broad picture. But both say they can’t imagine doing their jobs without the other.
The Mariners announced Dipoto’s multi-year extension on Friday and Servais was asked if Dipoto’s deal is reassuring that his is likely to follow.
“I hope so, I’m not going to lie,” Servais said. “I love being here and I love Seattle. I love what we’ve been able to do here.”
Dipoto and Servais have been doing this together for a while now. Servais, the catcher, caught Dipoto one spring with the Rockies and they shared a condo when Servais was a minor-league instructor with the Cubs and Dipoto a pro scout with the Red Sox. When Dipoto was hired as the Angels’ general manager in 2011, he called Servais to be his assistant general manager.
When Dipoto took over in Seattle, he hired Servais to be the manager, despite no prior managerial experience.
“We can disagree on anything and everything,” Dipoto said. “But I think through the years we’ve come a long way.”
“It’s been interesting,” Servais said. “Certainly all the activity, all the trades here and what he’s done. He’s been unbelievably creative in trying to find ways to keep our major league team at a high-caliber level and try to keep it there. It’s been fun. It really is. It’s fun working with him and you never know what he’s got going. There’s always 10 irons in the fire.”
Dipoto said one of the tougher lessons they’ve learned is not to go with their gut. Now there must be an explanation for every decision, with data to back it up.
“Because as former players we were more inclined to trust our gut,” Dipoto said. “But understanding the job we do now, we can’t really do that. That would be irresponsible."
And for the most part, they say this is much of what they envisioned when they took over in that winter of 2015. Dipoto said he, Servais and analysts huddled in the board rooms in the highest level of Safeco Field, collaborating, creating, arguing and renovating what they believed would make the Mariners relevant again.
“And trying to come up with ideas for how to create a newer, exciting environment in a major league clubhouse where for 150-160 years it was pretty much the same,” Dipoto said. “We found something that was unique to us. I give Scott a ton of credit for pushing the envelope in that area.”
They talked about controlling the strike zone, getting younger, more athletic, more depth and a more sustainable roster with years of club control.
Twenty-three of the Mariners’ 25 players have contracts that extend beyond 2018, with the exception of Nelson Cruz and Andrew Romine.
Servais said many loathe the idea of managing young players. It takes patience; they make mistakes, need more coaching and are unpredictable.
Then Servais spent a majority of 2017 managing three rookie outfielders – Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia. The 2017 Mariners were the only team in major league history to have three rookies make at least 95 starts each in the outfield in the same season.
“I love young players,” Servais said. “A lot of managers don’t care for them. But I think what we went through last year has really helped propel us to what we’re doing this year. Those outfielders are all better this year.
“The energy that our team has is what makes it fun. You look at winning teams, you want teams with personality and we certainly have plenty of personality in our clubhouse.”
Dipoto is the first to admit not every deal he’s made has been gold, like last year signing right-hander Drew Smyly, who left without pitching an inning. And most prospect evaluators have ranked the Mariners’ organization last among major league clubs for total farm system talent and depth – surely a product of all Dipoto’s trades to acquire major-league talent.
“We had a good team last year and we were just on the wrong side of injury,” Dipoto said. “But this year the energy level in that room, and I’ve been in big-league clubhouses for 25 years, but I’ve never experienced a group this energetic and I’ve been with teams that have won the World Series, I’ve been with teams that have gone to the postseason. And this group has more energy and belief in themselves and that’s why when you get to the last third of a game this team believes they are going to beat you.
“There are other teams in the league that are as talented or more but I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league who believes in themselves and the process and what they are capable of or have the trust in the people around them like this group.”