If you want to see a professional sports team fail hard at public relations, you need look no further than the Seattle Mariners' handling of their trade for pitching prospect Josh Lueke.
Back in July, the Mariners dumped star pitcher Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers for a bunch of prospects. One of those prospects was pitcher Josh Lueke. On the day of the trade, Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation's Lookout Landing wrote...
Let's just come right out and say it - Lueke has both a phenomenal minor league strikeout rate and one big off-the-field red flag. I don't know Josh Lueke. You don't know Josh Lueke. Please do not rush to judge Josh Lueke. Don't pretend like any of us has any understanding of the details of what happened that night. What we do know is that the righty reliever has just dominated this year with A-ball Hickory and AA-ball Frisco. He works primary off of a fastball in the mid-90s and a mid-80s slider, and he throws a splitter to keep lefties off balance. It's not a stretch to think that he could help the Mariners out of the bullpen next season, if not immediately.
That red flag, according to BakersfieldNow.com, was a particularly nasty incident involving Lueke, some of his then-teammates with the Bakersfield Blake, a bunch of drinking, some late-night vomiting, masturbation and an alleged sexual assault
The woman told police she remembered vomiting into the toilet at the apartment. While doing so, the woman told police someone she could not identify was standing at her side masturbating on her.
She said she passed out, and when she awoke at around 8:45 a.m., she told police she was lying on a couch with her pants down and other parts of her clothing were missing.
She told police she felt violated and that she never agreed to have sex with anyone. Investigators later obtained DNA samples from semen found on the woman's jeans and white tank top and from an anal swab.
Lueke's DNA was a match and he eventually "pleaded no contest to false imprisonment with violence" and received a 40 day jail term, according to a follow-up report on BakersfieldNow.com.
Lueke's is a classic sports story: terrible decision-making and terrible action but, still, unquestionable talent. Like it or not, given that the incident was fully resolved and given that he has big league stuff, a major league future was never in doubt. It was just about which team would be willing to take on the stigma attached with a player in that situation.
Or, apparently, which team would pretend not to know about the past and/or be lazy enough not to conduct a simple google search to make itself aware of the legal situation. And that's where Seattle Mainers general manager Jack Zduriencik comes in.
In a piece by Seattle Times writer Geoff Baker, Zduriencik admits that he hadn't thoroughly researched Lueke's past and claims that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told him Lueke had been "acquitted" of the charges and that this information made him feel comfortable going ahead with the trade. Zduriencik also says he attempted to adjust the deal so that it wouldn't include Lueke but that it was too late. The Rangers say they attempted to re-acquire Lueke to assuage Seattle's concerns over the trade but the Mariners didn't take them up on the offer.
The he-said/he-said regarding the trade itself is less important than the true takeaway lesson from this situation: Zduriencik is falling far short of an acceptable standard for a functional front office executive. For any major sports executive, investigating a player's background is equivalent to a ballplayer tying his shoelaces. It's routine, it's part of a well-established process and you shouldn't have to think about it.
It should never, ever be an issue.
And, really, it's even easier than tying your shoelaces because, as a general manager, you've got significant resources to handle this for you. With a network of scouts, coaches, league-wide connections, reporters, players and an entire organization of employees with internet connections, Zduriencik has absolutely no excuse in this situation.
Not knowing, in this situation, is simply not an acceptable excuse. A player's past - especially when it's so publicly available - is the general manager's responsibility. Zduriencik should have owned it from the outset (assuming he had done his homework) or from the moment it became clear to him that Lueke had a past.
Instead, Zduriencik tried to take his "Inside Baseball" approach to cover his behind and it's blowing up in his face. One accelerant was the departure of fired pitching coach Rick Adair, who told Baker he informed Zduriencik of Lueke's criminal history prior to the trade.
"I told him everything I knew about every prospect I was asked about, including Lueke, including any court case," said Adair, who was fired Aug. 9 along with Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu. "Everything I knew to be accurate, I told them."
The only thing worse, public relations wise, than taking a chance on a player with a sketchy past is taking a chance on a player with a sketchy past and hoping the public is too dumb to figure out what you are doing. It's 2010. You're going to get caught. Own the controversial decisions from jump and give your side of the story. If you're not prepared (eventually) to take the full heat for a decision, do not make the decision. This is 101 stuff.
Had Zduriencik handled the situation more delicately and thoughtfully back in July, we would be at a very different place today. Had Zduriencik announced the trade, explained the Lueke situation in full, focused on Lueke's upside and let the public know that he had investigated Lueke thoroughly and concluded that he was a decent person that made a bad decision, he would have come off as honest, competent and forward-thinking.
Instead, he looks dishonest, incompetent and ancient.