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The Seattle Mariners seemed destined to sail away. Owner Jeff Smulyan had said that if he was unable to find someone willing to spend $100 million for the club by March 27, he would have to look elsewhere for a buyer, most likely in the Tampa Bay area. For the second time since 1970, Seattle appeared to be losing a major league franchise.
But then last week a partnership brought together by U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (R., Wash.) announced that it is willing to meet Smulyan's asking price. The group, called the Baseball Club of Seattle, has the backing of executives from such important local companies as Boeing, Microsoft and Puget Sound Power & Light, and, more significantly, $125 million in cash to cover the purchase price and the costs of reorganization. It also has a would-be chairman of the board, a 15-year resident of the state with an advanced degree from MIT who runs a company that employs 1,400 people in nearby Redmond, Wash. "The whole thing came together on Christmas Eve," says Gorton. "It was like a present under the tree."
Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent doesn't see it that way, however. The prospective chairman of the group is Minoru Arakawa, the 45-year-old president of Nintendo of America Inc., the video-game maker (Mario Bros., Super Mario Land, etc.), and 60% of the capital would come from his father-in-law, Hiroshi Yamauchi, head of Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Kyoto, Japan. In a statement issued last Thursday, Vincent said, "Baseball has addressed the issue of ownership of its franchises and has developed a strong policy against approving investors from outside the United States and Canada. It is unlikely foreign investors would receive the requisite baseball approvals."
The commissioner's disapproval put a damper on Seattle's baseball faithful. The Mariners sold 50 season tickets the day after the group was introduced, or 20 more than they sold the day after the team traded for slugger Kevin Mitchell in December. One 10-year-old boy called up the commissioner's office in New York to plead for the group's approval. Both Seattle daily newspapers attacked Vincent's stance in editorials last Friday.
Indeed, Vincent's statement was precipitous, and even in the current climate of Japan-bashing, it seemed unusually xenophobic. Would the commissioner have expressed such firm opposition if the foreign investor were from Great Britain, for instance? Baseball has long paid lip service to the idea that local ownership ensures franchise stability, yet here is a group with strong local representation that would keep the Mariners in Seattle and that has the wherewithal to keep them competitive.
On Friday baseball's ownership committee agreed not to consider the proposal until Smulyan reaches a tentative agreement with the group. But Smulyan may have no real interest in selling the club to a local group; the franchise would command a higher price if it were located in St. Petersburg. (Ironically, most of the money behind Tampa Bay's new NHL franchise is from Japanese investors.)
As Gorton sees it, the ownership committee has little to debate. He says, "There is no justification for this offer being turned down." Certainly there is no justification for dismissing the offer just because some of the money comes from Japan.
In the mathematics of choosing the U.S. Olympic track and field team, four is the cruelest number. The top three competitors in each event go to the Games; finish fourth in the trials, and you might as well have finished last. Seldom has the process of determining the unfortunate fourth been as heart-wrenching as it was on Sunday at the women's marathon trials in Houston.