BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/22/2012

Thiel: NintendoBall, Part I — Mariners' Oddness

It’s hard for a Seattle fan to be mad at someone who saved the franchise from leaving again. It’s also hard to warm to a mysterious figure who’s neither been seen here nor won here.

Mariners majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. / Seattle Mariners photo

Sportspress Northwest begins nine days of coverage of the first trip to Japan by the Mariners, a franchise more connected to another nation than any in MLB. In the first of a two-part preview series, columnist Art Thiel, who is on his way to Japan with photographer Drew Sellers, looks at the extraordinary events before, during and after the club’s 1992 purchase by billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi. Some information appeared originally in Thiel’s 2003 book, “Out of Left Field,” a regional best-seller.

We in sports media love anniversary-date stories.

Last summer in Seattle, sports fans celebrated the 10th anniversary of the 2001 Mariners team that won 116 games, a feat that with each passing year grows closer in freakishness to the day an asteroid struck the earth and eventually wiped out the dinosaurs.

Nationally, we just had the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. This week we’ll be talking about the 20th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s famous OT buzzer beater that helped Duke beat Kentucky in an NCAA regional final.

But two months ago, nothing was written or said about one of the most remarkable, transformative moments in local and national baseball history.  On Jan. 22, 1992, the Mariners were pulled from the brink of a move to Florida by Hiroshi Yamauchi, a video game baron from Kyoto recruited by then-Sen. Slade Gorton to buy the club and keep it in Seattle.

So surprising and controversial was the move that it made the front page of the New York Times and was the top story on CBS-TV’s evening news with Dan Rather. In terms barely more polite than “drop dead,” MLB told Yamauchi, chairman of Nintendo (which means, “Leave Luck to Heaven”), and Seattle the deal would not stand.

The hell you say, said Seattle. Six months later, Seattle won.

The political/business victory is seen now as the franchise’s epic moment. Therein lies the oddness. And the sadness.

Nearly a generation later, there is no baseball triumph to match it. Despite a splendid stadium and Commissioner Bud Selig’s efforts to induce competitive parity among its teams, the Mariners remain one of two teams never to play in a World Series, the only one in the American League.

And the Mariners remain the only team whose owner has never seen them play. Or even been to the team’s hometown.

How weird is that?

Even now, as the Mariners fly across the Pacific Thursday for a week of pomp leading to the MLB opener against the Oakland A’s March 28, it’s not known whether Yamauchi, 84, will make the two-hour trip from his Kyoto home to the Tokyo Dome. Howard Lincoln, the Mariners CEO since 1999 and Yamauchi’s closest American confidant, said in an email that Yamauchi’s presence was not certain. If he does show, no interviews will be given to Japanese or American reporters.

So the mystery continues. As in: Why the big mystery? American pro sports ownership is loaded with bombast, narcissism, spectacle, meddling and hyperbole. You know, like presidential politics. The Mariners have a dial tone. That’s not to say any particular style is right or wrong, it’s just that when it come to sports fans, they like to know that the team’s owners, players, managers and staff care at least as much as they do. Most of the time. Or some of the time. Or at least show up.

Lincoln, a former Nintendo lawyer, alone speaks for Yamauchi regarding matters baseball, but never quotes him — or questions him, far as anyone knows. For two decades he has guarded zealously his boss’s interests, wishes and privacy.

The only public glimmer Lincoln shed on the origins of the organizational reticence came in a 2002 interview when he was describing to me his initial reaction to word from Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law and a fellow Nintendo executive, that Yamauchi agreed to Gorton’s request of a favor to to buy the Mariners.

“Do you know what it is to own a baseball team? To own the Mariners?” Lincoln said he told Arakawa in December 1991. “It’s going to be great for awhile, and Mr. Yamauchi will be perceived as a savior. But mark my words, the day will come when we will be attacked by the media, and you’re going to have people calling you and complaining about the Mariners’ performance.”

Yup. Pretty much.

Sports quotes typically don’t have much shelf life, but as 10-year-olds go, that’s healthy. Particularly since it was delivered not long after the club won 116 regular-season games, thanks in part to the import of Japan’s first global pop-culture icon, Ichiro, whose baseball success was unimaginable by the Japanese. Since then, baseball success has been unknown to Seattle fans. The day, as Lincoln feared, has come, and keeps on coming.

A decade without playoffs and six losing seasons in the past 10 — including three in the last four that had at least 95 defeats each — cut attendance from 3.5 million in 2002 to 1.9 million last year and induced a cash-operations loss of $7.3 million for 2011.

For the first 10 years, such floundering seemed unlikely, given the wealth suddenly forming the baseball foundation. Yamauchi, whose company in 1990 had a market capitalization of $19 billion, more than Sony or Nissan, agreed to pay 60 percent of the $125 million purchase price to the astonished owner, Jeff Smulyan, who never dreamed that small-pockets Seattle would ever pony up for indoor baseball.

Yamauchi, whose American spinoff company, in a Southcenter warehouse, developed in the 1980s the wildly popular Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers amusements, was joined by American minority partners from tech titans Microsoft and McCaw Cellular. No one totaled the combined wealth of the partners, but people paid to know about rich people wouldn’t put up an argument if it was claimed that this was the richest ownership entity in baseball.

When they gathered on that day 20 years ago at a massive press conference in the Madison Hotel ballroom to surprise the baseball world, they discovered they were in for a fight. Commissioner Fay Vincent, backed by powerful owners, said rules prevented foreign ownership. Turned out that wasn’t true, which gave momentum to critics who believed MLB’s resistance was rooted in equal parts fear (of Japan’s then-robust economy), xenophobia and outright racism.

Then there was the fact that the owners just didn’t like Seattle, having seen the 1969 Pilots move after one season and then having to endure a lawsuit that was settled by being forced to create a 1977 expansion team called the Mariners.

But after six months of pressure from lawyers, media and politicians, including President George H.W. Bush, and some restructuring of the ownership that assured local operation, owners voted to accept Yamauchi and the deal. The triumph was hailed nationally. Locally it was a validation of a lot of we’ll-show-’em gumption that seemed to bode well as a hallmark of the re-made enterprise.

“We were not going to lose,” said Lincoln, at the time Yamauchi’s representative on the board.  “We were going to win and they were not going to wear us out. Nobody wavered.”

For 10 years, the attitude seemed to permeate to the field. Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Lou Piniella held Seattle sports in thrall: As the popular TV commercial of the time said, “Ya gotta love these guys.” Winning seasons became regular, playoffs were reached four times, and the owners cajoled $380 million worth of taxpayer/legislator love for a new stadium.

In hindsight, team, stadium and fan passion peaked at the 2001 All-Star Game, coincidentally held in Seattle, where eight Mariners took to Safeco Field for the American League. They included two Japanese players, Ichiro (who would be named MVP and rookie of the year) and relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki.

At that moment, a case could be made that there was something to MLB owners’ fears in 1992; that Japanese money and talent would heavily influence the American national pastime.

But the moment passed quickly. The Japanese economy was into free fall, 9/11 happened, the Mariners’ epic season ended without a Series appearance, heroes became old and went away, Dave Niehaus died, and along with him so did part of the soul of longtime fans. The second decade of Yamauchi’s ownership was abundant with mediocrity, controversy and despair. The only constant was a shadow — Yamauchi, the man who saved Seattle baseball but did not savor baseball.

Now, in his dotage, the Mariners will come to him — or least to his country. Most of the current players were toddlers when he bought the team; all of first heroes are gone, as are many staffers and a couple of the American owners. Feels hollow.

Hard to say what, if any, meaning will derive of this opening series featuring the return of the national icon and his long-flailing, made-in-America, owned-in-Japan enterprise. But it couldn’t hurt the bi-global team to try for a few firsts this week between owner and franchise: “Konnichiwa” and “hello,” followed by, “Happy 20th.”

The idea is to help create reasons not let the 25th anniversary pass so unremarkably.

Part II: Ichiro is 38, the AL West is loaded with talent and money, and the Mariners management is again asking for patience. Time for a change?


YourThoughts

  • Grover

    One of the big problems for the Mariners is Safeco Field — it is the wrong stadium on the wrong site.  It is way too big.  It is hideously ugly because of the retractable roof.  It was way too expensive, again in large part due to the retractable roof.  It has no charm.  It is obvious that it was built just to take every last dollar out of the sports fans’ pockets.

    They should have built an open-air ballpark, seating about 37,000 in the Kingdome’s north parking lot, with incredible views of downtown, and the clock tower of King Street Station just beyond center field, with a low left-field fence along King Street, which home runs could have been hit over to land out in King Street, or even across it.  There has never been a home run hit completely out of Safeco Field.  They could have built another Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, which fans love even when the Cubs or Red Sox stink.

    But, because the idiots who own and run the M’s were not – and are not – baseball men, they built an enormous eyesore of an unloved stadium on the wrong site.

    The Kingdome’s north lot was probably the best site for a ballpark in the U.S.  And the clowns running the M’s wasted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

    Look at the success of Husky Stadium and Qwest Field, without roofs, in the fall and winter.  That is what the M’s could have had in spring and summer.  They just completely blew it.  When the M’s suck, fans are not going to go to games just to sit in Safeco Field.  But fans do flock to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, even to see bad teams, just to enjoy those classic ballparks.

    • Boiseman24

      Grover – A great number of the fans travel up to 3 hours to see the Mariners, myself included.  Without that wonderful roof, many of the games would be postponed to another time in the year. Then what? Drive back to Idaho after seeing nothing but rain?  The roof has saved many a game.  And if you think the stadium is an “eyesore” and “hideously ugly” then just don’t go!  Most of the fans, including MLB players, think it’s one of the best.  So just stay in Fenway and try to fit your butt in one of those seats.  

      • Grover

        You are absolutely wrong about that.  The M’s would average only about 1 game per season which would be rained out.  There would be another half dozen games or so each year which would be delayed by rain, and another half dozen played partly or mostly in drizzle.  These are the actual statistics.

        Every MLB team has many fans who travel up to three hours to go to games.  Almost all MLB cities get far more rain during baseball season than Seattle gets.  Almost all MLB ballparks are open-air, without any roof over the field.  These parks are drawing much better than Safeco Field, despite the fact that those other parks do have rainouts, and Safeco Field never has rainouts.  A huge, ugly retractable roof does not help attendance one iota.

        Look at Minnesota, and New York City.  There are three new ballparks in those cities (one in Minneapolis and 2 in NYC), none of which have retractable roofs.  And Minneapolis and NYC both get far more rain in baseball season than Seattle, and both those cities average far more rainouts per season than Seattle would in an open-air park.

        Safeco Field was a huge mistake.  Just a tragic wasted opportunity.

        Remember, even the Kingdome had great attendance when the M’s were winning.  The key to a ballpark, is what is attendance when the team stinks?

    • Brett

      There are many, many problems with the M’s organization, but Safeco Field is not one of them. It’s widely regarded as one of the most beautiful ballparks in America. In fact, it can probably be credited for attendance holding up as well as it did for crappy baseball teams in the latter half of the last decade. It’s only in the last couple years that attendance has truly taken a free fall. If you think attendance would have been better with a different stadium and a crappy baseball team, you’re fooling yourself. It is all about wins and losses. Seattle supports winners. That’s the way it’s always been.

  • Grover

    One of the big problems for the Mariners is Safeco Field — it is the wrong stadium on the wrong site.  It is way too big.  It is hideously ugly because of the retractable roof.  It was way too expensive, again in large part due to the retractable roof.  It has no charm.  It is obvious that it was built just to take every last dollar out of the sports fans’ pockets.

    They should have built an open-air ballpark, seating about 37,000 in the Kingdome’s north parking lot, with incredible views of downtown, and the clock tower of King Street Station just beyond center field, with a low left-field fence along King Street, which home runs could have been hit over to land out in King Street, or even across it.  There has never been a home run hit completely out of Safeco Field.  They could have built another Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, which fans love even when the Cubs or Red Sox stink.

    But, because the idiots who own and run the M’s were not – and are not – baseball men, they built an enormous eyesore of an unloved stadium on the wrong site.

    The Kingdome’s north lot was probably the best site for a ballpark in the U.S.  And the clowns running the M’s wasted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

    Look at the success of Husky Stadium and Qwest Field, without roofs, in the fall and winter.  That is what the M’s could have had in spring and summer.  They just completely blew it.  When the M’s suck, fans are not going to go to games just to sit in Safeco Field.  But fans do flock to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, even to see bad teams, just to enjoy those classic ballparks.

    • Boiseman24

      Grover – A great number of the fans travel up to 3 hours to see the Mariners, myself included.  Without that wonderful roof, many of the games would be postponed to another time in the year. Then what? Drive back to Idaho after seeing nothing but rain?  The roof has saved many a game.  And if you think the stadium is an “eyesore” and “hideously ugly” then just don’t go!  Most of the fans, including MLB players, think it’s one of the best.  So just stay in Fenway and try to fit your butt in one of those seats.  

      • Grover

        You are absolutely wrong about that.  The M’s would average only about 1 game per season which would be rained out.  There would be another half dozen games or so each year which would be delayed by rain, and another half dozen played partly or mostly in drizzle.  These are the actual statistics.

        Every MLB team has many fans who travel up to three hours to go to games.  Almost all MLB cities get far more rain during baseball season than Seattle gets.  Almost all MLB ballparks are open-air, without any roof over the field.  These parks are drawing much better than Safeco Field, despite the fact that those other parks do have rainouts, and Safeco Field never has rainouts.  A huge, ugly retractable roof does not help attendance one iota.

        Look at Minnesota, and New York City.  There are three new ballparks in those cities (one in Minneapolis and 2 in NYC), none of which have retractable roofs.  And Minneapolis and NYC both get far more rain in baseball season than Seattle, and both those cities average far more rainouts per season than Seattle would in an open-air park.

        Safeco Field was a huge mistake.  Just a tragic wasted opportunity.

        Remember, even the Kingdome had great attendance when the M’s were winning.  The key to a ballpark, is what is attendance when the team stinks?

    • Brett

      There are many, many problems with the M’s organization, but Safeco Field is not one of them. It’s widely regarded as one of the most beautiful ballparks in America. In fact, it can probably be credited for attendance holding up as well as it did for crappy baseball teams in the latter half of the last decade. It’s only in the last couple years that attendance has truly taken a free fall. If you think attendance would have been better with a different stadium and a crappy baseball team, you’re fooling yourself. It is all about wins and losses. Seattle supports winners. That’s the way it’s always been.

  • Puregasoline

    Grover, I’m not sure most Mariner fans agree with you on Safeco Field.  I love the ballpark the way it is.  All your points are rendered moot if the Mariners win.  We’re sick of losing and we’re sick of teams that aren’t even entertaining.   Fix that, problem solved.   Also, your examples of Husky Stadium and Qwest (Century Link) are off-base as well, since football can be played in any weather.  Baseball cannot, and the first three months of baseball season here happen to be the wettest of the year.  

    • Jamo57

      I’m not a proponent of ‘bandbox’ ballparks by any stretch but the cool marine air makes Safeco play too big.   I think bringing in the fences 10 feet would help it play more fair.   I remember when the stadium was under construction and I heard the Ms brass speak of the Safe as having ‘fair’ dimensions compared to the Dome a number of times.   But they obviously didn’t factor in the humidity down on the waterfront.     But I agree with you on the ambiance of the stadium.   1st class and it still holds up very well 10+ years later.   Many in the national media also say its still in the top 5 ballparks in MLB.

    • Grover

      Well, you are completely wrong about the weather.  November, December, January and February are far wetter than April, May or June.  The six months of baseball season get only 25% of the yearly rainfall in Seattle.  The six months from October through March get 75% of Seattle’s yearly rainfall.  So, actually, Seattle is uniquely qualified to NOT need a roof on a baseball park.  Most of the MLB cities in the Midwest and East get more rainfall during baseball season than in the other six months of the year.

      The retractable roof on Safeco Field is an utter waste of money, and a hideously ugly eyesore.  And it made necessary the very high stadium wall beyond left field which is why nobody has ever hit a home run all the way out of Safeco Field — that huge structure which holds the rails for the roof is too high and too far from home plate for any home run to carry over.

      Safeco Field is just a really tragic wasted opportunity.  The M’s needed a ballpark which would draw fans even when the team stinks, which is most of their history.  Safeco Field is not that park.

  • Puregasoline

    Grover, I’m not sure most Mariner fans agree with you on Safeco Field.  I love the ballpark the way it is.  All your points are rendered moot if the Mariners win.  We’re sick of losing and we’re sick of teams that aren’t even entertaining.   Fix that, problem solved.   Also, your examples of Husky Stadium and Qwest (Century Link) are off-base as well, since football can be played in any weather.  Baseball cannot, and the first three months of baseball season here happen to be the wettest of the year.  

    • Jamo57

      I’m not a proponent of ‘bandbox’ ballparks by any stretch but the cool marine air makes Safeco play too big.   I think bringing in the fences 10 feet would help it play more fair.   I remember when the stadium was under construction and I heard the Ms brass speak of the Safe as having ‘fair’ dimensions compared to the Dome a number of times.   But they obviously didn’t factor in the humidity down on the waterfront.     But I agree with you on the ambiance of the stadium.   1st class and it still holds up very well 10+ years later.   Many in the national media also say its still in the top 5 ballparks in MLB.

    • Grover

      Well, you are completely wrong about the weather.  November, December, January and February are far wetter than April, May or June.  The six months of baseball season get only 25% of the yearly rainfall in Seattle.  The six months from October through March get 75% of Seattle’s yearly rainfall.  So, actually, Seattle is uniquely qualified to NOT need a roof on a baseball park.  Most of the MLB cities in the Midwest and East get more rainfall during baseball season than in the other six months of the year.

      The retractable roof on Safeco Field is an utter waste of money, and a hideously ugly eyesore.  And it made necessary the very high stadium wall beyond left field which is why nobody has ever hit a home run all the way out of Safeco Field — that huge structure which holds the rails for the roof is too high and too far from home plate for any home run to carry over.

      Safeco Field is just a really tragic wasted opportunity.  The M’s needed a ballpark which would draw fans even when the team stinks, which is most of their history.  Safeco Field is not that park.

  • Mearth

    Moving in the fences is a silly, desperate idea that should never happen. The M’s have had problems hitting home runs mostly due to the fact that the majority of the players they’ve had for the past decade have been capable of achieving only slightly above the lowest levels of suck. Its hard to build a serious team with an upper management philosophy of primarily signing players whose names can be turned into cute nicknames that end in a long “E” sound. The dimensions of the stadium are the reason it is such a pitcher-friendly park. You win with pitching, defense, and manufacturing runs. The problem is that for more than ten years the upper management has acquiesced to Ichiro at every opportunity, while meddling, tinkering, and manipulating their merry-go-round of general managers into signing and promoting position players that were not only not suited to the ballpark, but consisted of an acrid and bizarre mix of cantankerous has-beens in their last days and milquetoast Dudley Do-Rights that had no business being on a major league roster in the first place. It appears, for the most part, that Choward Lincstrong is stepping aside and letting Jack actually run the show now, all by himself. I have pretty much been ignoring the M’s since about 2003 (I refuse to passionately follow something that clearly has no hope) but this season has me more intrigued than any in a long, long time. Now, if Lincstrong can just stay out of the way….

  • Mearth

    Moving in the fences is a silly, desperate idea that should never happen. The M’s have had problems hitting home runs mostly due to the fact that the majority of the players they’ve had for the past decade have been capable of achieving only slightly above the lowest levels of suck. Its hard to build a serious team with an upper management philosophy of primarily signing players whose names can be turned into cute nicknames that end in a long “E” sound. The dimensions of the stadium are the reason it is such a pitcher-friendly park. You win with pitching, defense, and manufacturing runs. The problem is that for more than ten years the upper management has acquiesced to Ichiro at every opportunity, while meddling, tinkering, and manipulating their merry-go-round of general managers into signing and promoting position players that were not only not suited to the ballpark, but consisted of an acrid and bizarre mix of cantankerous has-beens in their last days and milquetoast Dudley Do-Rights that had no business being on a major league roster in the first place. It appears, for the most part, that Choward Lincstrong is stepping aside and letting Jack actually run the show now, all by himself. I have pretty much been ignoring the M’s since about 2003 (I refuse to passionately follow something that clearly has no hope) but this season has me more intrigued than any in a long, long time. Now, if Lincstrong can just stay out of the way….

  • Mearth

    Oh, and obviously, moving in the fences would affect the opposition equally. BOTH teams
    will just end up hitting more homers, but that won’t necessarily equate to more
    wins for the M’s.

  • Mearth

    Oh, and obviously, moving in the fences would affect the opposition equally. BOTH teams
    will just end up hitting more homers, but that won’t necessarily equate to more
    wins for the M’s.

  • Soggyblogger

    Has anyone here commented on Art’s story? I feel as if I somehow got transferred to another thread. But, no. This comments section is directly below an article by Art Thiel on what a strange ownership situation exists with the Mariners. It’s odd history and possibly a case that MLB insiders have strong reasons to hate the Mariners and Seattle. I found it an interesting subject well written. Not necessarily more interesting than a debate regarding Safeco Field. For which I have an opinion, but it’s not strongly held. I would say the guy advocating no roof convinced me more than those in support of a roof. Anyone who would drive more than three hours to see a game on a regular basis is nuts in my opinion anyway. So getting rained out would become part of the charm? Give me a couch, and my favorite cold beverage and a 50 inch screen and I am able to see the game more clearly than going to the stadium. Plus, the refrigerator is close by. 

    • sportspressnw

      @375d0564ec128112ead140094094c1d4:disqus , I think your last sentence could be said about most sports these days for fans.  This is a major reason why teams aren’t making as much money anymore and why television deals are becoming more lucrative.  I’m not saying I agree with you either way, as I love going to any baseball field, but would rather watch a football game on TV with friends and some good food.

      And like you, I forgot this was a story about Japan for a moment.

      -Tim

  • Soggyblogger

    Has anyone here commented on Art’s story? I feel as if I somehow got transferred to another thread. But, no. This comments section is directly below an article by Art Thiel on what a strange ownership situation exists with the Mariners. It’s odd history and possibly a case that MLB insiders have strong reasons to hate the Mariners and Seattle. I found it an interesting subject well written. Not necessarily more interesting than a debate regarding Safeco Field. For which I have an opinion, but it’s not strongly held. I would say the guy advocating no roof convinced me more than those in support of a roof. Anyone who would drive more than three hours to see a game on a regular basis is nuts in my opinion anyway. So getting rained out would become part of the charm? Give me a couch, and my favorite cold beverage and a 50 inch screen and I am able to see the game more clearly than going to the stadium. Plus, the refrigerator is close by. 

    • sportspressnw

      @375d0564ec128112ead140094094c1d4:disqus , I think your last sentence could be said about most sports these days for fans.  This is a major reason why teams aren’t making as much money anymore and why television deals are becoming more lucrative.  I’m not saying I agree with you either way, as I love going to any baseball field, but would rather watch a football game on TV with friends and some good food.

      And like you, I forgot this was a story about Japan for a moment.

      -Tim

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