Art Thiel in Japan: Fun at home? The pressure is on Ichiro

The Mariners are trying to build for the future. Ichiro's next contract and the future control of the club, which has enjoyed remarkable stability of ownership for two decades, are looming as questions.

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The Zen of Ichiro. (Wikipedia)

The Mariners are trying to build for the future. Ichiro's next contract and the future control of the club, which has enjoyed remarkable stability of ownership for two decades, are looming as questions.

Crosscut is featuring Sportspress Northwest columnist Art Thiel and photographer Drew Sellers's coverage of the Mariners in Japan for a nine-day visit to the homeland of Ichiro and majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. As part of the coverage, part two of a two-part series looks at the Mariners' future post-Ichiro and post-Yamauchi. 

For good reason, Mariners bosses are proud of and eager to see blossom their 2012 collection of youthful baseball talent, which presages a return to contention.

But, as Mariners fans know, potential and $8 will get you a beer at Safeco Field. That's about it. Of equal and more proximate concern is the future of the old guys — specifically Ichiro, 38, and Hiroshi Yamauchi, 84.

The Tokyo opening of the Major League Baseball season between the Mariners and A's next week brings into sharp focus the fates of the Mariners' No. 1 player and No. 1 owner. They are as intertwined as they are opaque.

It's a big deal in Japan as well as Seattle, because Ichiro has done so much to elevate national pride of the Japanese, who before his 2001 arrival in Seattle can be said to never have had an international pop-star of even greater stature than the nation's automobile and electronics production.

Former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi put it best when he summarized Ichiro's early-career achievements: "Ichiro makes me proud to be a Japanese."

In his world of business, Yamauchi has been no less a formidable figure than Ichiro in baseball. Described by American author Robert Whiting, a highly respected observer of Japanese baseball for more than 40 years, as "an eccentric Kyoto aristocrat," Yamauchi ran Nintendo for 55 years before his 2005 retirement.

Despite a 50 percent falloff in the value of Nintendo stock last year, for which he is the largest shareholder, Forbes magazine in its latest listing had him worth $2.5 billion and No. 491 on its accounting of the world's 500 wealthiest people, and No. 12 in Japan.

In 2004, Yamauchi turned over ownership of the Mariners to his company's U.S. unit, Nintendo of America (NOA) in Redmond, wisely avoiding inheritance issues that sometimes have plagued sports franchises handed off between generations. He retains operational control. As far as is known, Yamauchi's last public appearance was in 2009 for a Nintendo product rollout.

Upon his death, only a few know what will happen to club ownership, and they aren't saying. NOA's CEO, Tatsumi Kimishima, has run the company for five years and has been included in decisions by the club's board of directors, but keeps no baseball profile.

Whether Nintendo wants to continue running a ballclub is unknown. The company has almost never used the baseball team to promote or affiliate with its video game products. If it wants cash, the value of Mariners private stock was set at $641 million by a judge in a divorce case between the club's No. 2 stockholder, former Microsoft executive Chris Larson, and his wife, Julia Calhoun.

As majority owner, Nintendo's share would be more than $300 million. In court documents, King County Super Court Judge William Downing set the market value of Larson's shares at $196 million, discounted to $176 million if sold as a minority share of the team.

For years, conventional wisdom said that Larson would be the likeliest bidder if Nintendo/Yamauchi decided to sell its majority shares. But the divorce settlement appears to have wiped out Larson's ability to do so.

The most financially able of the remaining owners appears to be tech mogul one-time McCaw executive John Stanton, a former Sonics part-owner who tried and failed to stop fellow owner Howard Schultz from selling the NBA club to Oklahoma City in 2006.

Either an internal or an external sale would represent big change for one of baseball's most stable organizations. After three ownership groups in the franchise's first 15 years, the Mariners owners' 20-year run trails only four clubs in longevity. Only the Yankees (1973), Phillies (1981), White Sox (1981) and Twins (1984) have had the same basic ownership longer than the Yamauchi-led partnership, although Mike Illitch bought the Tigers in 1992 around when the Mariners ownership was approved.

If the club were to become American-owned in the near future, it would have direct impact on Ichiro. In the final year of a four-year contract that is paying him $18 million, some Mariners fans assume, based his performance fall-off in 2011, that he will be done in Seattle. But as is often the case with the Mariners, it's not that simple.

For what it's worth, Ichiro is having a good spring batting third in the lineup (12 hits in 30 at-bats for a .400 average, two home runs, and an OPS of 1.124 best among the regulars through Wednesday). If he returns to his pre-2011 form, Mariners management would find reason to extend his contract, probably before the end of the season and perhaps by midseason.

The anti-Ichiro crowd would go street-rat crazy, but there's more: Ichiro, as well as many Japanese baseball fans, places a greater value on milestones than many American fans. Ichiro is 10th among active players with 2,345 hits in his U.S. career. Another three years at his 200-a-year pace would put him close to 3,000 hits, a milestone every American baseball fan will appreciate.

But at what cost? Even if were to take a 50 percent pay cut to $9 million, he would still occupy a spot that could go to a younger right fielder with some pop, which you may have heard the Mariners need.

Would Ichiro accept a succession of one-year deals until it was clear he could no longer play? Unlikely. He likes security, familiarity, routine, and Seattle. If all of those virtues were added up in his value system, they probably count for more than winning, which helps explain why he remains here now. And he probably likes them more than money, of which he is not shy of, given his endorsements in Japan.

Would he stay if an ownership change meant a more objective scrutiny of his contribution? Now there's the tough question. With each passing year of losing, the fan base dwindles, the TV ratings plummet and advertising falls off. Even though Ichiro's presence brings in-stadium advertising, as well as tourism, from Japan that would go away with his departure. Another owner with a passion for winning like the Angels' Arte Moreno or the Rangers' Nolan Ryan probably would say winning is more important than a potentially futile pursuit of a milestone.

So as much fun as the week in Japan purports to be, the pressure is on Ichiro from his first game against the A's. It's his contract year. He wants to stay in Seattle, he wants his milestones. Yamauchi has always given him what he's wanted, just as Yamauchi gave Seattle baseball fans what they wanted 20 years ago.

The Mariners' No. 1 player and the Mariners' No. 1 owner have been good for each other, and for Seattle baseball. Woe betide the Seattle baseball man who attempts to explain to Yamauchi that it's time for Ichiro to go.

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