The Mariners' long, strange trip back to futility

First of two parts: After their rescue by a Japanese tycoon 20 years ago, the team thrived for a time. But a long-ago remark about the possibility of things turning difficult has proven remarkably prescient.

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Mariners majority owner and video game baron, Hiroshi Yamauchi

First of two parts: After their rescue by a Japanese tycoon 20 years ago, the team thrived for a time. But a long-ago remark about the possibility of things turning difficult has proven remarkably prescient.

Crosscut and Sportspress Northwest begin 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 buy the Mariners.

“Do you know what it is to own a baseball team? To own the Mariners?” Lincoln said he had 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 Lincoln shared it 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 Jr., 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 from 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?

More Art Thiel

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