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An Outside Pitch
Steve Wulf
February 10, 1992
A Japanese-led group offered to buy the Seattle Mariners, and baseball reacted with confusion and apprehension
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February 10, 1992

An Outside Pitch

A Japanese-led group offered to buy the Seattle Mariners, and baseball reacted with confusion and apprehension

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In super Mario land, one of Nintendo's most popular games, Mario the plumber must travel through four kingdoms, dodging arrow-dropping bees (Bunbuns), defeating bomb-carrying turtles (Nokobons) and jumping over man-eating plants (Pakkuns) so he can rescue the Princess Daisy from the evil Tatanga.

In Nintendo's newest game, Hiroshi the billionaire must negotiate his way through a hostile country, avoiding the venomous Jingos and skiing past the antagonistic Moguls so that he can rescue Ken Griffey Jr. from the clutches of the Tampa Bay Baseball Task Force and save the day for the beleaguered Rain People.

This latest game from Japan—let's call it Super Mariner Land—is not available in stores, but it is being played out right now in a great many places: the back rooms of baseball, the office of the commissioner, the halls of Congress, the streets of Seattle and the newspapers of North America and Japan. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the 63-year-old president of the Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Kyoto, Japan, is willing to bankroll 60% of the $100 million (plus 60% of $25 million for reorganization costs) needed to purchase the Seattle Mariners from current owner Jeff Smulyan and thus keep him from selling them to a Florida group that wants to transport Griffey, Kevin Mitchell, Harold Reynolds et al. from the Kingdome to the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg. Yamauchi is one of a consortium of investors known as the Baseball Club of Seattle that last week formally presented its proposal to Smulyan and baseball's ownership committee for consideration.

Yamauchi's purchase of the Mariners, or the rejection of his group's offer, will affect the future of not only the American League club but, by providing a precedent, much of the rest of U.S. professional sports as well. Some baseball people see the Japanese purchase of the Mariners as a great opportunity, a way to solve some of the major leagues' financial woes while at the same time making the game truly global. Others, not necessarily xenophobes, fear that Japanese ownership would open up a high-priced can of worms and change the very nature of the national pastime.

In Japanese, nintendo literally means "work hard, but in the end it is in heaven's hands." No doubt Nintendo has worked hard. Its market capitalization of $19 billion in 1990 was more than that of either Sony or Nissan, to name two other Japanese companies that are part of the American fabric. Its U.S. subsidiary, Nintendo of America Inc., accounts for 80% of the $4.4 billion U.S. market in video games and employs 1,400 people at its Redmond, Wash., facility, making it one of the Seattle area's largest employers.

Ownership of the Mariners is not in heaven's hands but rather in those of the owners of major league baseball teams. After scrutiny by the ownership committee, the purchase of the Mariners could be voted on by all the owners at their March 4 meeting in Chicago. Approval requires yea votes from three fourths of the American League owners and a simple majority of National League clubs.

Commissioner Fay Vincent admits he spoke too quickly two weeks ago when he characterized the sale of the Mariners to the Baseball Club of Seattle as "unlikely" since, he said, baseball had an unwritten rule against ownership "outside the United States and Canada." Now he's not speaking at all, leaving that task to deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg. "Though we have been developing a policy regarding foreign ownership, this proposal raises a scenario that had not come up," says Greenberg. In fact, the members of the ownership committee could not come to an agreement on foreign ownership at their December meeting, so they decided to table the discussion for another year, thinking that such a circumstance would not soon arise. Shortly after this, Washington's Republican senator, Slade Gorton, put together the Baseball Club of Seattle, which included not only the Japanese interests but also local investors: Christopher Larson of Microsoft, who would put up 30%, and John McCaw of McCaw Cellular Communications, who was in for 10%. The chairman of the board would be Minoru Arakawa, the 45-year-old president of Nintendo of America and son-in-law of Yamauchi. Arakawa happens to be a 15-year resident of Washington with a master's degree in civil engineering from MIT and a membership in Seattle's tony Over-lake Golf and Country Club. The owners' representative for the baseball club would be John Ellis, chairman and CEO of Puget Sound Power & Light Co. Says Washington's other senator, Democrat Brock Adams, "In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's racial barrier. It's 45 years later, and I would hope Fay Vincent is at least as progressive as Happy Chandler."

But it's not Vincent's call, it's the owners', and they're not talking. Texas Rangers general partner George W. Bush, a member of the ownership committee, says merely, "It's all premature." Under the cloak of anonymity, one club official, alluding to the great disparities in wealth among major league teams, did hazard this opinion on Japanese investors: "They're coming. That's where the future is. The way to handle all this big-market, small-market stuff is to get their money involved. Besides, would we rather have the Japanese or Marge Schott?"

Speaking of Schott, one would think the Cincinnati Reds' owner would be dead set against the Japanese since her money was made selling Chevys and Buicks. "I'm a buy-American person," she says, "but if it would help Seattle keep the team...."

Here, like so many Bunbuns, are some of the questions baseball's men and women of vision and wisdom must confront in the next few weeks:

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