Yamauchi’s death clouds Mariners’ future

Absentee owner’s passing raises questions about who will control struggling club

September 20, 2013 

During only his first and last interview with a Seattle reporter, 13 years ago, Mariners majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi was asked if rumors of his disliking baseball were true.

“It’s not a matter if I like it or not,” Yamauchi answered. “I would not say I like it and I would not say I dislike it. It’s something like that, I would say.”

Despite knowing next to nothing about the Japanese language, I’m pretty certain Yamauchi meant he could take the sport or leave it. Such indifference toward baseball made his original $75 million donation in 1992 to keep the Mariners in Seattle both a beacon of generosity and source of curiosity.

To what extent was Yamauchi involved in front-office decisions? His involvement in the day-to-day minutiae of baseball (transactions, roster moves, organizational coaching appointments) was probably minimal, but it would be naive to assume he didn’t have some input on eight-figure contracts.

Because Yamauchi kept his involvement with the Mariners

private – aside from a two-hour conversation with a Seattle Times reporter in 1992, he granted no interviews and never attended any kind of baseball game – we might never know how much influence he wielded.

What we do know is this: If Yamauchi, who was 85 when he died Thursday in Japan, didn’t assure the $100 million purchase of Jeff Smulyan’s struggling franchise to a group of Seattle businessmen, it’s likely the Mariners are a trivia question: What Major League team played in Seattle before relocating to Tampa Bay?

As another disappointing season careens toward more than 90 defeats, as the careers of general manager Jack Zduriencik and skipper Eric Wedge wallow in limbo, as the Seahawks enjoy royalty status while the Mariners are looked at like second-hand shoes in a thrift shop, it’s only natural to bemoan the sorry plight of a franchise that annually poses questions without convenient answers.

But I can think of more substantial hardships to lament than a big league baseball team stumbling through another summer. One would be a summer without big league baseball.

Yamauchi’s investment in the Mariners has been described as a “goodwill gesture” to the Seattle community, home of the American branch of the Nintendo company he oversaw for much of his life. But amid the goodwill was a prudent investment: When Yamauchi intervened to save the Mariners, the franchise’s value was $71 million. Ten years later, it was $373 million. More recent approximations have put it at $550 million.

Charity can be sweet.

Yamauchi, for the record, didn’t consider himself the sugar daddy who saved the Mariners.

“It’s not because of my contribution which results in the Mariners remaining in Seattle, because it’s the people of Seattle who made the fight to keep them there,” he said in 1992. “Therefore, it’s not what I did for Seattle; it’s what the Seattle people did for themselves.

“So you congratulate me, but it’s I who should congratulate you.”

Yamauchi’s gentle, modest words masked the fact that when it came to business, he was all business. A college kid when he took over the company his great grandfather founded, Yamauchi, young and seemingly clueless, was expected to capitulate to long-term employees threatening a strike. He had a different idea. He fired them.

Gracious benefactor or ruthless boss? Yamauchi, whose keen and prescient marketing sense steered Nintendo from card games to video games, was both. The dichotomy is fascinating.

I just wish I could have met him. It almost happened. The Mariners were supposed to open the 2003 season in Tokyo with a two-game series against the Oakland A’s. Media access with Yamauchi was scheduled – tentatively, of course, nothing was certain – but it appeared as if the reclusive tycoon finally was in a mood to take questions from American reporters about baseball.

There was no trip to Japan. Three days before the Mariners and A’s were slated for the 2003 season opener, U.S. troops landed in Iraq. Legitimate security concerns about Americans participating in an overseas sports event trumped all else.

The Mariners finally made it Tokyo for the 2012 opener, but Yamauchi was in ill health. The absentee owner remained absent.

Yamauchi’s death escalates a climate of uncertainty about the Mariners. Will they be sold? Who’s in charge? Is the sand clock about ready to expire on CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong?

In that 1992 interview, Yamauchi offered a nugget, beautiful and haunting: “There is a Japanese saying, ‘One inch ahead, there is darkness.’ ”

Rest in peace, Mr. Yamauchi. Darkness obviously awaits, but not before another majestic sunset at Safeco Field.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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