WITHOUT Hiroshi Yamauchi, there would be no Seattle Mariners. Seattle would be the largest U.S. metropolitan area without major-league baseball.
My role in Seattle baseball began as the state’s attorney general in 1970, when the ill-fated Seattle Pilots decamped to Milwaukee to become the Brewers. On behalf of the state, I sued the American League for fraud and breach of contract in facilitating the move.
Five years later, my special assistant attorney general, Bill Dwyer, was slicing and dicing the American League in front of an Everett jury when the league recognized disaster ahead and hastily agreed to create the Mariners.
Our team then went through three separate sets of absentee owners — only once playing better than .500 ball — when the third owner planned to move the team to Tampa. He was required by his Kingdome lease, however, first to offer the franchise to someone who would keep it here at a price to be set by an appraiser.
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As a then-U.S. senator, and because of my history with the team, I was called on to find such a buyer.
Aware of the great popularity of baseball in Japan, I sought a meeting with Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America in Redmond. I was told that they had no interest in baseball, but that they would be happy to meet. For people who had no interest in baseball, the inquiry was detailed and lengthy.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 23, 1991, Arakawa called me and said, “My father-in-law, Hiroshi Yamauchi, says that the Seattle community has treated us very well and we owe something to the community, and so if you need $100 million to buy a baseball team, you have $100 million.” (In fact, the appraiser set the price at $106 million.)
It was the best Christmas present I ever received, and much of Seattle feels the same way.
For Yamauchi, it was just that, a gesture of appreciation to the Seattle community. As we all now know, Mr. Yamauchi never once saw the Mariners play, either here or in Tokyo. But his interest was always there, most notably in enabling the acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki, undoubtedly the best ballplayer we’ve ever had.
I met Mr. Yamauchi only once, at dinner in Tokyo, during which he said to me, “Mr. Senator, tell me how that baseball team I purchased is doing.”
Even after his offer, the road to saving the Mariners for Seattle was not smooth. A number of other owners were critical of foreign, especially Japanese, ownership of an American team — opposition that was only overcome by a skilled public-relations campaign. But Mr. Yamauchi never wavered.
Now, with Mr. Yamauchi’s untimely and regrettable passing, we look forward to a new chapter in Mariner history, probably with a more traditional form of ownership. But we must always remember that we only have that future to imagine because of the selflessness and generosity of Hiroshi Yamauchi.
Slade Gorton is a former U.S. senator for Washington state.