In the beginning, Hiroshi Yamauchi was a savior. Before the Mariners’ losses mounted, before the criticism ensued, before he was labeled an absentee owner, Yamauchi helped rescue the Mariners from relocation to Tampa by purchasing a team that he would never watch play in person.
He called it a “gesture of goodwill to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest.” We should count our blessings today. Without Yamauchi’s kindness in 1992, we wouldn’t have a lowly baseball team to ridicule.
Yamauchi, a legendary Nintendo pioneer turned trivial sports owner, died Thursday of pneumonia in Japan. The 85-year-old left a complicated legacy. In his day job, he was part visionary, part titan. For the Mariners, he was part savior, part trailblazer, part recluse and part dispassionate owner.
The Mariners enjoyed their greatest stretch in franchise history under his ownership, making the playoffs four times between 1995 and 2001. They built Safeco Field with his financial assistance. They welcomed Ichiro, the first Japanese superstar in Major League Baseball, to the United States under his watch.
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Now, though, they’re a perplexed franchise that has suffered losing seasons in eight of the last 10 years. Yamauchi received plenty of blame for not being an engaged owner and not holding front-office executives Howard Lincoln, a former Nintendo lawyer, and Chuck Armstrong accountable for the poor on-field product. But with the ire came resignation that things wouldn’t change because Yamauchi was invisible to the public and seemingly impervious to the disapproval.
Mostly, he’ll go down in Seattle a most peculiar silent donor. He saved baseball here in 1992, enduring six months of harsh scrutiny and discrimination to become baseball’s first foreign principal owner. He saved the Mariners so they could save themselves in 1995 with a miracle run that helped lead to the building of Safeco Field.
Then came the acquisition of Ichiro and the record-setting 2001 season. And now, the Mariners are stuck in the mud.
But at least they’re not stuck in Tampa.
In 1992, former Times reporter Molly Martin went to Japan, and Yamauchi granted her a rare interview. One quote in that piece stands out about his motivations for buying the Mariners.
“If it were for business, I would not have accepted the offer, I believe,” Yamauchi said. “It’s quite another reason that I went ahead with the Mariners. Of course, it’s nothing like I’m going to throw money in the drain or nothing like that, because I am going to get some of the ownership. … And I may be able to help people to be happy.”
If you view Yamauchi more as a donor and not a typical majority owner (even though all major decisions crossed his desk), then you’re left to reason that he did all that he intended with the Mariners. The team is still in Seattle. The product is awful right now, but the Mariners are financially stable. The franchise isn’t going anywhere. It’s worth at least six times the $100 million that Yamauchi and a group of investors paid for it. If you’re making a donation, that’s a job well done.
But if you’re running a win-at-all-costs baseball franchise, you want to ram your head into a brick wall.
Now that Yamauchi has passed, it’s best to treat him and his legacy with compassion. Marvel at what he accomplished with Nintendo. Applaud that he put his money on the line when no one else would in Seattle. Celebrate that he gave us the opportunity to bicker about everything that this franchise is not, but remember what the Mariners are — yours.
And then it’s only human to ponder a future with a more classic organizational structure. The Mariners will have that chance now. Twenty-one years is a long time for a sports ownership group that isn’t led by a local majority owner and hasn’t won championships or consistently made the playoffs. A change in the ownership dynamic could be good for the Mariners.
Nine years ago, Yamauchi transferred control of his shares to Nintendo of America, which is based in Redmond, for estate-planning purposes. But he has remained the owner in reality. The question now is what happens to Yamauchi’s controlling interest.
If his majority stake is for sale, many believe minority owner John Stanton, who owns about 10 percent of the team, is financially capable of taking over and giving the Mariners a local majority owner. Chris Larson, who owns 30.6 percent of the club, was once considered the heir apparent, but he has suffered significant financial losses in recent years. And there’s always the possibility that, with the value of the franchise so high, everyone could cash out and sell to an entirely new ownership group.
With the Mariners losing on the field, there will be much rooting for significant change. Right now, though, the attention should be on eulogizing an historic figure that you never got to know.
You know that he kept the Mariners here, though.
So, at the end, you should look upon Hiroshi Yamauchi the same as you did 21 years ago.
And hope the Mariners start making better use of his gesture of goodwill.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer