At a lunch at Safeco Field on Thursday, the Mariners will honor the man who put together the public-private, international coalition that saved the team from leaving town 25 years ago: former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.

Share story

A STRUGGLE over the presence of a pro sports team in Seattle. International tensions verging on xenophobia. An election year so toxic that getting anything done seems remote.

A snapshot of 2016 in Washington state? Nope. That scenario took place 25 years ago, in 1991, when major league baseball in Seattle was in danger, U.S.-Japan relations were strained to the breaking point and voters who didn’t like the major parties’ nominees turned to a third-party businessman to vent their frustrations.

And yet somehow last month, the Mariners — still the Seattle Mariners, a quarter-century later — announced a proposed change in leadership and majority ownership that should ensure local ownership and the team’s viability here for decades to come. How did that happen?

The Mariners know how, and on Thursday at a lunch at Safeco Field, they are going to honor the unlikely champion who put together the public-private, bipartisan, cross-jurisdictional, international coalition that made it happen — and started the thaw in U.S.-Japan relations to boot. Who made the key play?

Former Washington state legislator, state attorney general, U.S. senator, 9/11 commissioner, and true believer in the power of sports to bind a community together: Slade Gorton.

Here is what Gorton did and why the Mariners are honoring him. It is a story worth retelling in this divisive year as a reminder of what we can achieve when civic leaders put aside partisan differences and work together for the community.

1991 was not the first time pro baseball faced an existential crisis in Seattle. In the late 1980s, Jeff Smulyan — another baseball fanatic, and a very wealthy one — had become a quasi-hero in Seattle for buying the team from the unpopular George Argyros. But even Smulyan couldn’t overcome the challenge of making a professional team financially viable in a smaller media market. And he was from Indianapolis — his passion was baseball, not Seattle. After a few years of steady losses, Smulyan announced that the Mariners were for sale. The rumor was he wanted to move the team to Tampa.

Local investors had 120 days to come up with a purchaser to keep the team in Seattle. Gorton, then in his second term as a U.S. senator, had had enough. In his capacity as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, he had worked with Nintendo, a Japanese-owned company with U.S. headquarters in Redmond, to help curtail counterfeiting of their games. Early in December 1991, he picked up the phone and called Howard Lincoln, senior vice president of Nintendo’s American division, to ask for a meeting to talk about an investment. The meeting was granted.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Gorton received a call from Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo’s American division, that he calls “the best Christmas gift of my life.” Arakawa’s father-in-law, Hiroshi Yamauchi, CEO of Nintendo, was very grateful to the United States and to the state of Washington for its successes here. If Seattle needed $100 million to keep baseball in town, he would contribute it out of his own pocket.

After Gorton picked himself up off the floor, his well-regarded analytic mind kicked in with the realization that local ownership would be instrumental to keeping baseball in Seattle for the long haul. He set to work putting together a group of local investors to join Nintendo as minority partners. First up was the indispensable John Ellis who, together with Gorton and Nintendo’s Lincoln, created a plan that overcame opposition to foreign — and especially, at that time, Japanese — ownership bias among Major League Baseball owners.

The result: a grand-slam win for baseball fans in Seattle and the Northwest, for U.S.-Japan relations and for Major League Baseball, as the new Mariner ownership structure became a model.

But most of all, it was a win for the power of collaborative effort even in difficult times. In a career defined by achievement, saving the Mariners 25 years ago remains Gorton’s proudest. It is fitting that the Mariners are celebrating that achievement and the man who brought it about.

Thank you, Slade Gorton, for playing such an important role in making sure that the Mariners really are, at last, safe at home in Seattle.