You’re probably not going to see a statue of Slade Gorton erected in Seattle. It is unlikely the man signed any autographs for children or adoring fans, either.
But if you want to talk about baseball in this town — if you want to discuss why the Mariners came and why they’re here to stay — there may be no more influential figure than the former U.S. Senator. Gorton died at 92 on Wednesday, but not before securing one of the Emerald City’s most impressive sports legacies.
Three times he used his calculating mind and bipartisan politics to help ensure Seattle had a major-league club. There were important ventures in his political career — he served on the 9/11 commission and was Washington state’s 14th attorney general. But it’s unlikely anything cultivated more joy than his baseball-related endeavors.
“Literally at every turn, when the Mariners or baseball in general had its challenges, Slade was there,” Mariners chairman John Stanton said.
Turn No. 1 came in 1970, when Seattle lost the Pilots after just one season. Gorton responded by finding a way to force a jury trial in Everett, in which he used MLB owners’ testimony and tape recordings to force the league to eventually give Seattle a team back. Stanton said the Mariners’ arrival in 1977 was a direct result of Gorton’s brilliance.
Turn No. 2 came in 1991, when it appeared that Seattle would lose the Mariners to Tampa Bay if a local ownership group could not be found to buy the franchise. One company Gorton had in mind was Redmond-based Nintendo. During his time as senator, Gorton had helped curb the counterfeiting of the company’s video games. And on Christmas of 1991, Gorton got a call saying Nintendo would invest $100 million to keep the M’s in Seattle.
Turn No. 3 came five years later, when it became uncertain whether Seattle was going to be able to build a new ballpark. Failure to do so likely would have cost the town the team. Using “shuttle diplomacy” and “power politics,” to quote Stanton, Gorton was able to help close the impasse between King County officials and the Mariners ownership group and get Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) built.
“If you think of a U.S. Senator and all the things he’s got going on, you worry about, ‘Am I being represented? Is my rep repping me?,’ ” longtime Seattle sportscaster Mike Gastineau said. “But there might not be a better example of that than with Slade. He said, ‘My constituents want a baseball team,’ and on three different occasions he came through.”
By multiple accounts, Gorton’s interest in fanfare was nonexistent. He was happy to go unrecognized so long as he produced results. But the people he worked with knew how potent his mind was, and that life won’t quite be the same without him.
“Whenever Slade was around, you knew he was the smartest person in the room,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told Times reporter Joseph O’Sullivan. “And it’s going to seem a whole lot emptier with him gone.”
Stanton said there was actually a fourth, lesser-known challenge involving Gorton and the Mariners. In the middle of the decade, Slade recognized that Nintendo was eventually going to have to sell and talked to Stanton about buying out Nintendo and taking control of the team. That happened in 2016, and though Stanton thinks the deal would have gone through without Gorton’s urging, “I always knew that I couldn’t disappoint Slade.”
But in another way, he feels like he did. Stanton has been open about his desire to bring a World Series trophy to Seattle. That may seem ambitious given the Mariners’ current record and 19-year playoff drought, but that hasn’t stopped John from putting out those vibes.
On Wednesday morning, though, Stanton’s heart was particularly heavy. Not just because he lost a friend, but because he was never able to deliver him that title.
“I feel horrible,” Stanton said. “It’s disappointing to me that Slade is not going to be there for that World Series.”
No, but if it happens one day in Seattle, Slade will be a major reason why.