John Stanton and his fellow owners are viewed as “baseball guys” who pay attention to team performance.
Inside sports business
The timing of this latest ownership shuffle by the Mariners could not have been better for a team with some damage control to manage.
There was already the nightmare of the team owning baseball’s longest playoff drought at 15 years. But now, a vocal segment of Seattle fans also feel – rightly or wrongly – that the Mariners played a significant role in the city council thwarting a proposed Sodo District arena.
New majority ownership group head John Stanton hardly endeared himself to those fans by labeling Chris Hansen’s planned arena a “big, ugly house at the end of your driveway.’’ But now, with the Mariners in first place in the American League West, Stanton and his fellow owners can quickly change the perception of them on this city’s sports scene.
Having spoken this week with two sources intricately tied to the ownership group, I’m told Stanton and company plan to make good on the “Payroll matters” part of his introductory speech that didn’t generate the attention his arena comments did.
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As Stanton said, payroll isn’t always about signing big free agents. It involves spending to keep your own players and – most importantly for this year’s Mariners – adding reinforcements at the July 31 trade deadline.
From what I’m told, the ownership group is fed up with being the butt of jokes within the community they live. The current team’s flirtation with winning is something they view as a moment to be seized.
CEO Howard Lincoln used to have to run every decision by the Japanese representatives of Redmond-based Nintendo of America, which held majority control. Now, even though the ownership transfer won’t officially occur until August, I’m told Nintendo will likely only intervene on non-payroll business matters while leaving baseball decisions to Stanton.
Even better, supposedly Lincoln himself is on board with the team upgrading for a playoff run.
And that would be a dramatic about face for an organization that’s long stood pat when infusions were needed.
Who can forget griping by former manager Lou Piniella in 2002, or relief pitcher Jeff Nelson in 2003, that ownership wasn’t adding enough in-season? In 2007, the Mariners needed bullpen help during a wild-card run but settled for bit pieces and collapsed in August and September.
Then, in 2011, the Mariners were battling for first place in late June despite a terrible offense. Alas, the payroll-conscious team avoided hitting additions from outside the organization until a 17-game losing streak in July scuttled that season.
It’s one thing to say this time will be different. But talk is cheap. The Mariners, while playing solid baseball, appear in need of at least another quality starting pitcher and bullpen arm.
So, we’ll see.
The Toronto Blue Jays ended baseball’s previous longest playoff drought last season by adding David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. Those were not moves of a team contending for a second wild-card spot, but a World Series — Stanton’s stated goal.
The Mariners’ ownership group takes over a franchise in robust shape. When Nintendo of America agreed to sell all but a 10 percent holding, the team was valued at $1.4 billion.
Of that, team-owned ROOT Sports NW was valued at just under $200 million, from what the sources told me. That means the Mariners’ 71 percent stake in ROOT was just under $142 million.
So, the team itself is valued about $1.25 billion — nearly three times what Forbes estimated it at in 2009.
That alone shows why Nintendo of America held off selling for so long. It had a payroll-pared, debt-free, skyrocketing asset and knew it — regardless of all the losing seasons.
Stanton has long wanted control, as has Chris Larson, whose 30.63 percent Mariners stake had been the largest outside Nintendo’s. I’m told Stanton upped his stake considerably from his 10 percent, while Larson, having overcome financial hardships, also slightly increased his.
They are viewed as “baseball guys” who pay attention to team performance. Even while struggling through a divorce five years ago, Larson argued in court to be allowed to continue spending money to attend Mariners road trips.
I’m told Stanton and Larson will work closely together and give president Kevin Mather — who Stanton heavily supports — even greater latitude.
Mather bucked the franchise trend in 2014 by striking well before the trade deadline by approving the acquisition of Kendrys Morales. The team later added Austin Jackson as the Mariners made a surprise playoff bid.
But both players were struggling then and hardly blue-chip acquisitions. So, there is still plenty left to prove for Mather and his franchise as a whole.
The Mariners were somewhat hypocritical in opposing a Sodo arena, given they’d had their own street removal request granted in order to build a massively subsidized Safeco Field. Not that it was particularly germane to the recent arena debate: after all, two wrongs still don’t make a right and freebies long ago granted the Mariners shouldn’t automatically be assumed as reasons to repeat the process.
But this is now about optics and repairing PR damage. The Mariners play in a ballpark built largely with tax dollars, with Stanton and other owners reaping the benefits of a franchise worth 14 times what it last sold for in 1992.
So, yeah, the Mariners “owe” fans something.
And if the team keeps winning more than it loses, that bill will come due as the July trade deadline approaches.