Many Americans shudder at the prospect of a team in major league baseball, the so-called American pastime, falling into the hands of foreign interests, in this case Japanese. But some good could come out of the sale of the Seattle Mariners to Japanese interests, particularly if the man behind the deal means what he says about wanting to be a good samaritan rather than a hands-on operator.
Twenty-five of 26 U.S. teams approved the sale, realizing that without the kind of financing provided by the transaction the Mariners might fold, or have to go elsewhere. There was controversy, but the bottom line was that team owners figured this was the best way to go.
The group buying the Washington team is headed by Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Kyoto. Yamauchi says he has no interest in baseball but is buying the team as a gift to Seattle. Nintendo of America Inc. is located in suburban Redmond, Wash. Yamauchi says he has long appreciated the way the United States helped Japan get back on its economic feet after the nation's defeat in World War II. He lived through it, and watched it unfold.
``What happened in my view is a happy result,'' said baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. ``. . . It is a Seattle group with enormous strength locally. This is a group of wise and powerful people . . . who have the chance to make the franchise successful.'' Baseball owners once opposed non-North American investment, but are allowing the sale because Yamauchi agreed to limit his power to decisions involving the team's sale or relocation, and the dissolution of the partnership purchasing the team. Yamauchi is contributing approximately $75 million to the deal as a ``good neighbor.'' American interests are due to run the team.
Jeff Smulyan, who heads the group which purchased the Mariners from George Argyros in September 1989 for approximately $77 million, said his group will break even on its investment. Although Yamauchi's group is paying Smulyan approximately $106 million the remainder will be used to operate the club Smulyan said the Mariners operated at a loss during his tenure.
``We don't make any money significantly, but we do OK,'' Smulyan said.
Under Smulyan, the Mariners topped 2 million in attendance for the first time, but still did not take in enough revenue to satisfy Smulyan's bankers.
There is a parallel here to the case of the Kansas City Royals, who remain a strong Kansas City presence because of the generosity of entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman. Even though the Royals have been drawing more than 2 million fans, as did the Mariners, Kauffman has been losing about $6 million a year. What happens when Kauffman, now in his late 70s, no longer is available to bankroll the operation? Will Kansas City find another wealthy godfather foreign or domestic to keep the Royals afloat? Or will the team be moved?
On the surface, the Seattle Mariner sale seems to be in the best interests of the home city and the purchasers. The trouble is, how many times have we seen takeovers then heard something like: ``New owners say there will be no changes in policies and personnel.'' Yet before long, there are drastic alterations, many of them not good.
Let's hope this one does not turn out that way. And that perhaps some kind of salvation process may emerge that will keep the Royals in Kansas City when Ewing Kauffman no longer is doing it.