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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Mariners' 2017 opening day recalls '92 opener and its import

Mariners' 2017 opening day recalls '92 opener and its import

When the Seattle Mariners take the field for their home opener April 10, there will be at least some in the crowd who will recall that it was opening day 25 years ago when there was finally a cautious optimism that the uncertainty about the future of the franchise had been resolved. A team of local owners had been assembled, buttressed by a Japanese businessman devoted to Seattle, awaiting hoped-for approval from Major League Baseball.

And it's on occasions like a quarter-century anniversary of a major event that those involved in creating outcomes like the saving of a major league franchise for Seattle find that little-known facts of the story come to the forefront of memory for sharing.

Thus this Harp will be dedicated to a collection of several such stories related to that Mariners' accomplishment that made opening day 1992 special for not just the 56,000 fans on hand but also for supporters across the region.

There was an appropriate major celebration at Safeco Field last May to recognize Slade Gorton for his essential role as a U.S, Senator in finding local buyers for the Mariners in 1991 after then-owner Jeff Smulyan announced he was planning to sell the team, triggering a clause giving 120 days to find local owners.

It was in December of 1991 that Gorton learned that his effort to convince Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to invest, not as a baseball fan but to repay the community that he felt had helped his company become successful, had paid off.

And it was January 23 of 1992 that the announcement of the group of local investors to be named the Baseball Club of Seattle and led by the Japanese billionaire would buy the team to keep it in Seattle.

But it would be two months beyond opening day in 1992 before The MLB ownership committee would recommend approval of the purchase of the team by the Baseball Club of Seattle. So, as Randy Adamack, Mariner Senior Vice President for Communications, noted to me "While there was more optimism that April about the franchise staying here, the approval issue still had people holding their collective breath."

The 120-day clause and the local-owners search provide interesting memories for those most closely involved, and retired Mariners president Chuck Armstrong shared a couple of them in a telephone conversation this week.

Armstrong was attorney and advisor for George Argyros, the Southern California businessman who had purchased the Mariners in 1981 from the original ownership team, and Armstrong served his first stint as president of the Mariners when Argyros sent him up from Southern California a couple of years later.

The 120-day provision had actually been inserted in 1985 when Argyros and King County Executive Randy Revelle were negotiating a change in the Kingdome lease and Argyros suggested it as a "closer" to get county council approval.

Armstrong recalls that the reason for suggesting the provision was that Argyros "didn't want to go down in history as the guy who sold to a distant owner and thus let the Mariners leave town without providing time to find local owners."

"He was okay with a new owner living elsewhere, as long as he didn't move the team," he added.

Armstrong recalls "George never gets credit for that 120-day clause, but he had learned that nothing happens in Seattle, because of the endless focus on process, until things are in extremis and when something reaches that point the community would respond."

Bur Argyros did become basically loathed in Seattle in 1987 when he sought to buy the San Diego Padres to be closer to his Southern California home after the death of owner Ray Kroc. armstrong notes that it was the suggestion of Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's, who said he would find someone to buy the Mariners.

Then in 1989 came the offer from Smulyan that set in motion everything that followed.

Armstrong was also involved in trying to help sell the Japanese ownership to MLB, remembering that he called his friend, George W.Bush, then managing partner of the Texas Rangers, explained the challenge and asked if his father, President Bush, might be interested in helping with the issue.

"One day the phone rang and a woman said 'the president is calling.' I asked 'President of what?' and she said a little icily, how about President of the United States.'"

Armstrong said it turned out that Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent had worked for the elder Bush in the oil fields and they had remained friends.

"I can't honestly tell you what, if any, role the president took in our issue, though both Bushes indicated they had no problem with a Japanese owner" chuckled Armstrong, who as the only one of the new local ownership who knew anything about running a baseball team was brought back as president on July 1, 1992. He retired three years ago.

One of the most interesting stories and one that I've felt should be shared ever since I first heard it, is how new CEO and majority owner John Stanton had wished with all his might to be part of the ownership team in 1992, but told me some years ago "I didn't have the money."

For those who might find that startling or amusing, remember that wireless pioneer Stanton had recently departed McCaw Cellular with Craig McCaw's blessing to launch Stanton Communications with his wife, Theresa Gillespie, and they had sunk all their capital into that venture. The company would in 1994 become Western Wireless, which went public in1996 and spun off VoiceStream Wireless in 1999.

"We had the opportunity to invest in 1992 and passed because we were funding payroll for about 100 employees out of our personal checking account," Stanton emailed me this week.  "In 2000 we had the opportunity to buy John McCaw's interest in the team. And we have been involved since then."

McCaw's 1992 investment had represented a substantial piece of the original commitment by the 17 owners and it wasn't until he decided to sell that he shared the fact he had only invested for the sake of community and that he hadn't really been a baseball fan.

The final recollection truly little known, except for those closely involved with the effort to save the Mariners, is of the legal battle in which Seattle attorney Arthur Harrigan won the right for local ownership to be sought.

I wrote last year, as Gorton's key contribution 25 years earlier was being celebrated, about the role played by Harrigan, whose firm of Calfo Harrigan Leyh and Eakes got into the battle because it represented King County and Smulyan was seeking to abandon the county-owned Kingdome.

The venue for resolving the future of the Seattle Mariners franchise was what amounted to an arbitration hearing before Arthur Andersen, the national accounting firm agreed to by both sides to decide some key issues relating to the lease and the team.

Since it wasn't a court process, which would have gotten large visibility for the battle between attorneys, Harrigan's maneuvering over the meaning of wording in Smulyan's contract regarding an attendance provision and whether it triggered the 120-day clause got little visibility, and is thus little remembered.


Harrigan's argued interpretation of the lease-requirement wording was accepted by the Andersen firm, so Smulyan was required to give the four-month opportunity for a local buyer to be sought.

Of perhaps equal importance, Harrigan successfully argued that there should be a local value lower than the open-market value. 

The accounting firm agreed and set a "stay-in-Seattle" valuation at $100 million, rather than the national open-market value of $125 million that it had determined.

That created the opportunity for Gorton and others leading the effort to keep the team in Seattle to find a local buyer for $100 million, rather than $125 million, within four months. And that led to Nintendo.

John Ellis, the widely respected, retiring CEO of Puget Sound Power & Light, was a token partner, along with retiring Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz, to add business respectability to the wealthy but lesser-known Microsoft and McCaw Cellular entrepreneurs group.

Ellis was picked to lead the group's effort to gain baseball's approval, becoming managing general partner, eventually becoming CEO and guiding the team through the rest of the '90s and setting the stage for the team's 2001 MLB record-tying 116 victories.

The 1992 "opening night" that is actually best remembered was the owner-change celebration on July 16, 1992, billed as a second opening night.
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