John Stanton and Mikal Thomsen were in their late 20s when they teamed up at McCaw Cellular to become part of the birthing of a fledgling communications technology whose growth globally they helped guide through several major companies over the next 20 years, becoming iconic figures in the wireless industry.
Now just into their 60s, both have parlayed their business success into owning and guiding professional baseball teams, what they might well agree is a passion that rivals their business focus.
A business focus remains, however, as they continue to manage their Bellevue-based wireless venture and investment firm, Trilogy Equity Partners, formed by a collection of long-time wireless partners after the sale of their Western Wireless to Alltel Corp. in 2005.
Thomsen once told me that the opportunity six years ago to create the ownership team that bought the Tacoma Rainiers was like his “dream come true.” He would be owning his hometown team that he had grown up rooting for from the time his dad took him to his first game at age three. That was the year that the then-Tacoma Giants returned after a 55-year absence.
Stanton, who will soon assume the role of CEO of the Seattle Mariners after the ownership group he leads completes its purchase of the team from Nintendo of America, also recalls attending the games of his hometown team with his father. That was in 1969 when, as a teenager he became a fan of the Seattle Pilots in their first and only year of existence and recalls crying when they left town for Milwaukee.
Thomsen would undoubtedly echo Stanton’s “I am first and foremost a baseball fan” comment that he made to the media gathering at Safeco Field when he was introduced as the leader of a 17 member local group that would become 90 percent owner of the team and he become the CEO, once Major League Baseball owners bless the deal.
Thomsen and his wife, Lynn, and Stanton and his wife, Terry Gillespie, are all alums of McCaw Cellular in the ‘80s and are now on the team of co-owners of the Tacoma Rainiers, though the oversight of the franchise, including attending many games and spending about 10 hours a week in the office during the season, falls to Thomsen.
The owners are fortunate that the baseball team acquisition included Aaron Artman as club president, a former Microsoft executive who oversaw the $30 million renovation of Cheney Stadium and remained with the new owners in the role of president.
Stanton’s and Thomsen’s baseball involvement extends across the state and all the way down to the West Coast League, an amateur collegiate summer league, where they are among owners of both the Walla Sweets and the Yakima Valley Pippins.
But it was when Thomsen had the opportunity to put together the purchase of the Tacoma Rainiers in 2011 that he turned to Stanton and his wife, an avid baseball fan herself, to become part of the ownership group.
Thomsen has immersed himself in his hometown baseball team and has enthusiastically committed to its increasing success, despite being the smallest market in far-flung Pacific Coast League and being the closest Triple-A team to a major league city.
In fact, the Seattle Mariners and the Rainiers are not only geographically close, which Thomsen admits may sometimes cost the Rainiers attendance of fans heading for Seattle, but close in that the Rainiers are the Mariners’ triple-A farm team.
As Thomsen puts it: “Most of the Rainiers fans are Mariners fans who enjoy keeping up with both teams and hearing about the players they saw in Tacoma performing with the major league club. I think the nearness of the M’s cuts both ways.”
In addition, the relationship is good for the Rainiers’ bottomline since the Tacoma roster is determined by and players’ salaries paid by the Mariners.
A lot of the changes brought about since Thomson’s group bought the team relate to community things, but he is pleased about what has happened in the stands and on the field.
At this point, atop PCL pack, the Rainiers seem headed for their first playoff appearance since Thomsen’s group bought the team, though Thomsen cautions that “it’s a long way from certain. We are only three games up on Fresno.” Plus the team appear on the way to another franchise attendance record, though beating the 352,000 attendance mark of last season is well behind the nearly 680,000 of the Sacramento River Cats.
In addition, Thomsen notes that the decision by the ownership group three years ago to build a new set of stands in left field “has been a stunning success,” adding that he celebrated his 60th birthday there in early May this year “with a couple hundred friends.”
He says the change of the team’s logo two years ago to “the now somewhat iconic ‘R’” has helped drive merchandise sales “through the roof.”
In terms of community involvement, he says the Rainiers “teamed this past off season with Tacoma Parks, the Cheney Foundation and Mary Bridge Hospital to add a playground behind the right field berm that includes a whiffle ball stadium,
“It is packed for most games and open as a public park when games are not going on in the stadium,” he adds.
“The community views this as a partnership and we go out of our way to be great partners,” Thomsen says with obvious pride.