Sports

SIDELINES: Mariners’ never-present owner is still a mystery

Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who ran Nintendo from 1949 to 2002, and also had been the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners since 1992, died Sept. 19 at age 85. - Courtesy of facebook.com/Mariners
Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who ran Nintendo from 1949 to 2002, and also had been the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners since 1992, died Sept. 19 at age 85.
— image credit: Courtesy of facebook.com/Mariners

If it wasn’t for Hiroshi Yamauchi, there would be no Seattle Mariners. There’s no denying that.

Back in 1992, the team was headed to Florida until Yamauchi stepped up and bought the Mariners for $125 million from then-owner Jeff Smulyan. Smulyan was set to move the team to the Tampa area before Yamauchi and a group of American minority investors swooped in.

Yamauchi bought the Mariners back then as a repayment to the Seattle area, which served as the United States launching point for his Nintendo video-gaming business. The 85-year-old Japanese billionaire died last week in Kyoto after a quick decline in health.

“Last week the Seattle Mariners organization lost the man responsible for saving baseball here in Seattle,” the Seattle Mariners said in a statement. “Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi purchased the Mariners franchise in 1992 as a gesture of goodwill to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest. He transformed his great grandfather’s playing card company, Nintendo, into a global video game powerhouse. His gift of baseball to this region will never be forgotten. Mr. Yamauchi will forever be a significant figure in Mariners baseball history. He will also be remembered throughout the game for his role in moving forward the opportunity for Japanese baseball players to play in the United States.”

King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said in a statement: “When you think of Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and other Seattle Mariners, remember that we would not have those memories without Hiroshi Yamauchi’s commitment to keep baseball in Seattle.

“Hiroshi Yamauchi has benefited generations of Pacific Northwest families by his generous purchase of the Mariners in 1992 ... Thousands of young boys and girls are playing today on Little League fields funded by the Mariners.”

But, even with all of the deserved praise being thrust upon him by dignitaries in the Seattle area for spending his hard-earned money to buy the Mariners, Yamauchi’s role with the professional baseball team is a mystery.

It’s widely known that he never attended a Mariners game, and he is believed to be the only owner in major American professional sports to do such a thing. Yamauchi reportedly didn’t like to travel, and that kept him from ever stepping foot in Safeco Field.

The team actually played in Tokyo last season, but team officials said that Yamauchi preferred to watch the games on TV.

It’s something that strikes me as super weird, especially in today’s sports world. While other owners of professional sports franchises chose to be front-and-center, Yamauchi chose to stay in the way, way, way back.

Owners like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees are more recognizable than the players on their teams.

Nothing like Yamauchi, who obviously didn’t get into pro sports because of a love of baseball. And, although repaying the Seattle area for housing the North American Nintendo operation was a big-time factor in purchasing the Mariners back in 1992, it wasn’t the only one.

Yamauchi, obviously, was a very, very shrewd businessman. He and the rest of the American-based Mariners ownership group, led by Microsoft’s Chris Larson, paid around $100 million to buy the team from former owner Jeff Smulyan in 1992. The owners then later put in an additional $112 million to cover Safeco Field construction costs, which opened in 1999.

As I am writing, the Mariners are thought to be worth $1 billion or more, according to the Seattle Times. This is due to the recent purchase by the ownership group of a controlling interest in the ROOT Sports regional television network and not because of their “awesome” play on the baseball field.

The future of the Mariners’ ownership is pretty unclear. In 2004, Yamauchi transferred his 55-percent controlling shares of the team to Redmond-based Nintendo of America. Minority owner John Stanton, a billionaire with a B from Bellevue, is thought to be the person most capable of buying a controlling stake, according to the Seattle Times.

Stanton bought his minority share in 2000 for a reported $5 million. It is not known exactly how big the share was. Stanton also attempted to purchase an additional 10 percent of the team a few years ago from top minority owner Larson. But it didn’t go through when Larson, who owns 30.6 percent of the Mariners, found the value he’d get for the stake was too low, the Times said.

The fact that we are even talking about the future of the Seattle Mariners can be traced back to Yamauchi. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no team.

 

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