Who IS Pure Enough to Own a Baseball Team?


Washington -- Get this.

Baseball owners -- these people who put designated hitters into baseball and the game indoors on plastic with costumed "mascots" and volcanic scoreboards spewing fireworks and trivia quizzes, and who for financial reasons are flirting with hTC "wild-card" teams in another layer of playoffs -- are worried that Japanese participation in the ownership of Seattle's Mariners might imperil baseball's traditions.

The somewhat visceral opposition of some (not all) Major League owners has brought down upon baseball an acid rain of charges of xenophobia and racism.

Granted there are legitimate, complex considerations about how cultural institutions should preserve their valuable and perishable relationships with their publics. But are legitimate considerations the ones at issue here?

Each baseball franchise is a native flower that flourishes, if it does, in the soil of its community. Each Major League community has evolved, through the every-day-ness of the sport of the long season, its distinctive relationship with its team.

So baseball rightly values strong local components in ownership. No community has suffered more than Seattle from the lack of it.

That is why reflexive rejection of Seattle's potential new ownership would be puzzling. Consider some history.

The Mariners were created because after just one season, 1969, Seattle's first Major League team, the Pilots, left to become the Milwaukee Brewers. Seattle sued Major League Baseball. When a whopping judgment seemed likely, Baseball agreed to award Seattle a franchise as part of the expansion that first brought foreign ownership into the game, in Toronto.

Seattle has had three ownerships. Two were from California. The current owner is from Indianapolis.

Baseball's "local ownership" preference is just that: a preference, not an enforced principle. The Houston Astros' owner lives in New Jersey; the principal owner of the San Diego Padres lives in Los Angeles; no one knows who if anyone is in charge of the Yankees, but The Boss used to be George Steinbrenner, a Clevelander who seems to live in Tampa.

The Mariners' current owner does not believe baseball can be a paying proposition in Seattle. Certainly he, a broadcasting investor deeply in debt, cannot make it pay, and he is eager to get to a greener pasture. Before he can skedaddle to Tampa-St. Petersburg he must offer the team for sale, for 120 days, at a price set by an independent appraiser. The price is $100 million.

Perhaps the hope and expectation was that no Seattle group would come up with that sum, thus enabling the American League to seize a share of the Florida market. (The National League's Miami franchise begins play in 1993.) But a Seattle group has come up with $125 million to purchase and reorganize the club.

Here's the rub: 60 percent comes from Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo of Japan. He is not an aggressive investor. His participation, which he calls an expression of gratitude to the region, was solicited by Washington's Republican Sen. Slade Gorton through Yamauchi's son-in-law Minoru Arakawa.

Arakawa, a Japanese citizen, has an advanced degree from M.I.T. and has lived in Seattle for 12 years, supervising Nintendo of America's 1,400 employees. He would have an irrevocable proxy from Yamauchi, who would have no direct involvement in Mariners' operations. Other investors are senior officials of such local corporations as Microsoft, Boeing, McCaw Cellular, Puget Sound Power & Light.

All major decisions would require a super-majority of the board, that is, a majority of the minority shareholders. If the Mariners were to be put up for sale for successive 120-day periods, members of that group would have first right of refusal; then it could be sold only to people from the Pacific Northwest; then only to people committed to keeping the club in Seattle.

Baseball cannot have it both ways, restricting potential buyers but assuming franchise values will increase. It recently put a $95 million price on two expansion franchises, thereby raising the floor under the value of existing franchises.

But if franchises are to command rising prices, the pool of potential owners will not be large. It will be particularly small if the only eligible buyers are U.S. and Canadian residents of the franchise cities. Relaxing the local ownership requirement may be necessary to maintain the growth in values or even maintain the values of franchises.

This is not a propitious moment politically for anyone Japanese to try to become even a passive owner of even just 60 percent of 1/28th of Major League Baseball. (There are 28 franchises, counting the infants in Miami and Denver.)

But if Baseball summarily rejects Seattle's plan, it will need better reasons than so far adduced, or racism will be assumed. And Baseball will again be dragged into the second national pastime: litigation.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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