The international ownership group that five years ago saved the Seattle Mariners for the Northwest announced Saturday they’ve had enough - lost enough money - and have offered the team for sale.
“Our decision is final,” said team chairman and CEO John Ellis.
And unless another local owner can be found before the team is snatched away by eager investors elsewhere, the 1997 season could be the teams’ final campaign in Seattle.
“I may not get through this, but I’ll try,” said an emotional Ellis before making the announcement.
“This outcome is especially regretful because fans throughout the Northwest have responded with unbounded enthusiasm for Mariners baseball,” Ellis said. “To them, and to everyone, we cannot explain why those who represent the people have chosen to let baseball go.”
Ellis specifically blamed King County politicians who were trying to delay the opening of a new ballpark from 1999 to 2000. The owners demanded the new stadium as the only way the team could hope to break even financially.
While they expect to lose $90 million by the time the stadium opens in 1999, M’s owners were unwilling to absorb yet another year of multimillion-dollar losses that a delay to 2000 would bring.
The Metropolitan King County Council must authorize the sale of $310 million in bonds by mid-February to keep the project on schedule.
Ellis claimed the last straw was a Thursday letter from four County Council members suggesting the threat of lawsuits and initiatives as well as worries over the final cost of the stadium makes delay in that bond sale prudent.
Signing the letter were Ron Sims, Peter von Reichbauer, Cynthia Sullivan and Larry Phillips.
“Because the council members are well aware of the consequences of delay, it is clear from their conduct that they intend for the ballpark project to fail,” Ellis said at an afternoon press conference in the same hotel where he announced the creation of the ownership group five years before.
Ellis ended his prepared statement with a personal note to his granddaughter Kerri, whom he described as a big baseball fan.
“I love you,” he said, his eyes glistening with tears. “I’m sorry, but we tried our best.”
Mariners rightfielder Jay Buhner told KING-TV that the sale was a “damn shame.”
“Our chances of winning are pretty darn good this year. The reason why it’s so frustrating is we’ve come so far. The expectations of what we’re going to do, as far as I’m concerned, are high,” Buhner said.
All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez told KIRO-TV from New York that he feels bad for the fans.
“It’s too bad. Fans around here are so good, they support us really well,” Rodriguez said.
“But it’s a part of life and we have to continue doing what we’re trying to do and that’s trying to win a championship.”
County politicians were slow to accept responsibility for the Mariners’ surprise announcement. Few accepted Ellis’ conclusion that the deal is done and that the 1997 season will be the last.
“I remain firmly committed to helping ensure the new Mariners ballpark is open by 1999,” County Executive Gary Locke said. “This community, this ownership group, all of us have come too far and worked too hard for the past three years to lose our Seattle Mariners.
“I am not going to give up,” Locke said.
After hearing the news, Sims said he will work with Locke on a solution to the Mariners situation.
“We did a lot of substantial work, took some hard votes, to keep the Mariners here,” he said.
Chris Van Dyk, who led the Citizens for More Important Things drive against the stadium, denied that his recent call for a public vote on the bond sale drove the team to Saturday’s announcement.
House Minority Leader Marlin Appelwick, one of the prime political architects of the Mariners financing deal, said he’s frustrated by the announcement.
“I’m just deeply disappointed,” said Appelwick, D-Seattle. “This is really a bummer.”
Ellis denied the announcement was a bargaining ploy designed to get the council back on track for the April 1999 home opener. This isn’t brinkmanship, Ellis said, it’s an expression of frustration and concern that the financial losses might never end.
“We were not only looking for light at the end of the tunnel, we wanted to know how long the tunnel was,” Ellis said.
“It’s not a bluff. It’s where we’ve been all along.”
The ownership group consists of the American representatives of Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi as well as people associated with Microsoft and the former McCaw Cellular.
Yamauchi put $75 million into the project even though he wasn’t a baseball fan and had never even seen a game. Instead, he saw it as a way of thanking the Seattle area that had warmly welcomed his company - as well as his daughter and son-in-law.
Yamauchi’s investment came at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and then-Gov. Booth Gardner.
His involvement forced Major League Baseball to soften its stance against foreign ownership in baseball.
ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: Changed from Regional edition.