It was spring in the desert, the Mariners were coming off their greatest season, the owners had just signed up manager Lou Piniella through 2000 and John Ellis was all grins.
The memory occurred because, in the aftermath of Saturday’s maudlin farewell, I was trying to remember when the Mariners CEO wore a little more genuine expression.
Indeed, in spring training, he was a happy man.
Even when I told him I had heard of intrigues being plotted in Seattle to save the fleeing Seahawks that might come at the Mariners expense, he stayed serene.
I figured that if I couldn’t annoy him just by being in his presence, and even bad news didn’t faze him, this was a sports executive at peace.
Yet nine months later, the Seahawks are moving along toward a shrewd ownership and a new stadium, while the new baseball park is at the moment comatose and the Mariners are for sale. Ellis was no longer at peace.
How could the business futures of two sports franchises reverse so dramatically?
It’s all in how one plays the game.
Developments Monday suggest that the Football Northwest group that fronts for Paul Allen knows how to play the game very well. In contrast, the Mariners, who played a pretty good game themselves last season, are in a big slump.
The game: obtaining public funding for a private enterprise. The game is complex, frustrating and potentially humiliating, not to mention morally dubious.
Just like politics. Which it is.
Allen’s people showed Monday they know the opening moves.
By wielding the carrot and stick in adroit fashion, the supposedly controversial Kingdome lease concessions passed the King County Council by a 9-4 vote.
Even though the concessions, if implemented, mean an annual dip into the public treasury of more than $2 million to subsidize football for three years, a majority of council members’ remarks indicated some degree of satisfaction with the deal. Imagine that: they had their pockets picked and were smiling.
Didn’t matter that the state legislature would have ordered a public vote anyway for any stadium proposal. Didn’t matter Allen’s proposed contribution of $100 million includes about $50 million from customers, in the form of personal seat licenses. Didn’t matter that a cap on the public share of the stadium probably would have been required by the state as well.
By taking the initiative and offering these carrots, Allen took the pressure off the council and made some allies. Enough so they were willing to accept the sticks - a subsidy of the Seahawks, as well as more wrath from the Mariners for giving away the rights to Kingdome advertising revenue that the baseball club had long held.
Preposterous when hatched last spring, the ad-revenue plot nevertheless survived into council acceptance Monday, an impressive feat when one considers that this is, in essence, giving money to a billionaire.
While Football Northwest was deftly working the back room, the Mariners increasingly looked upon the council and the Public Facilities District as adversaries instead of necessaries. They lost sight of the goal: a new stadium that the baseball club would operate and maintain free of the kinds of politics and constraints that hurt the Kingdome and that still prevail in the run-up to ground-breaking.
While some at county were guilty of inaction, politicking and self-aggrandizement, the facts are that the council approved the baseball stadium more than a year ago, took the heat, accepted the club’s building program, goofy roof and impossible schedule, began collecting tax money and were obliged to ask reasonable questions about complex issues while protecting the public at all times.
If the Mariners no longer think the stadium deal will pencil out, say so. If some Mariners owners want to be cashed out, say so. If some are simply burned out from the foolishness of the business of baseball and the hassle of local politics, say so.
But don’t say, as Ellis did in his Saturday statement, that the “slowdown” letter from four council members was “a clear decision by the political leadership of King County to abandon their oft-repeated promises to work with the Mariners.”
That leap in logic is worse than embarrassing. It is insulting to council members and the public, as well as severely damaging the process.
Somewhere the owners lost the patience and the vision that marked their own personal successes as well as their initial investments in the Mariners. Somehow they lost their willingness to play a difficult game, a game whose payoff means having to repeat almost none of the mistakes that plagued major league baseball’s first quarter-century in the region.
By finding a path of lesser resistance, Football Northwest is making the process work for them, not against them.
They learned the process works a lot better with respect than contempt.