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Seattle Mariners

Former Mariner Felix Hernandez joins ownership of Dubai-based Baseball United

Seattle’s Felix Hernandez pitches against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, on July 3, 2013.  (Tribune News Service)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Felix Hernandez just spent the week preceding his Mariners Hall of Fame induction working overseas on his first global business venture – helping bring professional baseball to the Middle East and South Asia.

Hernandez, who planned to fly to Seattle late Thursday for Saturday’s induction at T-Mobile Park, is teaming up with former Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre on the ownership group of Baseball United, a Dubai-based venture featuring four teams representing cities in the United Arab Emirates, India and Pakistan. The group secured a 15-year deal in June to play out of various UAE venues, a first for any foreign sports venture within the tightly controlled Emirates.

There are plans for an eight-game showcase tournament in November at Dubai’s international cricket stadium featuring, among others, a Dubai Wolves team with Hernandez as honorary general manager and managed by his former Mariners boss John McLaren.

“I’m very excited about it,” six-time All-Star and 2010 Cy Young Award winner Hernandez said by phone Thursday after landing in Miami following 10 days in Dubai. “It’s a great project. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Hernandez, 37, who’d visited Dubai once previously before joining Baseball United, said he’s done “a few things” in business since retiring from MLB in 2021. But this venture, launched last year by some American business executives with an ownership group now featuring ex-MLB stars Mariano Rivera, Barry Larkin, Hernandez, Beltre, Nick Swisher and current Chicago White Sox infielder Elvis Andrus, is the biggest.

After the initial “Dubai Showcase” event – with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Karachi teams playing two games apiece in the baseball-modified 25,000-seat cricket venue – an expanded eight-team field and two-month schedule is planned for November 2024.

Hernandez first heard about Baseball United from Beltre, 44, who became his friend and mentor upon the pitcher’s 2005 Mariners debut. Beltre will serve as honorary GM of the Karachi Monarchs team managed by onetime American League MVP Miguel Tejada.

“I talked to Adrian about it first and asked him if he was going to be managing a team,” Hernandez said. “And he told me yes. So, I jumped in. I told him ‘OK, I’m in.’ ”

From there, Beltre arranged for Hernandez to meet near his Miami home with Baseball United CEO Kash Shaikh, a sports marketing agency owner who launched the group last year with business partner John Miedreich.

Shaikh, a Houston native and onetime Proctor & Gamble executive, flew to Miami to pitch Hernandez on joining. When it ended, Shaikh said Hernandez told him he’d already decided beforehand to invest because of trust in his “brother” Beltre and having previously enjoyed Dubai.

“It was the easiest investor pitch in the history of pitches,” Shaikh, whose marketing clients have included Larkin, Miguel Cabrera and Mookie Betts, said by phone from Dubai, where he’s finalizing details before November’s event.

The four participating teams will have 20-man rosters with 13 position players and seven pitchers chosen in a Sept. 19 draft streamed online from Baseball United’s U.S. headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. An initial 64 players will be picked from a 200-player pool of current and former pro players with experience in MLB, the U.S. minor leagues, and circuits in Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Four additional players on each squad – dubbed the “Super 16” – will be baseball prospects from each team’s region. “We’re talking about the best pitchers from India, the best infielders from Pakistan,” Shaikh said, adding both countries have half-century baseball histories often overshadowed by cricket.

Shaikh hopes the local talent infusion further heightens baseball interest within the bat-and-ball loving countries. Marketing research commissioned by the group suggests those cricket fans average 34 years of age, while tens of millions of “avid” baseball fans there are aged just 28 on average compared to middle aged U.S. counterparts.

“The term ‘avid’ is really important because these aren’t just casual fans,” Shaikh said. “An avid fan is somebody that’s transacting in some way. So, they’re either buying merchandise, trading memorabilia, streaming games, or playing the games in youth or adult leagues.”

The same research suggested India alone already has 53 million “avid” baseball fans – a higher number than even in the U.S.

“So, that’s what is really exciting to us,” Shaikh said. “There’s this dormant fan base that loves the game but never had a team or league in their backyard that they can really become passionate about.”

Shaikh envisions the Mumbai-Karachi rivalry becoming akin to New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox clashes.

“When India and Pakistan play in cricket, you get literally 450 million (television) viewers,” he said. “For perspective, you get 90 million or 100 million for the Super Bowl. Those cricket matches … if we can get even a fraction of that for baseball, we’re going to be really, really happy.”

Baseball United plans expanded 26-man rosters next year and has opened discussions with MLB about becoming a winter league development option. Unlike Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf, which feuded bitterly with the PGA Tour before merging in June, Shaikh said Baseball United won’t compete with MLB’s schedule given the region’s extreme heat from February through October.

Dubai manager McLaren, who’s coached extensively in Europe, Belarus, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico, can’t wait to get started.

“I love being a trailblazer,” said McLaren, 71, who managed the Mariners in 2007 and 2008 and was a longtime bench coach under Lou Piniella in Seattle, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.

“So, this will cross another country off,” he added. “But I think the really good thing that I like about baseball is it always brings people together.”

For now, it’s reunited him with Beltre and Hernandez. McLaren called Hernandez a “throwback guy” who loved “pitching just to pitch” and isn’t surprised he’s again involved in baseball.

Baseball United co-owner Eddie Diaz, a longtime MLB scout, first approached McLaren about the venture and he flew to Cincinnati for May meetings with Shaikh, Miedreich and others, including Hernandez and Beltre.

“These people were so organized,” McLaren said. “I mean, it reminded me of a Pat Gillick meeting. The way he used to run our meetings, with everything just like clockwork. Everybody got a chance to speak, they had a well-designed program with an outline. It was very, very impressive.”

They later had a 50-seat backyard sit-down dinner at Shaikh’s home and attended a Reds home game in a luxury suite.

“It’s a very, very cool project, and being there on the ground floor is very exciting to me,” McLaren said. “And to be able to do it with Adrian and with Felix as well makes it all the more special.”

Venezuela native Hernandez said the business aspect intrigues him, but like McLaren, he found broadening baseball internationally most appealing. He’s “tired” from his Dubai trip but looking forward to Saturday’s induction. “I’m pretty excited about it. I’m really honored to be there and be a part of it.”

After, he’ll prepare for the Baseball United draft, hoping to do Dubai proud.

“I’m just looking to bring baseball to the Middle East,” Hernandez said. “That’s what we’re really looking for.”