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Hiroshi Yamauchi: The Mystery Man Who Saved Baseball in Seattle

The death of Mariners' majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi has raised a lot of questions about the future ownership of the team. And just as many questions about the man himself.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel gives us a history lesson on how Yamauchi saved professional baseball in Seattle but in recent years caused anger and mistrust among fans.

Odd Ownership

To most Mariner fans, Hiroshi Yamauchi was a mystery. Some even called him a ghost.

"This will have to go down as the oddest ownership in Seattle history and one of the oddest in professional sports nationwide," Art said. "Yamauchi was never a baseball fan. He never saw the Mariners play. He never engaged at all. But people really need to keep in mind that he saved baseball in Seattle."

Returning a Favor Keeps Mariners in Seattle

Yamauchi was the only one that took the call of former Sen. Slade Gorton, who in 1991 led a search for new ownership for the Mariners to keep them from leaving town, but could not find a majority owner among Seattle’s emerging class of wealthy tech entrepreneurs.  That's according to an article Art wrote for Sportspress Northwest. Gorton had helped pass legislation that helped Yamauchi's Nintendo battle intellectual piracy.

"Yamauchi bought the team for $125 million from owner Jeff Smulyan, who was preparing to move the team to Tampa before Yamauchi and a group of American minority investors, led by Microsoft’s Chris Larson, surprised him and all of Major League Baseball with the purchase," Art wrote. "It took six months of public and private pressure, but owners voted to approve in the summer of 1992 the first ownership group led by a foreign investor."

Honeymoon Lasted 10 Years

In the first 10 years of Yamauchi's ownership, the Mariners went to the playoffs four times in seven years (1995-2001).

"They also created the emotional momentum that created the taxes that funded Safeco Field," Art said. "And in 2001 Yamauchi's influence helped bring Ichiro Suzuki to America (and the Mariners). He became Japan's first position player to succeed in Major League Baseball."

Anger and Mistrust Followed

Art says there's been a lack of accountability at the top of the Mariners organization, under the leadership of Nintendo lawyer-turned-Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln.

"When things went wrong we didn't understand who was the baseball brain making the decisions," Art said. "That has really annoyed fans because what's happened is the Mariners have had eight losing seasons in the last 10 years, including this one."

"So the calls have been many to get rid of this ownership. And now that apparently is upon us."

What Happens Now?

In 2004, Yamauchi placed his share of the Mariners ownership, for estate purposes, in a trust controlled by Nintendo of America in Redmond, which upon his passing is now the 55 percent owner of the team.

"There's been no indication they want to keep the 55 percent or sell it. But if they do sell it, it will probably go to the American minority owners who, we assume, have the right of first refusal," Art said. "The likeliest among them who's able to afford this is billionaire John Stanton who most recently succeeded in selling his (Bellevue-based) company Clearwire."

"But they have to sell it first and we still don't know," he added. 

You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwestand

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.