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Originally published September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 26, 2008 at 11:46 PM

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Rebuilding the Mariners

Part 4: Owners not among changes

A rumor all summer claims that Mariners minority owner Chris Larson has been negotiating to buy a controlling stake in the team. The way it lays...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A rumor all summer claims that Mariners minority owner Chris Larson has been negotiating to buy a controlling stake in the team.

The way it lays out is that Larson, the media-shy, somewhat-reclusive, 49-year-old former Microsoft executive, would purchase the controlling-interest shares held by Nintendo of America — which assumed technical control of Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi's stake in the team in 2004 — as well as those of Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. In turn, Lincoln would vanish and team president Chuck Armstrong would step aside so that Larson could hire former Mariners general manager Pat Gillick to replace him.

There's only one problem with the entire scenario: The fact that Larson insists it's pure fiction.

"There is absolutely no basis in fact to what you have heard," Larson wrote in an e-mail exchange this week. "I have never had any discussions with Howard Lincoln, Nintendo, or Mr. Yamauchi (or any representative of them) about increasing my ownership interest beyond where it is now, and I have no plans to do so. What you suggest is simply not true."

It all seemed so nice and neat in theory, especially since Gillick purchased a retirement home in Magnolia two years ago and has hinted he'll walk away from his post as Philadelphia Phillies GM when this season ends. And because, after building playoff teams as a GM in Toronto, Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia, it sounds plausible the 71-year-old Gillick would welcome the challenge of staying involved in running a Larson-controlled team while avoiding the daily grind of his current post.

In fact, it's now obvious the team will embark on a critical decision about its future GM and manager with the same ownership group and executives in place.

"I don't anticipate any change in the ownership structure," Lincoln said, adding that the only ownership change since Yamauchi acquired the Mariners in 1992 came when minority shareholder John Stanton bought out John McCaw's stake for about $5 million in 2001.

And make no mistake, Lincoln added, he and Armstrong will be the only ones picking a new GM.

"This is a decision that's going to be made by Chuck and by me," Lincoln said. "But let me make it very clear that, having said that, we're certainly going to be, as we have been all summer, keeping our ownership group apprised of what we've been doing and where we're headed."

Armstrong says he still chats with Gillick by telephone once a week and has sought his advice in screening candidates for the team's vacant GM job.

"I've asked his input on some of my candidates," Armstrong said. "And he's been pretty good about that."

There's nothing against baseball rules about two friends and former colleagues chatting about work-related decisions in a phone call. And Armstrong, for all the chats he's had, says the topic of a move by Gillick back to the Mariners was never part of them.

"There's been no conversation with Pat about coming over here," Armstrong said.

In fact, Armstrong says he plans on sticking around as president and making it his career challenge to help rebuild the team. Armstrong and Lincoln are both well-aware that fan resentment toward them has reached new heights.

"The good news is that they care and they're passionate about it," Armstrong said. "So, we're the two guys left at the top, and if they want to take shots, we're the best targets."

Lincoln said that he and Armstrong have tried to be more open with fans through the media.

"I know that there are lots of disgruntled fans who would like to string Chuck up, me too," Lincoln said. "We're terribly disappointed and frustrated by what's happened this season. And really, on behalf of the ownership group, the management, the coaches, the front office, whatever, I want our fans to know that we apologize, we sincerely apologize to every one of them for what they have had to endure this very disappointing season."

Things were once quite different for the two after Yamauchi purchased control of the Mariners in 1992. The Mariners made the postseason in 1995 and 1997, moved into Safeco Field in 1999, then returned to the playoffs in 2000 and 2001.

Forbes magazine this year valued the Mariners at $466 million, the 11th highest of the 30 major-league clubs.

But with the ballpark's newness fading, attendance slipping from 3.4 million to 2.2 million the past six years and the Mariners becoming the first team to lose 100 games while spending at least $100 million on payroll, questions persist about whether the current ownership arrangement is in the team's best interest.

The 80-year-old Yamauchi, a former Nintendo Corp. chairman with a personal fortune estimated at just under $8 billion, has never attended a Mariners game — though rumors he'll wake up at 5 a.m. to watch one on satellite television continue to persist.

Yamauchi transferred his 32-percent ownership stake in the team to Redmond-based Nintendo of America in 2004 for $67 million. But the transfer was to ensure there would be no personal estate complications in the event of his death.

In fact, Yamauchi remains a senior adviser on the board of Kyoto-based parent company Nintendo Corp., which mandated that he continue as titular head of the baseball club.

The Times expressed interest this summer in flying to Japan to interview Yamauchi and write a profile on him. But an interview request placed with the Mariners was declined.

Questions about Yamauchi's ownership surfaced this season when Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima was awarded a three-year, $24 million contract extension.

Sources within the organization, including Lincoln, have indicated that former GM Bill Bavasi had little to do with the move compared to others he handled during his tenure.

Lincoln has defended Yamauchi and the team's local owners, pointing at a payroll in the upper echelons of baseball. This past June, Lincoln said that every dime of profit made by the club — including $17.8 million last year and $23.3 million in 2006 — had been poured back into running the Mariners and had not gone into owners' pockets.

And yet, as good as Lincoln has been at making money for the team, some insist he and Armstrong lack the on-field baseball savvy to put the right field personnel in place. And those observers say that Larson, a baseball fanatic said to have an extensive memorabilia collection, would have the common sense to step back and let the baseball experts run any team he had control over.

Armstrong has come under increased fire for his hands-on approach to running the team under interim GM Lee Pelekoudas. The Mariners have completed only one trade since Pelekoudas took over — reliever Arthur Rhodes going to the Marlins for a Class AA pitcher — while Armstrong nixed a Jarrod Washburn deal to Minnesota, overruled a Raul Ibanez trade to Toronto and has had a strong hand in turning down other potential moves.

Lincoln said it's unreasonable to expect owners to be completely hands-off when it comes to "multimillion-dollar, long-term contracts." But he insists that, when it comes to the new GM, he and Armstrong "will give this person all the authority he needs."

Part of what the pair plans to do differently this time is be much more rigid in the questions they pose to GM candidates. They will have a list of criteria they plan to cover and will pose the same questions to all, placing less emphasis on the conversational part of the interview and more on the specific answers given.

There will also be a list of issues specific to the club — such as what to do with pitcher Erik Bedard — so that they'll know what the candidate is thinking before they are hired.

"You can't please everybody," Lincoln said. "But I can tell you that we have worked very hard over a number of years to try to make the right decisions. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don't.

"But quite frankly, this is our 17th season with this ownership group and this management of the team. And owning and operating the Mariners, we've had a number of significant challenges over the years. ... I'm very confident that we will meet this challenge. But I'm certainly aware that we've got some very upset fans."

And unless this latest challenge is overcome, their numbers seem sure to grow.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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