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Originally published September 25, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified September 28, 2011 at 4:53 PM

Mariners' nearly invisible owners stand firmly behind struggling team

Nearly two decades after forming one of the more unique alliances in sport, two truths remain about Mariners owners: Their 17-member group is committed enough to have barely changed, and they still retain enough anonymity that even die-hard fans wouldn't recognize them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Investment

$449 million

Estimated value of Mariners franchise by Forbes magazine this year

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The prevailing wisdom among Mariners fans is that finding the team's owner requires a transpacific flight and a whole lot of luck.

But while Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi has not been to the United States since becoming the team's controlling shareholder in 1992, smaller owners can be found at games. Former Microsoft executive Chris Larson owns a 30 percent stake and has been seen giving friends and acquaintances field-level visits during batting practice, where they get to meet players and coaches.

Other minority owners, like Raymond "Buck" Ferguson, another ex-Microsoft executive, can be spotted doing the same thing.

Nearly two decades after forming one of the more unique alliances in sport, two truths remain about Mariners owners: their 17-member group is committed enough to have barely changed, and they still retain enough anonymity that even die-hard fans wouldn't recognize them.

"I'm not a public person," Ferguson said. "I always enjoy talking baseball when I'm down there. I don't enjoy talking about my involvement in the team or anything like that. I love baseball. I love this organization. It's had its ups and downs, but it's a good, solid organization."

But the Mariners have also lost 90-plus games three of the last four seasons and five times since 2003. And while owners have allowed the team to keep any yearly operating surpluses, they also have not been asked for new money since footing their share of Safeco Field construction costs more than a decade ago.

Ownership's role has become a heated topic, with the Mariners cutting payroll from $117.6 million in 2008 to about $94 million the past two seasons in a division increasingly competitive from a financial standpoint. The rebuilding Mariners face key decisions in coming years — including an extension for Ichiro beyond 2012 — and the willingness of owners to contribute more cash could be tested.

The owners initially paid $100 million to buy the team from Jeff Smulyan in 1992, then another $110 million for Safeco Field and to cover yearly operating losses.

For their investment, they get access to an owners' suite to entertain friends and clients, a private parking space, occasional prearranged field access, as well as access to prime tickets. All owners buy season tickets and some spend six figures annually on those and for additional tickets.

But while they get to play "owner" in some regards, there are no George Steinbrenner types answering daily for team decisions.

"They aren't there to make a buck or become famous," said John Ellis, an owner with a less-than-1 percent stake who serves a key role on the group's seven-member board of directors.

What brought the group together in 1992, he added, was a desire to keep the team from moving to Tampa Bay. Their subsequent anonymity is by design, allowing baseball moves to be answered for by team president Chuck Armstrong, while money calls are made behind the scenes.

In fact, several owners contacted last week expressed reluctance to comment, even to answer questions on their level of involvement and what they enjoy about it. Some placed subsequent calls to the Mariners to report being approached for interviews.

The closest thing the Mariners have to an owner who regularly answers business questions is CEO Howard Lincoln. He owns a small interest in the team and serves as chairman of the board of directors, which also includes Ellis.

Ellis had Lincoln's role from 1993-99 and says it was shaped that way to speak for owners with one voice. Other owners on the board include Yamauchi's son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, as well as chief minority shareholder Larson and local business magnates Frank Shrontz, Wayne Perry and Rob Glaser.

"We have regular meetings — actually monthly meetings — of the board and owners where normal things are discussed," Ellis said. "And management, which is Howard (Lincoln) as the CEO and Chuck (Armstrong) as the president, give them a rundown on what's going on and what decisions we're making. And the board listens, sometimes becomes involved. But most decisions are made by management and ratified by the board."

Only the board members can vote. But Ellis said the monthly meetings in a Safeco Field boardroom are attended by most owners, who get along well.

Lincoln agreed with that last week in supplying written answers to several ownership questions through a team spokesman.

"These meetings are well-attended, everyone participates — whether a director or not," Lincoln said. "And there are full and frank discussions of all matters involving the Mariners."

There has been only one significant ownership change, in 2000 when John McCaw, initially a 10-percent owner, sold to John Stanton for a reported $5 million. McCaw had already parceled off some shares to other owners, so it's not known how large Stanton's stake is.

Lincoln declined to provide information on the size of any owner's share.

One largely cosmetic change came in 2004, when Yamauchi transferred his stake — just over 50 percent — to Redmond-based Nintendo of America for "estate planning purposes." Yamauchi, who turns 84 in November, is the longtime patriarch of Nintendo's parent company in Japan and remains "titular head" of the team, giving him the same power as before.

One difference is that, if Yamauchi dies, his Mariners stake would remain with the company and not be subject to individual inheritance. Nintendo of America is well-served on the team's board, with Lincoln a longtime company executive and its official Mariners representative. Yamauchi's son-in-law, Arakawa, was Nintendo of America's first president for 22 years until retiring in 2002.

Lincoln confirmed that there have been no calls to owners for additional money since Safeco Field was built.

The previous decision to leave yearly surpluses within the team allowed the Mariners to use that to cover their only loss during the Safeco Field era — for $4.5 million in 2008 — rather than ask owners for more. But whether the team can keep future payroll from going anywhere but down without new-owner cash remains to be seen, given declines in fan attendance.

Owners have made modest paper gains on their $220 million spent, with Forbes magazine this year estimating total franchise value at about $449 million. But the value of prorated, non-controlling shares could be far less, while owners have given up the equivalent of stock dividends by allowing yearly surpluses to stay with the team.

And even a doubling of owners' money over a 19-year period would be less lucrative than good stock investments.

But owners haven't lost money and can still receive some tax breaks, while deriving unique pleasure from baseball. Depending on their involvement, that baseball emotion can be all-consuming.

"I can't really speak for the other guys, but when you're active ... you do live and die daily," Ellis said. "I mean, my God, when you're on a losing streak, you think you've come to the end of the world and when you win a couple of games, you think it's the biggest thing you've ever been through."

But some less-visible owners don't feel the same way.

Craig Watjen, one of the group's original members, died last year and his wife, Joan, controls the family shares. She said she no longer follows the team as closely.

"I don't live and die with them any more now that they're not doing so well," she said. "I don't even know the young people (players) right now who are involved."

Watjen said she still keeps up with the team by reading newspaper columns, but "hasn't really been" to any of the monthly meetings.

And going forward, the ability of owners to remain committed and passionate two decades in will be tested. It could determine the decade ahead in an unbalanced sport where winning often goes hand-in-hand with owners' willingness to open their pocketbooks anew.

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

Mariners owners
The team's ownership group includes 17 members.
Owner About
Nintendo of America Bought Hiroshi Yamauchi's majority stake for estate purposes
*Chris Larson One of original Microsoft employees; largest M's minority shareholder
*Minoru Arakawa Yamauchi son-in-law; former Nintendo of America president
John Stanton Founder of Voice Stream wireless
*Frank Shrontz Former Boeing chairman and CEO
*Rob Glaser Founder of RealNetworks
*Wayne Perry Former CEO of Nextlink Communications; co-founder of Edge Wireless
*John Ellis Past Mariners CEO and board chairman
John Bauer Consultant to Nintendo of America; former exec VP
*Howard Lincoln M's CEO and board chairman, Nintendo of America representative
"Buck" Ferguson Former Microsoft executive
Joan Watjen Wife of deceased owner Craig Watjen
Jeff Raikes Former No. 3 executive of Microsoft; chairman of Gates Foundation
Carl Stork Former Microsoft executive
Judith Bigelow Wife of Carl Stork; partner in Preston, Gates and Ellis law firm
Rufus Lumry Founder of McCaw Cellular, Acorn Ventures
Bill Marklyn Former Microsoft project manager
* Member of team's board of directors

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