MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - The Seattle Mariners will likely be in town for the 1992 season.
Team owner Jeff Smulyan virtually assured that yesterday in announcing he had decided not to challenge King County's assertion that it would be illegal to move the team next year.
"We are not going to litigate that issue," Smulyan said after briefing fellow owners at their winter meeting here.
Smulyan also appeared to seal off another route of immediate escape, vowing not to declare bankruptcy and ask a federal judge to permit him to spirit the team away to Florida to pay debts.
But Smulyan - who scoffed at County Executive Tim Hill's charge he had sabotaged efforts to save the team by constantly threatening to move it - still refused to guarantee Seattle a team for 1992.
Team president Gary Kaseff, pressed on the issue later, conceded the team is likely to be in Seattle next year - unless someone buys it and moves.
But it appears increasingly likely it will be a lame-duck season for the Mariners if no local buyer emerges soon.
American League President Bobby Brown stood beside Smulyan at a press conference and said avoiding a bankrupt Seattle franchise is baseball's first responsibility. League officials will "look at every conceivable option" to avoid bankruptcy.
Brown would not rule out league approval of a franchise shift after 1992 if all those options - chiefly, the emergence of a Seattle buyer by March 28 - were exhausted.
"If it becomes apparent that, one, he cannot sell the club (locally) or, two, that he must continue in Seattle under the same conditions . . . that of course raises the possibility of bankruptcy," Brown said.
"The league is not very anxious for that."
Brown and Smulyan made it clear that local ownership is Seattle's best - and probably only - chance to save baseball.
"We believe that by putting the team up for sale under the lease, that if nobody comes forward in 120 days, that the franchise clearly has the right to leave Seattle," Smulyan said.
Hill sent an open letter to the citizens of Tampa-St. Petersburg, concluding, "I must tell you something you do not want to hear - The Mariners are Seattle's team and they will remain Seattle's team."
The letter was published on the front page of today's St. Petersburg Times under a headline reading, "Seattle to Tampa Bay: Drop dead."
In Seattle, the high-profile panel of political and corporate leaders trying to hang onto the Mariners bolstered its ranks and talked options for hours yesterday to try to find a local buyer.
The group meeting in Mayor Norm Rice's office included County Executive Hill, U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former Gov. Dan Evans, County Councilman Greg Nickels, businessman Herman Sarkowsky, Seattle Port Commissioner Paul Schell, Boeing Vice President Doug Beighle and about a half-dozen others.
After the meeting Rice said he wanted the community and baseball fans to know: "We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get cracking about keeping baseball here."
Under Sarkowsky's leadership, the group has begun exploring ideas to boost the team's revenues and find what Gorton termed "locally led ownership." The group will break into task forces and reconvene Dec. 17.
OPTIONS AND MORE OPTIONS
No one local buyer appears ready to buy the franchise, but numerous options and hybrids of options are afloat, including:
-- "Offshore investors": Gorton and Schell say Japanese or Taiwanese investors could help buy the team, probably with a local group as managing partner. By marketing the Mariners as a Pacific Rim team, the franchise could win lucrative TV contracts rivaling large markets, as well as the opportunity, as one observer said, "to sell Mariner dolls in Japan."
-- Regionalizing the team: Schell's idea to share home games and broadcast opportunities with Vancouver, B.C., and Portland is gaining credibility.
Gorton noted that a large number of Vancouver fans already travel to Seattle to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play.
-- Public investment in the team: One idea, from Councilman Nickels, has already surfaced. Nickels suggests transferring Kingdome management to a public-development authority, refinancing Kingdome bonds and using the proceeds to buy part of the Mariners.
Existing Kingdome revenue sources, not new tax dollars, would be used to pay off the debt.
Ultimately - say, four or five years from now - a public-development authority could build a new, retractable-roof stadium for baseball near the Kingdome. This would be another carrot to whoever purchases the team.
Executive Hill has serious reservations about refinancing the dome, mainly due to changes in state law that would be required. He is also concerned about depleting dome operating funds.
One possible new revenue source for replenishing Kingdome funds is a 1 percent surcharge on rental cars in King County, which could generate $2 million to $4 million a year.
If state lawmakers approve the tax, the money might also be used to create new revenue opportunities for the team, such as revenue-generating skyboxes and the "Jumbotron" scoreboards other owners like so much.
DECISION AVOIDS DISPUTE
County officials say Smulyan could legally move the team before 1996 only if Kingdome attendance falls below certain levels and no local buyer emerges within 120 days after an announced sale.
The two parties disagree over how soon the team could leave assuming attendance was insufficient. County lawyers say the team must serve an additional 120 days' notice after the 120-day local-buyer period expires. Smulyan argued those two 120-day periods could run concurrently.
Smulyan said in Miami yesterday he still believes he's right, but that he simply decided not to press the issue in court now - particularly when the attendance question itself is in doubt.
If anyone suggests the team has not complied with the lease, "that will be adjudicated," Smulyan said. "We're more than willing to do that." He did not elaborate.
RADIO STATION SOLD
Smulyan said he assumed two weeks ago a revenue package organized by Seattle businessman Herman Sarkowsky would come together and keep the team in Seattle for as long as six years. That prompted him to make a decision to sell New York sports radio station WFAN.
"We made a decision to make a sale in our broadcast company. It was something I would not have done" had he known he would put the team up for sale.
The sale of WFAN-AM for $70 million to Infinity Broadcasting cuts his broadcast company's debt in half.
"It more than takes care of a lot of financial problems people thought I had," he said.
Rumors about WFAN's sale had circulated for months.
Several stations in Smulyan's Emmis Corporation broadcast empire have been on and off the selling block the past year. Smulyan always has maintained the broadcasts holdings are separate from the Mariners.
The station was valued at less than $15 million four years ago, and Smulyan said, "The fact that we made $55 million on the sale of a radio station means we must be doing something right."
Smulyan said last week there was "some truth" to reports he needed to choose between selling stations and selling the team.
Smulyan has owned the Mariners for two years. In that time, the nationwide slump in media markets has shrunk his broadcast holdings from 11 stations to six. Of those six, a Boston station has been on the market for two years.
Analyst Paul Leonard of the Starr Media Group in Dallas said many were surprised that Smulyan sold the well-known station.
Smulyan helped initiate the concept of an all-sports format at WFAN, and persevered until it paid off.
He denied reports that the sale was forced by Morgan Stanley, the bank that financed both Emmis and the Mariners.
Smulyan said the WFAN sale retired all of Emmis' senior debt and will allow retirement of about half its total debt.
-- Information from Associated Press was used in this report.