NEW YORK - Major League Baseball's ownership committee unanimously recommended approval today for sale of the Mariners to the Baseball Club of Seattle.
The offer, with $48 million from the founder of Nintendo of Japan, will gain acceptance when the full baseball ownership votes tomorrow, predicted Fred Kuhlmann, chairman of the committee. He was joined in the prediction by Commissioner Fay Vincent and American League President Bobby Brown.
"The issue was control of a ballclub by interests outside North America," Vincent said. "We did the right thing and it was done unanimously after a lot of hard work by the ownership committee. The Baseball Club of Seattle made some significant changes in order to make this a reality."
Kuhlmann said the committee became comfortable with the bid in a hush-hush meeting with Baseball Club of Seattle representatives last Thursday when they agreed to give Baseball Club Chairman John Ellis control of much of the decision making within the organization.
Ellis increased his investment beyond the original $12,000, but Kuhlmann said the key was that Ellis has sole authority to approve an operating budget.
"I want to express the Baseball Club's appreciation for the steadfast support and patience of local interests," said Ellis. "This could not have happened without the efforts of our local elected officials, business supporters, and the fans who have continued to give us their encouragement."
The unanimous decision by the ownership committee was more than most people expected from the committee today. It came partly as a result of "personal dynamics that worked very well" at the secret meeting last week, said U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who was instrumental in putting the Baseball Club offer together.
"Today, every man, woman and child in Washington state can say now the Mariners are our team," Gorton said.
"This is just a happy day. The Baseball Club of Seattle is in existence and they are going to have the team," he said. "They nded up with a lot of respect for Jerry Reinsdorf. They found him to be a tough negotiator but fair-minded."
Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and a powerful member of the ownership committee, has been the most vocal critic of the Baseball Club. But it was Reinsdorf who made the motion to approve the sale today, Gorton said.
Seattle Mayor Norm Rice was overjoyed. It was Rice who last September named businessman Herman Sarkowksy to lead a business effort to raise $13 million to support the Mariners.
"I am more than pleased and ecstatic by the events of today," Rice said. "It's due to the Baseball Club and an extraordinary civic effort. You know people ask me who gets the credit. Every time I have seen something good happen for Seattle it's been because of a collective effort of the citizens."
For that reason, Rice and other community leaders are dusting off plans for a civic celebration in honor of the Mariners staying in Seattle. No date has been set.
"There's joy in Mudville today," said King County Executive Tim Hill, keeper of the Mariners' Kingdome lease. "Finally, we have resolved a problem that's been nagging this community for years. It's time to send the lawyers home."
Hill has promised in writing to give the new owners one of the most competitive leases in baseball. He'll need the blessing of the County Council to make good on that promise.
The agreements worked out at last week's session specify that Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo of Japan and the prime investor in the club, retains some control over team matters. Vincent described them as a few major matters, including another sale or dissolution of the team.
If approved by the full ownership tomorrow, the only hurdle left to clear is to complete the documentation for the deal. Kuhlmann says that refers to the decision-making power and some of the changes made last week, which at the time were not formalized in writing.
"Documentation should not be a problem," Kuhlmann said.
Kuhlmann said the Baseball Club of Seattle did not give up its right to sue baseball if the deal was not approved.
The Baseball Club "didn't waive the issue," Kuhlmann said. "We just decided to move it (the offer) along."
Yamauchi's final investment is $48 million, just under half the purchase price.
Kuhlmann said Ellis also has more power to stay in his decision-making position with the Baseball Club, which is run by a board of directors and has elected Ellis as the president. Kuhlmann said Ellis cannot be removed from that position for "arbitrary reasons." Among the few reasons that he could be removed would be for malfeasance, poor management or bankruptcy.
Jeff Smulyan, who was excused from voting on the committee but can vote tomorrow, walked out of the meeting with a big smile.
Perhaps that's because he will get a big price for his team. Of the $125 million offer to buy and operate the team, $106 million will be used to purchase the club and the rest to operate it.
"I'm relieved," Smulyan said. "We did our best. We gave it everything we had. It's time for other people." --------------------------------------------------------------- SALE CHRONOLOGY
Dec. 6: Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan points to skyrocketing salaries and poor Seattle market and puts team up for sale, triggering escape clause and leaving open the chance that the team may move before 1992. No local buyer in sight.
Dec. 9: Rick Dodge, St. Petersburg's city manager, talks briefly with Smulyan by phone, fueling fears in Seattle that Smulyan would move the team. King County Executive Tim Hill responds next day by telling Tampa Bay to keep its hands off team.
December: Nintendo contacted by U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton to buy team.
Dec. 11: Baseball owners express support for Smulyan, say money is Seattle's problem.
Dec. 19: Trying to save money, Mariners do not offer pitchers Rob Murphy and Scott Bankhead contracts. Bill Krueger later leaves as free agent.
Jan. 23: Nintendo-led group announces offer at news conference, with Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi of Japan agreeing to put up $75 million of $125 million to purchase and operate the team. Offer gets immediate thumbs-down from Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who cited baseball's policy against "Non-North American" ownership of its teams.
Jan. 28: Steve Greenberg, deputy baseball commissioner, leads retreat on Vincent's reaction, saying, "All of this debate we've had has been in the abstract."
Jan. 29: Baseball Club of Seattle investors John Ellis and Boeing Chairman Frank Shrontz meet with Mariners for first time, giving them application to buy team and get assurances that the team's books will be open to them.
Feb. 12: Hill says escape clause for 1992 season will be invalid because baseball dragged its feet on approving new owners. Feb. 19: Vincent meets in Washington, D.C., with state congressional delegation; tells group that Smulyan may stay for season and stumps for community support of baseball.
March 4: At spring meetings in Chicago, owners give first strong indication they might accept offer.
March 11: Ellis meets with Kuhlmann, Vincent, American League President Bobby Brown and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf in Tampa, is told the interest of Yamauchi needs to be reduced. March 18: Ownership committee meets in Dallas, gets partnership structure that puts Yamauchi in limited partnership and seven-member board as the general partner, with Ellis as president in charge of day-to-day decisions. Yamauchi also agrees to take voting stock that would reduce active interest below 50 percent.
April 3: Smulyan signs agreement to sell team, for more than $100 million.
April 8: Ownership committee meets in St. Louis, delays deal because Reinsdorf raises questions. Kuhlmann says, "If we wanted to scuttle the deal, we wouldn't still be working on it."
April 23: Reinsdorf makes first public comment since sale was announced. He says he plans to delay committee vote, pitches for Smulyan to get back into baseball, and wants more assurances that Yamauchi cannot regain control of team.
April 30: Ownership committee meets in Chicago, delays recommendation and asks to meet with Yamauchi and other investors. Some owners still stuck on protectionist idea that Japanese don't allow foreigners to buy their baseball teams.
May 23: Reports surface that stall in negotiations is due to baseball insisting on a legal waiver from the Baseball Club, and possibly county and state, not to sue if the deal is turned down.
May 26: Hill tells baseball to "shove it," prompting Smulyan to call him names.
June 4: Ellis and fellow investors Chris Larson, John McCaw, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln meet with Kuhlmann, Reinsdorf, Brown and baseball attorney Tom Ostertag in Chicago to see if movement can be made. Today: Baseball's ownership committee unanimously recommends approval of the Baseball Club offer to buy the Mariners.