(Mariners majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, right, shown at a 1999 news conference in Tokyo with Yoichi Morishita, president of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.).
It’s my favorite bit of Mariners trivia: They are (surely) the only team in professional sports history whose owner has never seen them play.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, who stepped in to buy controlling interest in the Mariners from Jeff Smulyan in 1992 when they were on the verge of leaving for Tampa Bay, not only has never seen the Mariners play; the Nintendo founder has not stepped foot in the United States, I am told, during his 20-year tenure as Mariners majority owner. Yamauchi transferred his stake — about 55 percent — to Redmond-based Nintendo of America in 2004 for estate-planning purposes, but retains control of the team.
In fact — and this staggers me even more — according to a gem of an interview with Yamauchi from the Seattle Times that ran July 16, 1992, he had at that point never been to a baseball game, period. He was 64 at the time. There’s a chance he’s taken in a ballgame in Japan in the ensuing years. Yamauchi is 84 now and retired as president of Nintendo, so his traveling days are no doubt over. But now he has a golden opportunity to finally see his Mariners play, when they arrive in Tokyo shortly to open the season with two games against the Oakland A’s on March 28 and 29. Prior to that, they will play exhibition games aganist the Hanshin Tigers (March 24) and Yomiuri Giants (March 26).
Here’s what we know: Yamauchi won’t be doing any interviews with the Seattle media during the Mariners’ visit. Geoff Baker, who is covering the games for the Seattle Times, put in a request, as have other media outlets. The Mariners say that Mr. Yamauchi (as he is universally referred in Mariner circles) has decided not to do any interviews. I’m not surprised, I must say. When I went to Japan in 2000 to cover the first MLB regular-season games played there, between the Mets and Cubs (one of the highlights of my sportswriting career), I tried long and hard to set up an interview with Yamauchi, who is based out of Kyoto. No luck whatsoever. (Someone at our paper even whimsically suggested I should do a “Roger and Me” style confrontation at Nintendo’s offices. But I didn’t see much upside to that).
As far as I can tell, the aforementioned interview with the Seattle Times’ Molly Martin — who travelled to Kyoto and went through numerous hoops to land a sit-down session with Yamauchi — is the only one he’s done with a Seattle media member regarding the Mariners. And, lo and behold, it’s been archived online by the Seattle Times. I’d highly recommend reading it to get a flavor of the man who has been the hidden financier of the Mariners for two decades.
One telling passage:
Yamauchi laughs, a bit uncomfortably, when I ask if it’s true he doesn’t like the game.
“It’s not a matter if I like it or not,” he says. “I would not say I would like it, and I would not say I dislike it. It’s something like that, I would say.”
Yamauchi tells Martin he had been to Seattle not more than a half-dozen times and never taken a long look around.
I ask if he is familiar with the name Ken Griffey Jr. He shakes his head. I explain that Griffey is the star player for the Mariners and that there has been some talk about him doing a baseball video game with Nintendo. Does Yamauchi know anything about that, or are there are such projects that he wouldn’t necessarily be involved with?
“Things like that often are handled by Nintendo of America alone. With major subjects, I usually am informed,” Yamauchi says, smiling slightly. The sarcasm comes through clearly this time.
Yamauchi has always viewed his investment in the Mariners as a thank you to Seattle for being so welcoming to Nintendo of America. His son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, who at the time was president of Nintendo of America, was the liaison between Yamauchi and Senator Slade Gorton in seeking his financial backing. I’m told that Tatsumi Kimishima, who succeeded Arakawa as president of Nintendo of America, will attend the Mariner games in Japan, and that Satoru Iwata, the current president of Nintendo (succeeding Yamauchi upon his retirement), will be at the first game, perhaps both.
Will Mr. Yamauchi finally attend a Mariners game? His previous opportunity to do so in Japan evaporated in 2003 when the Mariners’ scheduled games with the A’s in Tokyo were canceled because of the impending Iraq war. He also was on hand at the press conference in Japan to announce relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki’s signing in 1999, and I’m pretty sure he was present at Ichiro’s Japanese introduction in November of 2000. Ichiro is said to have an audience with Mr. Yamauchi during each offseason. As for these upcoming games, the Mariners say they honestly don’t know yet if Yamauchi will attend.
He has other things to worry about right now. Forbes has just come out with its billionaires list, and Yamauchi — once the 149th richest person in the world with a net worth of approximately $7.8 billion, according to the magazine, is now ranked 491st with a net worth of $2.5 billion. The magazine notes that “Yamauchi has seen his wealth halved by the company’s falling stock price. Over the past year, Nintendo’s share price plummetted 55% on disappointing year-end sales of its video game software, handhelds and consoles, widely blamed on an aging product lineup.”
His baseball team’s not doing so well these days, either, but at least they don’t have an aging lineup anymore. We’ll find out soon if Mr. Yamauchi breaks his 20-year streak of never watching them play.
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