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April 16, 2013 at 5:02 AM

If Mariners are ever going to transition to local ownership, now’s their chance

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Last night, on The Geoff Baker Show on Sports Radio KJR, a listener asked me about the Mariners and their front office and ownership situation and whether I could foresee any big changes coming.

It got me to thinking long and hard once the show was done and the answer is, yes, I can envision changes sooner rather than later. Pretty soon, actually. About three months ago, when the Mariners had started to sign a bunch of one-year deals with some free agents, a person well-connected around the game of baseball told me the team had quietly been making the rounds with other owners, testing them out about their views on a possible majority ownership change for the Seattle baseball club.

In fact, I was told in no uncertain terms, that the club was going to announce a change very early on in the 2013 regular season. Right after spring training is what was said to me. Now, I’ve learned over the past 18 months since I began writing in ernest about the club’s ownership to take such proclamations with the proverbial grain of salt.

You don’t just change owners overnight. This isn’t a car being sold. It’s a baseball franchise that, when the pending new TV deal is finalized within the next two years, will be worth upwards of $1 billion.

So, much preparation goes into that.

And we’ve seen it continue to play out this spring. Felix Hernandez was locked up long-term. Construction work on the team’s new spring training facilities revamp is set to begin and all long-term deals of any consequence have been allowed to expire other than Hernandez’s new contract.

The Mariners opened this season with a lean, trim payroll of well below $80 million for the 25 guys on the field right now. In other words, nearly a blank canvas for somebody new to start with.

The question is who and when?

The Mariners have long denied they are for sale and that would technically be true if all we’re going to see here is a transfer of the team’s majority stake to a current minority owner. ¬†Of all the minority partners, John Stanton of Bellevue fits the bill as the most likely candidate to succeed Hiroshi Yamauchi — who still has titular control of 55 percent of the team after transferring his shares to Nintendo of America for estate-planning purposes.

So, what about the whole “when” part?

Well, if it’s early season the Mariners hope to announce things in, this week is as good as any.

The team is still at home for a series against the Detroit Tigers. They hit the road after that and by then, we should know the outcome of the Sonics announcement and you can expect that to dominate the headlines for a while.

Really, at this point, why would the Mariners want to wait longer? The team is off to a sluggish 6-8 start, players are dropping like flies with Stephen Pryor the latest to go on the DL. He’s going to miss quite a bit of time. Attendance is dropping almost as fast as the players. In other words, this team needs some buzz. It needs some new blood. Most importantly, it needs fans to believe that more than just the same old, same old is coming their way.

Remember what I said about my connected baseball source discussing the possible ownership change in connection with all the one-year deals the Mariners were signing over the winter?

Well, the context behind those comments was that the source felt money would become available to the Mariners in-season that wasn’t around back in December and January.

In other words, if a minority owner like Stanton was to assume control of the team, he could make the mid-summer call to extend a player like Michael Morse if he saw fit. Hernandez was a known quantity around these parts and any incoming owner with a degree of sense would want him locked up ahead of time for marketing purposes as well as any on-field performance.

As for Morse, better to see how he performed on the field in the early going and then have a new owner make that call. Not only Morse. Possibly Kendrys Morales as well. Maybe both, perhaps one or maybe none. The bottom line is: that was a decision for the new owner to make once in place.

And knowing both players will be free agents after the season, the new owner would have to assume control well before that point.

Anyhow, that was the theory and it made sense.

It makes even more sense today given the state of team attendance and the need for some uplifting news for fans who have long clamored for a more visible, hands-on owner.

Any new majority owner would likely want to install his own people as well, either right away or eased in over time. But the first guy you think of who would fall into that category would be team president Chuck Armstrong. For years, it’s been rumored that Magnolia resident Pat Gillick might eventually be called upon to replace Armstrong as team president if a majority ownership change were to occur.

Back in the day, it was minority owner Chris Larson that everybody thought would take over the team with Gillick as his presidential choice. Now, not so much. But Larson and Stanton are good friends, so you’d have to think Gillick would somehow find a way to have a place in a newly-arranged order of things.

That doesn’t mean Armstrong gets kicked to the curb unceremoniously. But it could involve lessening his responsibilities on a day-to-day basis.

Anyhow, that’s getting too into the finer details.

Right now, the team’s ownership situation is the big picture question. With a TV deal looming and potential competition from an NBA franchise on the immediate horizon, it’s time for the Mariners to figure out where they’re going the next few years and start getting there as soon as possible.

Waiting at this stage doesn’t help. Anything and everything you would expect a team to do ahead of a sale of internal ownership transfer has been done — including the sprucing up of the stadium with that giant-sized video board.

Now, it’s up to the Mariners to make their move, if indeed they plan to make one at some point this year. In a few days, the NBA could steal center stage in Seattle for the next few months.

I’ll be curious to see what happens this second-half of April. Right now, the Mariners — forgive me Sounders — are the only real game in town. But that isn’t going to last very much longer with football season approaching and the NBA about to make a decision. If the Mariners are ever going to “get on it” with this ownership question, there’s no better time than right now.



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