Flynn's Harp: Ellis recalls Mariner drama of 20 years ago
John Ellis, who was a reluctant CEO looking forward to retirement when he was called on 20 years ago to help find local owners to save the Seattle Mariners’ franchise, admits that he wasn’t even a baseball fan when he undertook the almost-lost cause of saving baseball for Seattle.
“I didn’t know much about baseball and wasn’t really a baseball guy,” Ellis admits, reflecting back on the events of late ’91, early 1992. And he didn’t really understand how deeply embroiled he would become when he undertook the role that Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, and subsequently other business leaders, urged on him, a role in which he soon found how challenging saving the franchise would be.
“I’m not sure if, to this day, anyone really knows how close we were to losing this franchise,” says Ellis, who eventually served as chief executive officer of the Seattle Mariners and remains, 13 years after retirement, the team’s primary representative to major league baseball.
It’s a tale that deserves to be retold at a time when, rather than preparing a celebratory anniversary event for the Mariners to applaud what was achieved two decades ago, community leaders and baseball fans seem intent on railing against the Mariners for a variety of perceived shortcomings.
It was in the midst of last week’s outcry over the Mariners’ push back on the idea of a new arena that they legitimately pointed out could bring a couple hundred more traffic-generating events a year to the Sodo neighborhood that I visited with Ellis over lunch. It was a visit scheduled several weeks ago so the controversy itself wasn’t the topic of conversation, other than a brief, frustrated reference to it by Ellis.
I wanted his reflections on those tense days in late 1991, early ’92, when an unlikely alliance of a dramatically wealthy Japanese businessman, a group of wealthy young local tech executives and a couple of senior community leaders was cobbled together to keep major league baseball in Seattle.
Ellis, as CEO of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Power & Light Co., had agreed to serve as an advisory board member to Mariner owner George Argyros, then to succeeding owner Jeff Smulyan, both commitments made as a community leader rather than baseball devotee. Thus he was logical member of a special advisory group Seattle’s mayor turned to when it became clear Smulyan intended to sell the team.
“Norm’s idea was for us to go out and find someone to buy the team, which at that point was appraised at $100 million,” Ellis recalled. “After poking around for awhile looking for a possible buyer, we finally told the mayor we couldn’t find anyone crazy enough to put up $100 million to buy a baseball team.”
At that point, Ellis figured he could go ahead with his plan to retire as CEO of the region’s largest investor-owned utility, get on his boat and set out on a leisurely cruise to Alaska, as he had long planned to do.
But over that late December of ’91, Sen. Slade Gorton’s own efforts on behalf of saving the Mariners uncovered, to his astonishment, in a visit with Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa, an interest by his father in law, Haricho Yamauchi, purported then to be the third richest man in Japan, to buy the Mariners.
Ellis was quickly sucked into a furious effort to figure out how to get major league baseball, whose antipathy to any foreign ownership but Japanese ownership most of all, to even consider Yamauchi’s offer while averting a sale to someone else that would render meaningless any Seattle effort.
After an aborted effort by “a totally naïve local group, led by the most naïve guy of all (referring to himself)” to meet with commissioner of baseball, Ellis found himself summoned to a what he describes as “a secret meeting,” a “cloak-and-dagger”-like, assumed-name visit in St. Petersburg, FL, with unnamed major league owners.
Ellis arrived at the designated hotel and checked in for a meeting that never occurred with a small group of owners whose identity he never learned. But what did occur told him how close Seattle was to having the team leave before the efforts to save the franchise could even gain traction.
“I looked at the hotel shop across from the front desk and saw they were selling Tampa Bay Mariners shirts and hats,” he said. “That experience and a couple of others that followed made it clear that the deal to move the team to Tampa Bay was already in the works.
“The simple fact is that if we hadn’t put this together when we did, beating Smulyan’s contractual deadline to get out of his Kingdome lease, the team would have been gone,” Ellis said.
So as the Seattle-ownership deal began to gain traction, both the group of owners who had been brought together to join Yamauchi and Arakawa, and later, major league baseball executives as their opposition eased, insisted that Ellis be a part of the leadership of the team.
“At the June meeting of the owners, after all their conditions for our ownership group had finally been met, they told me they had two remaining conditions,” Ellis recalls. “First they said they wanted me to serve as the team’s rep to major league baseball, the person each team has who is empowered to act without anyone else’s approval.
“The other condition floored me,” he said with a smile. “They said they expected the owners’ rep to have a significant financial interest in the team. I replied ‘Can you tell me what you mean by significant?’ and they all broke out laughing because they had gotten to know me and knew the extent to which I could be involved. My financial role ended up being not very substantial.”
But his involvement as CEO, between then and his retirement at the age of 71 at the end of the ’99 season, was extensive and, as he recalls, every time he thought he’d be able to hand over the reins and head out on that boat trip to Alaska, a new challenge emerged.
First task was finding a new manager who would represent a statement. So after convincing Chuck Armstrong to come aboard as president and retaining Woody Woodward as general manager, he asked the two of them who should be the new manager “The guy atop both their lists was Lou Pinella.”
The events that unfolded between then and his retirement included the Kingdome roof collapsing, the players strike, the memorable end-of-season race to the league championship series in 1995, the struggle to get voter approval for a new stadium, legislative alternative when the vote failed.
Although he retired in 1999, the stage had been set with the players and team executives who would two years later set the American League record for victories in a season at 116.
Since 2000 he has been the franchise’s chairman emeritus, but has remained on the executive committee of major league baseball and has continued to be the Mariners’ representative to MLB and on the ownership committee.
He remains a one-of-a-kind in major league baseball: as the team’s retired top executive who never had more than a tiny piece of ownership but who is still viewed by the other teams’ owners as the most important voice of Seattle baseball.
Lowry recalls 1995 legislative pact that paved the way for Safeco Field
While John Ellis gets legitimate credit for his role in saving the Seattle Mariner franchise in 1992, of equal importance was Gov. Mike Lowry’s role three years later when he brought the franchise back from the edge by getting the Legislature to agree on a new-stadium funding package.
A 1995 ballot measure to impose a sales-tax increase to fund construction of a new stadium was pushed from hopeless to near passage by the miraculous late-season dramatics of the Mariners that included a memorable victory over the New York Yankees before a championship-series loss to Cleveland.
“After that sales-tax ballot issue failed by the razor-thin margin of about one-tenth of a percent, I remember Ellis calling a news conference to say the team would be put up for sale because it was losing a lot of money in the Kingdome,” Lowry told me Tuesday in an e-mail exchange.
Lowry recalled that he was approached by his longtime friends, public-relations executive Bob Gogerty and Boeing’s chief of governmental affairs, Bud Coffey, as well as the mayor and county executive, asking him to call a special legislative session to find a stadium-funding solution.
“I frankly wanted to do that,” Lowry said, “because they had run a great campaign in their narrow sales-tax ballot loss. It was a media campaign that featured tremendous commercials that had young kids who were playing baseball morphing into the actual Mariner players, like Ken Griffey with a tag line that I think went like ‘Heroes need a place to grow and become real.’”
Lowry says he called Ellis to ask if the owners could hold off on seeking to sell the team until he had a chance to see if he could get the lawmakers to agree to a brief special session limited to the Mariners’ issue.
“I frankly got a positive reaction from the legislative leaders,” Lowry noted. “I guess they didn’t want to lose the Mariners either.”
Thus in something that could probably have only happened in the political environment of yesterday, Lowry was able to work out a deal with key Democrats and Republicans from both houses on what he remembers as “a totally new funding package that was importantly different from the sale-tax measure.”
“It was composed of taxes that were mostly on the users and beneficiaries of the new stadium, like admission taxes and sports bar taxes,” he said. “As I recall, the only new tax in the package that was a stretch to say it was a beneficiary of the stadium was on rental cars.”
In recalling his feelings in undertaking the legislative initiative, Lowry said “I simply did not want Seattle and the state to have the image of losing that major sports franchise. That struck me as Rust Belt.”
Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs.