Shortly after he bought from George Argyros the woebegone Seattle Mariners for $76 million — the adjective used in 1989 to describe that sum was “whopping” — I had a chance to ask Jeff Smulyan an impertinent question. As a recently appointed sports columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I assumed impertinence was the mandatory minimum requirement for the job.
“I’ve been told by people who know him that George is the kind of negotiator who cuts your balls off and then buys you a beer,” I said. “True?”
A wan smile crept across Smulyan’s tanned, handsome face.
“George,” he said, “owes me a beer.”
The answer offered the sort of self-deprecating wit that bought him some slack when attempting to build success from a pile of mud, moss and leaves.
Longtime Seattle sports fans will recall that almost everyone in those days enjoyed Smulyan — glib, accessible, enthusiastic and, judging from the abrupt success of Emmis Broadcasting, his Indianapolis-based radio empire credited with inventing sports-talk radio, a marketing whiz. He was nothing like Argyros, a real-estate baron from Orange County with the temperament of a grizzly with hemorrhoids.
Quality marketing was what Smulyan thought would turn around one of the most futile enterprises in sports. He did it well — TV commercials so clever that some players insisted on being included, funny videos on the Kingdome screen, singles night, Top 10 lists, the Moose.
The baseball side contributed Ken Griffey Jr.
When Smulyan in 1990 helped baseball engineer a reunion in the Mariners outfield with the pending superstar and his father, former All-Star Ken Sr., dads and sons across America spasmed into blubbery fits so scary that many female loved ones called 911.
Smulyan’s derring-do almost worked. Until it became derring-don’t.
He had T-Rex arms when the financials required a long reach. His under-funded three years on borrowed money created the shortest ownership tenure among Seattle’s history with major league pro teams.
Which is as apt a reason as any for titling his newly published career memoir, “Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down: The Ups, Downs and Reinvention of An Entrepreneur” (BellaBellaBooks.com).
The chapter devoted to his Mariners saga is even more apt: “From Genius to Idiot.”
“I’ve recommended to a number of businesspeople that they should be a pariah at least once,” he said, chuckling during a phone call from Los Angeles, where he is on the board of trustees for his alma mater, USC. Smulyan, 75, sounded mostly over the bitterness that surrounded his exit. Mostly.
“I never realized how cynical Seattle was toward baseball,” he said, backsliding. His marketing efforts failed to stop losing money and games. In 1991, he triggered an escape clause in the lease with King County for the Kingdome. The book offered a shiv of an anecdote that he claimed captured the ennui for ball in the dome.
Smulyan was invited to be the after-dinner speaker for a group of accountants in Tacoma. Before he spoke, his host, a sports fan but otherwise unidentified, regaled Smulyan with how much he and his friends enjoyed Seahawks Sundays, partly because the commuter train made transit so easy. He asked where the Mariners’ train stop was.
“I said, ‘The King Street Station — we also play at the Kingdome,'” Smulyan wrote. “He was incredulous: ‘How long have you been doing that?’ I said, ‘For many years, since they built the Kingdome.’ His voice tailed off as he said, ‘I’ll be damned . . .’
“When a civic leader — and a sports fan — has no idea where his MLB team plays, you know you have a problem.”
Smulyan’s despair apparently was reinforced by one of Seattle’s eminent business leaders of the day, Herman Sarkowsky, who was a member of the Seahawks’ original ownership team led by the Nordstrom family. He also was big into racing horses at Longacres. He had become a friendly adviser to Smulyan.
“The day before we had to trigger the escape clause, (team executive and friend Gary Kaseff) and I went to see Herman in his spacious office atop one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. I asked him point-blank what he would do if he were me. His answer was terse: Jeff, if I owned this team, I would move it in the middle of the night and never look back.There’s no support for you or anyone in this town for baseball.”
In the winter of 1991, Sarkowsky wasn’t far off. After Smulyan triggered the 90-day escape clause, Sen. Slade Gorton went on a panicky search for a lead buyer that took him to Kyoto, Japan, and Hiroshi Yamauchi. The billionaire owner of the Nintendo video-game colossus sweeping America agreed to do the influential senator a favor.
To the astonishment of Seattle and major league baseball, Yamauchi and a group of local investors from the tech community paid Smulyan $112 million. Yamauchi became the first foreign national to own a team in MLB, where he was solidly opposed. But public outcry shamed MLB into relenting.
The acceptance also thwarted MLB’s unspoken desire to move the Mariners to Tampa, a town whose spec-built, empty ballpark had been used several times by teams to extort their municipalities into lease concessions.
Wrote Smulyan of the MLB ownership committee of the time:
“We were viewed as aggressive young owners with the marketing skills that baseball wanted. The ownership committee even noted that, ‘if these guys can’t turn around the Mariners, it will prove the point that the franchise is hopeless, and we’ll send the team to Florida.'”
My guess is that the Tampa move was always in Smulyan’s back pocket. As long as he appeared earnest in trying, MLB’s old-boys club would take care of him. And they did. Smulyan’s three years of labor in allegedly moribund Seattle gave him a $36 million profit upon sale. That’s why there’s always a long line of suitors waiting to buy their way into a federally-protected monopoly.
The most irksome aspect of the Smulyan saga was the miscasting of Seattle’s potential enthusiasm. As I wrote numerous times in my P-I days:
Seattle was never a bad baseball town. It was a town of bad baseball.
None among Smulyan, Argyros and the original group headed by entertainer Danny Kaye had the chops for investing in player salaries and development. That’s why Seattle’s 15-year meander to a winning season was slowest for an expansion team in U.S. pro sports history, and the absence from the playoffs for 21 years was the longest active streak. Two different stadiums, but similar results.
In a time of exploding player salaries, the current owner group, led by telecom billionaire John Stanton, has the wealth necessary to play the big-boy front-office game. The group has delivered consecutive 90-win seasons, has more premier prospects in the system, and received praise for moving the franchise toward top-10 status.
Yet the franchise history lingers like the acrid odor of a spent campfire.
Perhaps the arrival of Smulyan’s memoir will serve as a reminder to his successors that the ride from genius to idiot is breathtakingly stubby.