Woeful as the Mariners are in this stubby season, woeful as they traditionally have been, they have met the standard to be termed a civic asset: Many people care.
While it’s also true that many people cared about the old Dog House restaurant in Belltown (“tenderness not guaranteed” was printed right on the menu, winning me over), no one was there to save that epicurean monument to gravy as a meal-repair tool.
Too bad Sen. Slade Gorton didn’t dare to dine there. His enthusiasm for bare-knuckles politics might have rescued the joint, in the manner that it saved the Mariners.
Instead, Gorton was a baseball fan. Long-timers hereabouts know the saga of Gorton’s role as patron saint of mediocre ball.
But upon his death Tuesday at 92, it is worthy of a re-visit, not just for the sakes of youngsters and newbies, but for all of us regarding what his time as one of the state’s most influential political figures says about Seattle and the long fight for the game to succeed here.
He will forever be remembered for what will remain one of top 10 quotes in Seattle sports history — no matter what anybody says.
Triumphant in 1976 when his lawsuit against MLB for hijacking the Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 (State of Washington v. Varmints, Privateers, Outlaws and Lee Van Cleef Lookalikes) resulted in a settlement that became the Mariners’ 1977 expansion franchise, then-state Attorney General Gorton had this to say about his adversaries, the club owners:
“They were a terrible bunch of people. My conclusion was that if any American League owner moved into your neighborhood, he would lower property values.”
Whatever else you may think of his Republican politics and many controversies, he won the pro-sports constituency with that observation.
After he became U.S. Senator a second time in 1989, Gorton was enlisted to help find a local buyer for the Mariners, whose owner, the charming but feckless Jeff Smulyan, was seeking to move the club to Tampa. The Kingdome was seen as no match for a Seattle summer, cable-TV revenues were negligible and crowds were small. MLB owners were about to have the last laugh on Gorton, pulling baseball out of Seattle again, this time for good.
In an interview for my 2002 Book, Out of Left Field, Gorton, born in Chicago and scion of the Gorton Seafood empire, offered a demographic snapshot of Seattle that I haven’t seen elsewhere, but explains a lot then about the 1950s and ’60s, and contrasts heavily with now.
When I first arrived, Seattle was profoundly different in one major respect: This was, perhaps more than any other American city of its size, quintessentially middle class. Coming from the East, my observation was that there were no slums typical of Eastern cities. There were also no great concentrations of wealth. The Boeing and Weyerhaeuser families had several generations to spread out their wealth. There was literally no one in Seattle to buy a major league franchise and operate it as a toy, at a loss, and spend money to be competitive.
If there were someone with that kind of money, he had no interest in sports. The Nordstroms had the Seahawks for awhile (1976-88), but they were never prominently mentioned with baseball. And in any event, baseball was a more expensive sport. Through the Pilots and early Mariners, there was never any logical person here to buy and treat them the way extremely wealthy families treated their teams in other cities.
In 1991, Gorton’s only move to help the Mariners was to go overseas and attempt to cash in a favor.
His work on the Senate’s commerce committee allowed him to pound on the FBI and U.S. Customs to produce more serious enforcement of the U.S. electronic piracy laws, which helped cut down counterfeiting and theft of intellectual property by China, Taiwan and South Korea, among others.
Many software makers were grateful. The leader of one such beneficiary of Gorton’s political muscle, Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi of Kyoto, Japan, was called upon by Gorton.
He wanted Yamauchi to do a solid for the community that helped launch, from a warehouse in the Green River Valley, Nintendo’s highly successful Super Mario video game. Gorton wanted Yamauchi to buy the local baseball team to keep it in Seattle.
Two days before Christmas in 1991, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo of America in Redmond, called Gorton.
“Mr. Senator,” he said, “my father-in-law says Seattle and the state of Washington have been very good to us. We have done extremely well here. We believe we owe something to the community. If you need $100 million to buy a baseball team, you’ve got $100 million.”
Half a world away, Gorton found his buyer.
The task wasn’t done. MLB actively resisted a foreign national owning the team. Gorton rode in again, calling the one owner he knew, Texas Rangers boss George W. Bush, to ask if he wouldn’t mind putting in a good word with his dad, George H.W. Bush.
The U.S. president soon called Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who told him there was no secret agenda at work to allow Japanese businessmen to take over American culture.
Political and public pressure melted the resistance of ownership. MLB approved the sale in the summer of 1991. The Mariners were safe at home, even though the club’s owner for the next 22 years never saw a Mariners game in person. Yamauchi died in 2013 at 85.
In the history of wacky ownership sagas, the Yamauchi-Gorton linkage that reached the White House and the front page of the New York Times is one in a million. Almost 30 years later, it also seems quaint in light of the money in Seattle these days.
Now, Seattle is home to the world’s two wealthiest people, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, plus three more in the top 25 (Steve Ballmer, Bezos’s ex-wife Mackenzie Scott, and Jody Allen, sister of the late Paul Allen).
As failing Boeing moves away from Seattle and staggers about on the world stage, the immense wealth brought by the tech boom (Microsoft went public in 1986) is forcing the once-robust middle class out of Seattle, while a homelessness crisis moves in, spreading to many areas around Puget Sound.
You may not believe this, but there’s a Los Angeles company that is spending about $1 billion to fix up an old city-owned building at no taxpayer expense in order to play expansion-level pro hockey there, along with some concerts.
In the span of Gorton’s professional life, Seattle went from from backwater to tsunami. Yet despite all the changes, the Pilots and Mariners remain tied for the most World Series appearances by a Seattle team.
Now, we wait with apprehension to see what’s left of progress after the pandemic ebbs. No Slade Gorton to bail us out now.