Frozen in time
Today in the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker has a helpful overview of the team’s ownership structure. It includes a list of the 17 participants in the ownership group and identifies those who sit on the board of directors (not completely clear is whether the board has any members without an ownership stake, or “independent directors” in corporate parlance, but from what’s been revealed in the past I don’t believe so).
Howard Lincoln is of course the most visible of these on a regular basis, since he acts as the team CEO as well, and as you probably know already, Hiroshi Yamauchi is (via Nintendo) the controlling shareholder. They are both significant people to be aware of in understanding team decisions – witness the Johjima extension a few years ago, or the noises already being made about Ichiro’s next contract. But perhaps the more important aspect this article gets across is just how fundamentally corporate this ownership group is. It’s embedded in their decisionmaking, how they present themselves publicly, the affiliations and even the personalities of the individual members.
What that means is that the team is inevitably going to be run using business principles and priorities, more than to gratify personal ambitions. We can argue about whether individual or corporate team ownership is a better model for operating a baseball franchise, but at any rate these characteristics aren’t going to change significantly unless the team is sold to a different person or group. Even if they had the resources, these owners probably would never spend like the Steinbrenners, but the team is also somewhat protected from the personal vagaries of things like a really messy divorce. This is also part of what leads to awkward expressions suggesting the team values being competitive (but profitable) over winning championships.
One other point to take from the article is that the ownership group has been remarkably stable. Death has produced the same amount of turnover within the group as has the sale of individual shares. And in describing who the owners are, it’s striking how often words like “former” get used. Even Yamauchi and the other Nintendo guys are largely retired or have emeritus roles at the company (although the way Japanese companies operate, they have much more influence than, say, Chris Larson has over the Microsoft of today). Some of the owners have gone on to second acts in business, particularly those in the wireless industry, whose institutions have morphed and evolved more frequently in the years since. But overall, it’s not just that the group looks like a Microsoft/Nintendo/Boeing consortium; considering that it was formed in response to calls for local business leaders to save the team from moving out of town, that’s to be expected. In reality, it’s a Microsoft/Nintendo/Boeing consortium that’s stuck in the early 1990s (remember McCaw Cellular?).
So if you wonder why the team takes detours from its rebuilding process to indulge in things like a Griffey farewell tour, it’s not just because the fans demand it, or that he has a great relationship with Chuck Armstrong. To a significant extent, the direction in which these owners have been taking the team is still defined by the times and the environment in which they bought it. I’m not saying that they’ve completely failed to adapt; payrolls did go up as the team brought in greater revenues from Safeco Field, and bringing in Zduriencik was somewhat of a shift from the past. But to really restore the Mariners as a competitive franchise, additional strides forward are required. The ownership group has been in place for nearly two decades; it’s time that they figure out how to move everyone beyond the glories of the first decade, and support further changes if they want the team to be relevant in their third decade.