Smulyan sings Seattle blues to owners Local buyer sought, but club likely to move

December 11, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI BEACH,FLA. — MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan met with the other American League owners at the winter meetings yesterday to discuss the future of his team, which seems almost certain to move out of Seattle.

The Mariners were put up for sale last week for $100 million, but the likelihood of finding a local buyer seems remote. If none is found within 120 days, the club apparently will abandon its lease and leave for a more attractive metropolitan area.

"I truly believe that if the franchise isn't sold in 120 days, we have the right to leave Seattle," Smulyan said.

It might not be that simple. King County, Wash., officials, who operate the Kingdome, are threatening litigation if the Mariners try to get out of their lease, which runs through the 1996 season. But Smulyan said that a lawsuit isn't going to change the poor environment for baseball in Seattle.

"The key is that you won't find a solution to make baseball work in Seattle," he said. "I couldn't do it. George Argyros couldn't do it when he owned the team. The Danny Kaye group couldn't do it. You have to find a solution. You can't litigate successful baseball in Seattle."

The Mariners are the smallest of the small-market teams, and they never have been able to compete in the American League West. Smulyan would not speculate on a better location, but it seems likely that the club would move to the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., area if no local buyer is found.

HTC The other American League owners apparently support his position, though moving the team could put the league in a legal battle with Seattle for the second time in 23 years. There also was litigation when the expansion Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee after spending just the 1969 season in Seattle.

"The possibility is out of our hands," American League president Bobby Brown said. "We have to do what is best for the Mariners."

The team drew more than two million fans last year, but broadcast revenues are far lower than those of teams in similar markets. With payrolls routinely surpassing $20 million, the Mariners are finding it harder and harder to compete on the field or in the ledger.

"If it becomes apparent that, one, he can't sell the club and, two, he tries to continue to operate the club under the conditions that exist, he faces the possibility of bankruptcy," Brown said. "The league obviously wants to avoid that. The league wants to preserve the viability of the Mariners. We can't afford the bankruptcy of the club."

Smulyan said the Mariners are not close to filing for bankruptcy, but his team could become an ownership exhibit for baseball's economic study committee. Commissioner Fay Vincent said *T recently that he is optimistic that some kind of revenue sharing program will eventually be agreed upon by baseball ownership and the Major League Players Association.

That was not the focus of Smulyan's comments. His complaint was purely local.

"The problem is in Seattle, Washington," he said. "We have never approached the revenue of any other club. We don't expect to be up there with the Yankees, but we should be [comparable] with the Milwaukee Brewers."

Smulyan said that no serious buyer has come forward since he placed the team on the market.

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