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 area.
"I truly believe that if the franchise isn't sold in 120 days, we have the right to leave Seattle," said Smulyan, who yesterday cut his broadcast company's debt in half with the sale of WFAN-AM in New York City for $70 million.
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.
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."
* WHEELIN' WHITEY: Angels senior vice president Whitey Herzog completed two more trades yesterday and signed lefthanded starter Chuck Finley to a four-year, $18.5 million contract a year before he would have become eligible for free agency.
The deals were not quite as earth-shattering. Former Oriole Dave Gallagher went to the New York Mets for outfielder Hubie Brooks, and pitcher Chuck Crim was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for two young pitchers. But the Angels have dominated the otherwise quiet meetings, and Herzog has re-established himself as one of the game's most decisive executives. He has made three trades and completed a major free-agent signing, and he said he isn't done yet.
"We hope to get Kirk McCaskill signed in the next day or two," Herzog said. "That would give us four good starters and [Bryan] Harvey. Hopefully, we'll be able to score some runs for them."
The Angels have made headlines since they arrived in Florida. They acquired outfielder Von Hayes from the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday and lost free-agent first baseman Wally Joyner to the Kansas City Royals on Monday.
Herzog is gambling on two players -- Brooks and Hayes -- who are coming off injury-marred 1991 seasons. But the Angels feel they have to make major changes to get back in contention in the AL West.
"We're taking some gambles," Angels manager Buck Rodgers said, "but I think we have to take some. We're trying to patch some things together and let some kids play."
Brooks would have been the odd man out in a Mets outfield that includes Vince Coleman, newly acquired Bobby Bonilla, Howard Johnson and Kevin McReynolds. Brooks figures to get 400 or more at-bats as a designated hitter and reserve outfielder.
* DUNCAN SIGNS: Free-agent infielder Mariano Duncan has agreed to terms on a three-year contract with the Phillies that could pay him as much as $6.2 million.
Duncan batted .258 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs for the Cincinnati Reds last year.
* NO WAY, JOSE: Agent Dennis Gilbert and Oakland Athletics officials laughed off a published report in New York that the A's and Yankees are discussing a trade involving outfielder Jose Canseco.