Baseball Jingoism

January 25, 1992

Maryland baseball fans should not be as quick as Commissioner Fay Vincent to oppose the proposed sale of the Seattle Mariners.

A group of Seattle business leaders, including top executives of major corporations like Boeing and Microsoft, want to buy the club for cash from its absentee owner, who has in the past tried to move it elsewhere. The perfect deal, you think? Not in the eyes of Mr. Vincent or, it seems, many owners of other baseball clubs. Strange? Organized baseball is supposed to prize local ownership, especially when the buyer has deep pockets and includes a dominant partner.

So what's wrong? In this case the dominant partner is the family that controls Nintendo. It is Japanese. No matter that the proposed managing partner has lived in the Seattle area for 15 years and supervises the entertainment company's 1,400 employees in that region. In Mr. Vincent's eyes they are foreigners and thus unfit to participate as owners in our national pastime. So unfit that he is not even prepared to discuss the subject.

Some cynics detect a whiff of racism. The owners eagerly sought to place two major league teams, owned by Canadians, in Canadian cities. And the owners aren't upset about all the Caribbean players down on the field. But at the moment, resentment against Japanese trade practices and Japanese purchase of high-profile properties in this country is running high. Would the baseball moguls be as opposed to a European buyer? Probably not. Yet we suspect their opposition is based not on racism or jingoism but on simple greed.

The Mariners' present owner, who lives in Indianapolis, has said he will sell the team to another city if no local group will buy it. The leading contender is St. Petersburg, Fla. which built a domed stadium a couple of years ago in hopes of attracting a major league baseball team. The Mariners are not a profitable club, though attendance last year suddenly soared past 2 million as the team caught on with Seattle's fans. There is lots more money to be made in sunny St. Petersburg along Florida's booming West Coast. And that's where the baseball oligopoly wants the franchise to go.

Sports fans around here have good reason to sympathize with their compatriots in Seattle. Would Baltimoreans have seen foreign ownership as a greater evil than losing the Colts? Didn't we sweat enough over the fate of the Orioles until a long-term contract was signed for the new ballpark? There may be good reasons -- mostly emotional, but still valid -- to question the wisdom of permitting foreigners to buy an organized sports franchise. But they deserve to be discussed, not stifled by a hasty rejection.

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