Hiroshi Yamauchi: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be Our Hero

yamauchiImagine you’re a parent and you’re in a bind. You have a kid that you need to get rid of for an hour and there is nobody who can watch him for you. You don’t have a choice, either. You have to go do this thing without your kid, no matter what. You’re stuck, and now you’re sitting here hyperventilating with a child screaming in the backseat of your car, wishing you’d never procreated in the first place.

And then, all of a sudden, you get a call back from a trusted friend who’s willing and able to spend an hour with your kid. Saved! You rejoice. Everything has worked out for the time being. You leave the little one with your friend, go live up to your obligations for sixty minutes, and then return…to find…disaster.

Your kid is covered in mud – “We played outside for a bit,” says your friend, that asshole – and is chomping on Sour Punch candy straws – “He got hungry. But don’t worry, this is only his second box of those.” He’ll be up all night now, you think. And those clothes are ruined. And it’s not even bath night! You are incensed. You are speechless. You are also incredibly conflicted. You might as well be a Mariners fan.

How do you thank someone who has both rescued and destroyed what you love? How do you separate their acts of selflessness from their acts of utter bewilderment, their nobility from their negligence? These are the questions Mariner fans find themselves asking in the wake of the passing of team owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, a reclusive figurehead living a world away who both saved the franchise and ran it into the ground. Without Yamauchi, there may very well be no Seattle Mariners. With Yamauchi, though, there has never been much to celebrate. Twenty years of relative ineptitude yielding just four postseason appearances and a plethora of last-place finishes has brought us to this point.

This all began in 1992, just months after rumors surfaced that the team might be moving to Florida. With an ownership group led by businessman-slash-dickhead Jeff Smulyan, the M’s were in a precarious position. The team, a perennial loser throughout its 15-year existence, wasn’t drawing crowds or making money in Seattle. The city of St. Petersburg, Fla. had recently unveiled a brand new stadium, the Suncoast Dome, which was being used to entice Major League Baseball teams.

Smulyan and Co. wanted out by any means possible. Seattle sports fans didn’t want to lose their team. The two opposing sides each got what they wanted when Hiroshi Yamauchi and his Nintendo of America group emerged.

On July 1st, 1992, Yamauchi and Nintendo officially purchased the Mariners from Smulyan. The transaction was made with every intention of keeping the team rooted in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle sports fans celebrated the deal, an act of generosity further magnified by Yamauchi’s explanation for the purchase – a thank-you to the Seattle-area community, a community that had wholly embraced Nintendo and served as its American headquarters for years. This wasn’t about investing in a sports franchise for the sake of making money. This was philanthropy at its finest. Hiroshi Yamauchi was a hero.

In the years that followed, the Mariners embarked on their most successful tenure in franchise history, bookended by a miracle run to the playoffs in 1995 and a record-tying 116-win regular season in 2001. As quickly as the magic materialized, however, it was gone. Since that fateful 2001 campaign, the team has yet to return to the postseason. Along the way, they’ve managed to produce seven losing seasons, with an eighth just days away. They’ve finished in last place in the American League Western Division seven times since 2004. They’ve been among the worst teams in the game for ten years with only a smattering of hope on the horizon. In the past three seasons, marks for lowest attendance in Safeco Field history have been set and broken on a near-weekly basis, culminating in a sub-10,000 figure just days ago that currently sets the bar.

And it’s not just that people aren’t showing up. Sports fans in this town seem to hate the Mariners now, an emotion that was damn near impossible to come by a decade ago. Losing, combined with bad public relations – doing everything in the organization’s power to prevent the construction of a new multi-purpose arena that would host NBA and NHL teams is certainly not good PR – has disenchanted once-loyal Seattleites who previously lived and died by the fortunes of the team.

Spearheading the downfall has stood the very same man who proved heroic two decades earlier, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the owner who didn’t even really like baseball, who never even watched a game his team played, who turned the organization over to a bunch of bumbling American idiots that had no real experience running a sports team. Perhaps the sentiments of fans should never have found their way back to Yamauchi – it was his disciple, Howard Lincoln, who really controlled team operations, after all – but they did.

It’s not as if the vitriol was unjustified, however. In any good (or bad) company, direction starts at the top. In this case, Yamauchi retained the power to do as he pleased with this unfamiliar asset he had obtained. Instead, he absolved himself of any decision-making that pertained to the Mariners, preferring to focus his attention on matters more pertinent to the Nintendo organization. This left Lincoln with absolute control over something he could simply feign ignorance towards. Since 1992, Howard Lincoln has played the role of hapless lackey to a tee, choosing to thrust himself into the spotlight only in moments of success, opting to resign himself to the background (it’s Yamauchi’s team, after all) in the numerous instances of failure.

For that, it’s hard to blame Lincoln. Underlings rarely take bullets for their superiors if they don’t have to. But will they jump to seize accolades? Certainly. Lincoln has capitalized upon the relationship between boss and employee more than anyone in the history of American capitalism (okay, that might be an exaggeration, but you get the point). In doing so, he has left the Seattle Mariners without a true leader, subsequently leaving fans confused over who to blame for this entire mess.

And I’ll admit I’m one of the conflicted. For years, Yamauchi has been both a hero and a villain in my mind. When he rescued the team, I was seven years old. The Mariners were arguably the most important thing in my life at the time. I loved them. I had grown up with them. My entire wardrobe consisted of their colors and their logo. Had they left the city, I would undoubtedly be a completely different person than I am today. I love baseball, I love sports, I love Seattle, and all three of those loves were enhanced by the Mariners. As silly as it sounds, Hiroshi Yamauchi directly impacted my life. For that, he’s a hero.

But like the saying goes (help me out here, Batman), “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Yamauchi somehow achieved both titles, hero and villain, over his 85 years of life and 21 years as Mariners owner. To most fans, though, he’s little more than an enigma.

And perhaps that’s the most unfortunate part of Hiroshi Yamauchi’s lasting legacy. Despite his polarity, sports fans don’t see the Mariners’ owner as anything more than a mystery. He could be revered or reviled, loathed or loved. Instead, apathy reigns supreme. This could have been amazing. It should have been amazing. Instead, no one cares. No one cares about the Seattle Mariners.

Through two decades, Yamauchi and Nintendo shuttled the Mariners from afterthought, to relevance, back to afterthought. And now we’re right back where we started. More questions than answers, more losing than winning, more work to do to rise out of mediocrity and frustration.

Yamauchi agreed to watch our kid, then let that kid run amok the entire time he was supposed to be watching him. This was a rescue mission that was never seen through to the end, an act of valor that our savior lost interest in. It sucks, it absolutely sucks, that Hiroshi Yamauchi couldn’t be the hero we wanted him to be.

2 responses

  1. I guess the question is, are we better because of the Mariners or worse off? If the Mariners were to leave town at the end of the season how would the fans feel? Apathy? When you are a kid going to a Mariners game, winning isn’t what it’s all about, yes winning is nice, but seeing the your favorite player play, eating the ice cream during the 7th inning stretch, hot dogs and soda, it’s the entire event not just the winning or losing.
    The Mariner’s problem is they build our hopes up preseason even to the point of winning during Spring Training…damn them! They even have the audacity to institute a ticket program that increases prices and parking rates when popular teams come to town…seriously?
    The fans have such hope, dreaming of a post season, then reality sets in…if only they would win the next few games they could be contenders, then if only they could win a few games then if only they could win a game, eventually late in the season nobody cares anymore. Mariner tickets can’t even be given away let alone sold, parking at most lots $5-10. I suppose the draw of fan appreciation will get people to attend but when that last prize is given away Safeco will empty, making the schmucks who bought tickets and didn’t win anything feel once again like losers.
    Going to a Mariner’s game is a lot like a trip to Las Vegas, you plan on spending so much cash, having a good time and maybe winning a little bit. The reality is you spend your cash (probably a bit more than planned) get your hopes up, then dashed, then up and ultimately dashed again, and go home poorer and non the wiser till the next trip/game.
    Spring training is right around the corner, it’s a new season and maybe just maybe 2014 will be the year! Thank you Mr. Yamauchi.

  2. I guess the question is, are we better because of the Mariners or worse off? If the Mariners were to leave town at the end of the season how would the fans feel? Apathy? When you are a kid going to a Mariners game, winning isn’t what it’s all about, yes winning is nice, but seeing your favorite player play, eating the ice cream during the 7th inning stretch, hot dogs and soda, it’s the entire event not just the winning or losing.
    The Mariner’s problem is they build our hopes up preseason even to the point of winning during Spring Training…damn them! They even have the audacity to institute a ticket program that increases prices and parking rates when popular teams come to town…seriously?
    The fans have such hope, dreaming of a post season, then reality sets in…if only they would win the next few games they could be contenders, then if only they could win a few games then if only they could win a game, eventually late in the season nobody cares anymore. Mariner tickets can’t even be given away let alone sold, parking at most lots $5-10. I suppose the draw of fan appreciation will get people to attend but when that last prize is given away Safeco will empty, making the schmucks who bought tickets and didn’t win anything feel once again like losers.
    Going to a Mariner’s game is a lot like a trip to Las Vegas, you plan on spending so much cash, having a good time and maybe winning a little bit. The reality is you spend your cash (probably a bit more than planned) get your hopes up, then dashed, then up and ultimately dashed again, and go home poorer and non the wiser till the next trip/game.
    Spring training is right around the corner, it’s a new season and maybe just maybe 2014 will be the year! Thank you Mr. Yamauchi.

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