IN the Pacific Northwest, the sun rises from behind the continental divide and sets in the Pacific Ocean. Beyond lie the fabled lands of Asia that Columbus thought he could reach by sailing westward.
To the outdoorsy people of this region, Asia is closer than Europe. Northwesterners take a much less exotic view of their neighbors across the Pacific than do East Coast Americans, says Robert Kapp, president of the Washington Council on International Trade. "Asia is less mysterious, more routine. Many businessmen here can tell you what time it is in Tokyo or Beijing."
In the Port of Seattle, a container ship disgorges cargo from Pusan and Yokohama. Rows of Nissan cars await delivery by rail or truck to dealers across the Northwest.
But the Northwest is also an exporting region, Mr. Kapp says. In 1990 Washington State exported $15 billion worth of airplanes worldwide, $1.6 billion worth of corn and wheat, $1.8 billion worth of sawlogs and lumber. Much of this trade went to Asia. Japan is the biggest customer for airplanes and sawlogs. And Seattle has a long history of immigration from Asia.
All this has much to do with the calm way most people here are following the efforts of a group of Seattle businessmen to buy the major-league Mariners baseball team. The transaction would mean 60 percent ownership by Hiroshi Yamauchi, a Japanese video-games tycoon. Owners of major-league baseball teams did not reach a decision at their meeting in Chicago March 4-5, but public utilities executive John Ellis said he is hoping for a positive response within 90 days. Mr. Ellis, CEO of Puget Sound Light and Power, chairs the businessmen's group.
Mr. Yamauchi, who lives in Kyoto, Japan, has pledged $60 million out of $100 million the Seattle businessmen will pay for the Mariners. He will pay an additional 60 percent of the $25 million needed to cover the team's operating costs.
Elsewhere in the United States, there's been an outcry that another American icon is falling to the Japanese. There's fear that the rich newcomers will raise the already astronomical stakes for buying and trading players.
THE key question is control. When current owner Jeff Smulyan threatened to move the Mariners to Tampa-St. Petersburg, Ellis and others went to Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi's son-in-law and president of Nintendo of America, for a possible contribution. Yamauchi told Mr. Arakawa, who has lived in the Northwest for 15 years, that Yamauchi not only would bear 60 percent of the purchase costs, but would give an irrevocable proxy to Arakawa, making the latter in effect the majority owner. Ellis and the others then
worked out with Arakawa and with Nintendo Vice President Howard Lincoln a scheme whereby control would be vested in a committee of seven, with 85 percent of the voting stock required for major decisions such as a sale of the Mariners and their assets. This meant that the Japanese could make no unilateral decisions.
The Mariners have never had a local owner. Before Smulyan, who lives in Indianapolis, the team was owned by George Argyris, who lives in San Diego. Arakawa, although a Japanese citizen, will be the first majority owner to hold a Washington State driver's license, Ellis says. To the major-league baseball club owners, who are still hesitating, Ellis says, "To think we'd restrict ownership by a resident national because of citizenship - it's unthinkable."
An impromptu poll of Seattle citizens suggests that keeping the Mariners in the Kingdome is more important than letting Nintendo's owner share control. "The real foreign ownership would be if you (turned the team) into the Tampa Bay Mariners," said lawyer Jim Donohue. Mariners fan Steve Mayeda says the Mariners are on their way up and that a war chest of $25 million would help the club acquire top-flight players.
These days you often see cars in Seattle with the sticker STAY MARINERS! If Japanese money enables the team to do that without affecting its hometown quality (and the safeguards Ellis has outlined are virtually ironclad), Seattle's gain is no one's loss.