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Sunday, March 17, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

Family Source Tells All On Mariners' Jeff Smulyan

TEMPE, Ariz. - You reflect on the fact that relatively few people in Seattle know Jeff Smulyan, owner of the Mariners. Having so reflected, you conclude it might be useful to fill in a few biographical crevices.

What do most of us know about him, really? Dark-haired, handsome, outgoing. Sociable. Fantastic energy. Work ethic always in overdrive. Rich enough to own a baseball team.

But what kind of a guy is he, for sure?

To get a glimpse of Jeff Smulyan, firsthand, I went to breakfast with my friend Sam at the Fiesta Inn. The Fiesta is where the Mariners stay during spring training here in Tempe.

My friend Sam is a fellow who gets around in training camp. He is an incurable baseball fan. Because he is low-key, warm and garrulous, Sam knows most of the Mariner players, many of the newsies, a lot of fellow fans and most of the team's executives.

He knows Jeff Smulyan extremely well. You see, Sam is Jeff's father.

Early on, talking to Sam, you learn that Jeff's sister, Gale, married with two kids, can beat the tar out of Jeff at tennis or golf. Especially golf; she's a five-time club champion in Indianapolis and shoots a low handicap.

Then there's Jim Edwards, Jeff's brother. The way Jim got to be Edwards instead of Smulyan is because he once hosted news and sports talk shows in Indianapolis. He thought Edwards would work better for an on-air personality.

``Right now,'' Sam says, ``Jim is living in Los Angeles. He's a professional writer and a stand-up comic.''

Natalie is Sam's wife, Jeff's mother. Add Jeff's two children to Gale's two kids and you get four grandchildren. The Smulyans, you are pleased to conclude, have a fine sense of what might be called Midwest-Jewish values. They are a very close-knit family.

Sam has a saying he likes to repeat, one he inherited from his father: ``Always judge people for what they are, not for what they have.''

And when he thinks of miserly rich people, Sam adds his own twist: ``Loosen up, they're not going to line that casket with money for you.''

In a sense, you could say that Sam Smulyan is really the guy who saved baseball in Seattle, or got it away from George Argyros, which may amount to the same thing.

``We were always a sports-oriented family,'' Sam says. ``Jeff almost grew up in big-league ballparks. From the time he was a boy, I took Jeff to games in Chicago, New York, Boston, St. Louis, the World Series, all of that.''

So Sam says he was not at all surprised, after his son came down rich, that he bought the Mariners. ``It was the first team open to him,'' Sam says, ``and I was really excited. Jeff has always loved a challenge and the Mariners are a challenge.''

``Jeff is like Will Rogers, in a way,'' Sam said. ``He never met a man he didn't like. As a result, people like him in return. Think of it, he went out to USC where he didn't know a soul. He graduated cum laude and was president of his senior class.''

When Jeff graduated he applied for a job with NBC. ``He was always interested in radio,'' Sam said. ``He took his resume to NBC and they were really impressed. They said, `We want you, come aboard.' ''

The hitch was that they wanted Jeff to start out as a pageboy. ``A page boy?'' Sam said. ``Jeff didn't want that.

``So I said, `Go on to law school. You may never use it, but it's a good education.' Three years later, Jeff had a juris doctor degree from the USC School of Law.

``Jeff didn't really want to practice law, but here's an important thing. He wrote for the school's Law Review and he became an expert on federal communications law.

``So I said, `Come on home to Indianapolis and we'll buy a couple of radio stations together and you run 'em.' That's what we did.''

The rest is high-finance history. Within little more than 10 years, Jeff Smulyan founded and developed Ennis Broadcasting, the largest privately owned radio broadcasting company in America.

``He's a workaholic,'' Sam says of his son. ``He puts in 14-hour days, seven days a week. Even when he's having fun, he's working.

``From the time he was a boy, everything became a challenge to him - grade school, high school, college and now business. He always KNEW he was going to succeed.''

According to Sam, Jeff has a photographic memory. ``He remembers names, places, people, incidents. He read books on politics, history, biographies and current events.''

Sam chuckles, ``And Jeff is one of the best trivia players around.''

Adds the father: ``When we started, I knew nothing about radio. Jeff seemed to know everything. He has far surpassed me in so many areas.''

It is apparent to everyone that Jeff Smulyan has not become a self-admitted baseball genius after buying the Mariners. For the most part, he left everything intact - manager, coaches and baseball expert Woody Woodward.

He expanded the front office and invested heavily in hiring more scouts. He began giving scouts multiyear contracts and leased a fleet of new cars to enable them to drive more comfortably the long distances that scouts must drive to find good ivory in distant tundras.

``When he bought the team,'' Sam said, ``he told me, `Dad, I'm no baseball expert. I'm going to let the baseball people run it.' ''

Jeff Smulyan is here, there and everywhere, traveling in his eight-passenger Israeli-built jet. ``He has a great ability to delegate authority,'' Sam said. ``Just because Jeff is successful, he hasn't become an egomaniac. He really cares about people.''

For the most part, Sam's son is relaxed, casual and upbeat. One of his college friends is Gary Kaseff, the Mariner president, along with several others of similar age. They come to games wearing jeans, athletic shoes and polo shirts.

As for Sam . . . well, he does all right, too. He made his own comfortable fortune in hotels, real estate and broadcasting. He owns a small piece of Ennis Broadcasting and also the Mariners.

He must have a zillion friends. Sam is 71 now. The other day I heard him confide to an old geezer here in Tempe: ``You get any heart problems, friend, you come to me. I got some of those nitroglycerin pills that might come in handy.''

Plainly, Sam isn't going to let anybody line his casket with money.

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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