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Sunday, December 15, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners Put Up For Sale -- Owners Blame Council Members For Discussing Ballpark Delay

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Frustrated by a push from some King County leaders to delay construction of a new baseball stadium, the Seattle Mariners' owners announced yesterday that they are putting the team up for sale.

In announcing the decision to sell, a move that sent Seattle reeling, Mariner Chief Executive Officer John Ellis said owners were disappointed after four of the 13 members of the Metropolitan King County Council asked that officials consider postponing construction of a $384.5-million stadium project.

The Mariners said even slight delays in construction would result in their retractable-roof stadium opening in 2000 instead of 1999.

They cannot wait another year, Ellis said, because they are losing too much money by playing in the Kingdome, although last year's season attracted 2.7 million fans, one of the best attendance records in baseball.

"Reluctantly, after more than five years of work, (we) have concluded that there is insufficient political leadership in King County to complete the new stadium by 1999," the owners said in a five-page statement that Ellis read at a downtown news conference yesterday. "This is not a bluff."

Ellis said the decision was final and that the Mariners would not talk with council members. He said the team owners also were withdrawing from all discussions and negotiations with the Public Facilities District (PFD), a government agency that has been established to design and construct the 45,000-seat,

retractable-roof ballpark.

"It is clear that they intend for the ballpark project to fail," Ellis said of the four council members. "We've done all we can do. We're now on a different course."

But Ellis did not rule out the possibility the team might change its mind. Indeed, some political leaders said they think the announcement is actually a negotiating tactic by one of Seattle's most astute business leaders to make sure the stadium will in fact open in April 1999, as the Mariners have wanted all along.

Ellis said the Mariners would play next season in Seattle, and given the strict rules of ownership in Major League Baseball, it is unlikely any sale of the team would occur soon. No team has moved since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1971.

At a news conference tentatively scheduled for today, six or seven County Council members, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., were expected to urge the Mariners to return to the bargaining table.

The Public Facilities District, which in a meeting tomorrow was hoping to approve a 20-year lease with the Mariners, will instead meet to figure out its next step.

County Councilman Ron Sims, who is in line to become the the next county executive, said he was shocked by the Mariners' reaction to the council members' Dec. 12 letter to the PFD, and suggested that other motivations may have prompted yesterday's dramatic announcement.

Sims, a consistent supporter of the ballpark project, said the letter - signed by him and fellow council members Pete von Reichbauer, Cynthia Sullivan and Larry Phillips - outlined sufficient reasons for seeking a delay in the construction and opening of the stadium.

"We have been told (by county lawyers) there was a very high risk that no one would buy the bonds because of the constitutional challenges filed against the project," he said.

In perhaps the strongest-worded portion of the letter, the four council members wrote: "Frankly, we think the public would would be better served if the Public Facilities Board were to adopt a more realistic schedule."

The letter was sent to Joan Enticknap, chairwoman of the PFD board of directors. She responded on Friday, saying, in effect, that she did not believe the issues raised by council members were serious enough to hinder the schedule.

`Profound overreaction'

Sullivan called the Mariners' announcement a "profound overreaction." She said the letter did nothing more than pass along the concerns expressed by financial experts overseeing the project.

"Maybe the Mariners have decided they want to make a graceful exit and they need to blame the politicians. It wouldn't be the first time I've been used by someone trying to get their way.

"Everything is fixable, but it is my estimation that if they have decided to walk away 100 percent, then it was their intention all along."

State Rep. Steve Van Luven, R-Bellevue, who was instrumental in lining up votes to get the Mariners state and county funding for the project, wasn't as alarmed as other political leaders about the announcement.

"This is part of their negotiation technicque," he said.

Van Luven, who is chairman of the House Trade and Economic Development Committee, said other team owners have frequently threatened state and local politicians with the prospect of leaving to get what they wanted.

But King County Executive and Gov.-elect Gary Locke, who supported building a new stadium for the Mariners when their efforts began more than a year ago, said he was "stunned and disappointed."

"We are so close to a solution now that we must find a way to keep this important project on track. I am not going to give up," Locke said.

The Mariner owners threatened to sell the team last year after King County voters rejected a proposal to fund a new stadium through a sales-tax increase. But the Mariners' dramatic rally to win the American League West Division Championship and their playoff victory over the New York Yankees galvanized support in the state Legislature to approve funding for a ballpark; financing includes taxes on restaurant meals and car rentals, an admissions tax, a lottery and vanity license plates.

Much of that momentum was lost in the past month amid revelations that stadium costs had escalated and when the Seahawks' potential owner, Paul Allen, strengthened his effort to have a multimillion-dollar stadium built for the NFL team, too.

Earlier this month, the PFD board of directors also warned that the stadium project was at risk of delay because its negotiators and the Mariner owners had been unable to agree on a long-term lease in the new ballpark. Competition with Seahawk plan

The surprising announcement ended a week in which professional sports dominated the political scene.

Although the Mariner stadium, planned for a site south of the Kingdome, was on schedule, it became entwined with a controversy surrounding a proposal to demolish the Kingdome and build a new, open-air stadium for prospective Seahawk owner Allen.

The timing of the Seahawk proposal could not have been worse for the Mariners. County leaders have been dealing with both the Seahawks and Mariners over short-term lease agreements at the Kingdome.

The county is on the verge of giving the Seahawks better terms than it would give the Mariners, by transferring advertising rights once reserved for baseball to football.

"The confusion it creates is the issue," Ellis said of the Seahawk situation.

Last week, a citizens group began circulating petitions seeking a public vote any time the county issues more than $50 million in bonds for any public project - a move aimed at both the Mariner and Seahawk stadiums. Councilwoman Maggi Fimia added even more anxiety when she introduced an ordinance seeking a nonbinding public vote on both stadium projects.

"We didn't drive anybody out of town," said initiative campaign leader Chris Van Dyk. "We simply wanted the public to participate. The price tag simply got too high both for the Mariners and the public."

With people in the Puget Sound area listening to a live radio broadcast of the news conference, Ellis said he had notified Acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and American League President Gene Budig of the Mariners' decision on Friday night.

He said the team owners were still committed to putting a winning team on the field in 1997 and expected to sign a one-year lease in the Kingdome, even though their current agreement there has expired. He said he couldn't predict, however, where the team might play in 1998. `A terrible misreading'

Councilman Phillips said Ellis' comments "are a terrible misreading of the (Dec. 12) letter" by the four council members.

"There are substantial questions," he said. "I don't think this required going nuclear. It was not necessary to have this kind of overreaction. If I had known this was the consequence, I wouldn't have sent the letter."

But council members Rob McKenna and Greg Nickels say they blame their four colleagues - not the Mariners.

`Excuse after excuse'

"It was completely gratuitous," McKenna said of the council members' suggestion to delay the stadium project. "The letter is very clear. It says the project is certain to be late, and it gives excuse after excuse after excuse."

He said county officials would hold a meeting tomorrow to figure out a strategy to salvage the project.

Members of the Public Facilities District board, who are responsible for overseeing the stadium project, were as shocked as council members, according to Ken Johnsen, executive director of the stadium board.

Yesterday, both Johnsen and Ellis agreed that substantial progress had been made in talks and said they had expected a 20-year lease to be presented to the board and approved tomorrow.

Ellis said it would be unfair now, however, to continue with that process.

Johnsen said that although the Mariners had not threatened the PFD with a potential sale, "We have understood from Day 1 the importance of the 1999 season."

Ellis would not predict the Mariners' future, other than to say it would be all but impossible to find another local ownership group.

"When we left Seattle at the end of the baseball season you thought everything was on schedule, that construction was to start next year. And now it reverts to this?" said Mariner Manager Lou Piniella.

Richard Levin, a Major League Baseball spokesman, said he had no idea where the Mariners might go, although there is a strong ownership group in Northern Virginia that is waiting to buy a team.

Given the fairly strict rules of ownership in Major League Baseball, it is unlikely any sale of the team would occur soon.

The baseball commissioner's office must give permission for a team to be sold, and there is a process for approving any new owner. It took six months for the current ownership group, which bought the team from Jeff Smulyan for $100 million in 1992, to get approval.

Because of anti-trust exemption from state commerce laws, the league has more control on its franchises and as a result teams do not relocate as quickly as other pro sports.

Although he refused to answer the question directly, it was clear Ellis had sprung the decision without telling county officials.

Budig, the American League president, supported the Mariners' position.

"The Seattle owners have more than gone the extra mile to assure the club's future in the Northwest, and the American League shares their disappointment," he said. "What the Mariners must have is a first-rate, fan-friendly ballpark."

Owners across the country claim they cannot remain solvent without the extra revenue generated from new facilities. They cite escalating player salaries from free agency as the primary reason they are struggling financially.

Community dialogue has shifted in the past week when it became apparent it would cost nearly $1 billion to keep professional baseball and football in Seattle by building two new downtown stadiums.

"It's sensory overload. It's hard for the public to sort out what it all means," said Michael Campbell of the Sports and Events.

Times staff reporter Stephen Clutter contributed to this report.

---------------- The long goodbye ----------------

Dec. 6, 1991: Mariner owner Jeff Smulyan, citing skyrocketing salaries and poor game attendance, puts the team up for sale, triggering an escape clause and leaving open the chance the team may move before 1992.

April 3, 1992: Smulyan signs an agreement to sell the team to the Baseball Club of Seattle for more than $100 million.

June 10, 1992: Major League Baseball's ownership committee unanimously recommends approval of sale of the Mariners to the Baseball Club of Seattle.

Fall 1993: Mariner owners talk about the need for a new ballpark.

May 18, 1995: State Legislature passes measure calling for a vote of the citizens to fund a ballpark with a King County sales-tax increase.

Sept. 19, 1995: King County voters narrowly reject a sales-tax increase to pay for a new stadium.

Sept. 22, 1995: County Council decides not to call for a new vote on the stadium tax in November after Mariner owners say they oppose another vote.

Sept. 28, 1995: Mariners set an Oct. 30 deadline for a plan to build a new stadium; otherwise, they say, they'll put the team up for sale.

Sept. 29, 1995: Gov. Mike Lowry says he wants the Legislature to meet in special session within two weeks to help save baseball in Seattle.

Oct. 14, 1995: After a rancorous three-day session, the Legislature approves a plan to finance a new $320 million stadium with state money and King County taxes.

Oct. 23, 1995: King County Council votes 10-3 to impose taxes on restaurant and tavern meals and on auto rentals to help pay for a new stadium.

Nov. 22, 1995: A seven-member Public Facilities District board is appointed by Lowry and County Executive Gary Locke. The board's job is to oversee construction of the new stadium.

Jan. 29, 1996: NBBJ, a Seattle architectural firm, is hired to design the stadium.

May 7, 1996: A site south of the Kingdome is selected for the stadium. It beat out two other options: the parking lots immediately north and south of the Dome.

June 18, 1996: Architects unveil their designs for the new park, showing a stadium that, except for the roof, would be reminiscent of old-time stadiums.

Nov. 7, 1996: The Public Facilities District announces that the new stadium will cost $45 million more than originally estimated and won't have its retractable roof in place in time for the scheduled opening in April 1999.

Nov. 8, 1996: County Councilman Ron Sims says he thinks the price tag for the ballpark is too high and urges the PFD to go back to the drawing board.

Nov. 12, 1996: Members of the Public Facilities District are grilled by the County Council about the overruns. They try to assure the county that the new park can be built and paid for without harming the county's finances.

Dec. 9, 1996: King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng agrees to give a ballot title to Initiative 16, which would allow opponents of the stadium to gather signatures toward their goal of putting the stadium up for a public vote.

Dec. 10, 1996: For the first time, stadium board members publicly discuss their frustration over not yet reaching a long-term lease with the Mariners.

Dec. 12, 1996: County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia introduces legislation that would require a public advisory vote before the county could sell bonds to pay for any new sports stadium.

Dec. 12, 1996: Council members Sims, Pete von Reichbauer, Cynthia Sullivan and Larry Phillips write a letter to the Public Facilities District, pushing for a delay of the stadium opening.

Dec. 14, 1996: Mariner owners announce that they are seeking a buyer for the the team and are withdrawing from the ballpark construction project.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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