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Original Issue

Hardball Fever: Catch It, Please

Seattle: First in livability, first in recreation and last in the American League West. Much of the time, anyway. And the Mariners have ranked poorly in the hearts of their fans, too, finishing next-to-last in American League home attendance each of the last three years while placing no higher than fifth in their division. Seattle's fans had already watched one inept franchise, the Pilots, leave in 1970 after a single season, so why support the hapless Mariners?

But now the Mariners, who've been around since 1977, finally seem ready to become part of the scene. Despite losing three to the Indians last weekend, Manager Rene Lachemann's M's were only four games out of first place. The team that has never finished a full season with a winning percentage higher than .414 was at .523 (45-41) at the All-Star break. In truth, the Mariners' chances of overtaking stronger teams like Kansas City or California are slim, but they're certainly living up to their 1982 promotional pledge: Mariners ... Play in' Hardball.

Oh, how Mariner principal owner George Argyros (left) loves that campaign. It's a natural for a man whose personal motto is "Patience is for losers." Argyros (pronounced ARE-jer-us) promises he'll "play hardball." He has already done so with King County, which oversees the Kingdome, to reach an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit involving, among other things, stadium improvements.

Since the 45-year-old Argyros took control of the club in February 1981 (he owns 92% of it with four of the original owners, including Danny Kaye, holding 2% each), the Mariners have changed their softball image. It would be simplistic, of course, to credit the club's recent success to an owner who spends more time in Orange County, Calif. than he does in Seattle. But Argyros' imprint is on his team. "Look, these days you've got to give credit to anyone who risks $ 13 million for a franchise," says Dan O'Brien, president and de facto general manager of the M's.

Particularly for this franchise, which has built-in disadvantages beyond its losing Image. The economy of the Northwest is bad. That area of the country and the western part of Canada included in the Mariners' "drawing area" have never been professional baseball hotbeds. And in a participation sports-oriented city such as Seattle, it seems logical that the summer game should be played outside, not in the Kingdome; in recognition of that, the M's, unlike most major league teams, play the majority of their Sunday home games (8 of 13) at night so as not to interfere or compete with the fans' daytime activities.

And no other baseball franchise has to contend with the late-night schedule of a boat, the Seattle-Bremerton Ferry, which is the only means of transportation across Puget Sound to the peninsula city of Bremerton (pop. 36,208), 15 miles west of Seattle. Fans who want to make the 11 o'clock run instead of waiting for the next boat at 2:30 a.m. sometimes have to leave before the game's over.

Argyros feels his biggest influence has been to streamline the management of the franchise. When he bought the club he expected to spend $20 million over the next three to five years. The money wouldn't be spent on big-name free agents; nor would he routinely sign top players to long-term, guaranteed contracts. Tom Paciorek, probably the most popular Mariner in the club's history, was dealt to the White Sox in the off-season when Argyros wouldn't accede to his contract demands, and it appears that Floyd Bannister, the ace of the Mariners' staff, may be playing elsewhere in 1983 for the same reason. The owner has received high marks for his spare-no-expense approach to the farm system (his "blueprint" for a successful team is the Los Angeles Dodgers) and for increasing the M's exposure with a better television schedule.

Argyros has variously called himself a "people guy," an "attitude guy" and a "motherhood-and-apple pie guy." He left out a "rich guy." He was working in retail grocery management in Orange County in 1961 when he suddenly heard a commandment: Go ye and subdivide. "I just decided I didn't want to work in a store anymore," said Argyros, "unless I owned it." He was an instant success in real estate and now he's president of Arnel Development (a land developer in Southern California) and chairman of the board of Arnel Management, which is in construction and assets management. Last year he purchased AirCal, a regional airline. His independent real-estate holdings include the San Clemente property once owned by Richard Nixon.

So far Argyros has left most of the baseball decisions to O'Brien, but they have clashed on occasion over marketing strategy. And Argyros has found that a baseball team's following sometimes develops more slowly than the value of land. Though the M's just finished one of their best attendance weeks in history (138,391 for seven games), their per-game average crowd of 13,769 projects to a season total of 1.1 million, short of Argyros' preseason goal of 1.3 million. Obviously, the team has yet to be closely embraced by the city, but with Lachemann's scratch-and-claw offense and his penchant for the quick hook with pitchers, the M's are 20-12 in one-run games and have come from behind 26 times to win. With that kind of team, it could be only a matter of time before hardball is another prime attraction in Seattle.