SEATTLE – John Ellis walks the halls at Safeco Field, a looks fondly at the photo hanging on the wall in the owner’s suite.
“It’s a sad day, because I can tell you without Mr. Yamauchi, Safeco Field wouldn’t be here, and the Mariners wouldn’t be here,” said Ellis, Mariners Chairman Emeritus.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, the one-time Mariners majority owners died Thursday. He was 85. Doctors said he had been battling pneumonia.
He ran Nintendo for more than 50 years and led the Japanese company's transition from traditional playing-card maker to video-game giant. Yamauchi was Nintendo president from 1949 to 2002 and engineered the company's global growth, including developing the early Family Computer consoles and Game Boy portables.
But he is remembered in Seattle as the man who saved the Mariners franchise.
“Frankly, I thought the team was gone,” said Ellis matter of factly about those days in the early 1990s. Owner Jeff Smulyan had put the franchise up for sale, and according to Ellis, “had already informally agreed with Tampa Bay to move the team there, so the team was gone.”
In a last ditch effort, Ellis and former Senator Slade Gorton, sniffed around for local investors. Ellis admitted there wasn’t the local money to purchase the franchise, so Gorton called Yamauchi’s son-in-law, who then made another phone call. The group was surprised to hear that Yamauchi, without hesitation, agreed to buy a majority share.
“It was particularly astounding to (him) because Mr. Yamauchi had never been to a baseball game even, but he said he wanted to do it, to show his gratitude to the people of the Northwest for the birth of Nintendo of America here,” said Ellis.
Yamauchi never attended a Mariners game, but would influence major decisions.
“(He) really made the arrangements for Ichiro. He was the one who authorized the bid for Ichiro and subsequent Japanese players that followed,” said Ellis.
Ichiro would go on to lead the 2001 Mariners to 116 wins, tied for the most ever in one season.
He transferred his stake to Nintendo of America back in 2004 and Ellis says he believes the ownership structure will remain the same.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)