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Analysis : Padre-Mariner Deal Is Questioned : It Remains Unsettled; Argyros-Ueberroth Connection Concerns Owners : Analysis

Times Staff Writer

The announcement was made March 26. George Argyros, the Orange County land developer, was selling the Seattle Mariners and purchasing the San Diego Padres.

The 1987 season started with two teams in ownership limbo. The National League would not confirm Argyros’ purchase of the Padres until he had sold the Mariners. His Seattle lease included a time frame during which local residents had to be (1) offered minority interest and (2) an eventual chance to match any outside bids.

Civic leaders insisted that Argyros had already violated portions of the lease, voiding an escape clause that would allow potential buyers to move the club if 1987 attendance and season-ticket sales failed to reach prescribed levels.

Now, two months later, the limbo lingers. There are numerous questions and few answers. Argyros still owns the Mariners. Joan Kroc, who announced her intention to sell in late November, still owns the Padres.

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The situation is unlikely to undergo official change until late in the season since Commissioner Peter Ueberroth has said that 90 days will be required to examine the morals and finances of the prospective Seattle owners.

The early hope was that the situation could be resolved at a quarterly owners meeting June 11 in Philadelphia, but that’s now an impossibility, though a number of owners are expected to demand clarification--a status report at the very least.

There is anger among the owners. There is suspicion and unhappiness about the way this has been handled. They feel that baseball’s integrity has been jeopardized by allowing the season to open and progress without defined ownership in two cities.

They feel that the public perception is that one man, Argyros, is being allowed to operate two teams despite rules prohibiting it. It has never happened before.

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The opinions of several owners, offered only in response to a guarantee of anonymity, are that Ueberroth has orchestrated much of the scenario, for reasons not entirely clear, and that Argyros may now have a difficult time getting the eight votes or three-fourths approval required by the National League for purchase of the Padres.

Why? Those owners questioned cite:

--His apparent failure to meet requirements in his Seattle lease.

--His initial creation of a limited partnership through which he then used the threat of bankruptcy to get favorable reductions in the financial demands of that lease.

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--The suspicion that he intentionally reduced the Mariner payroll to the lowest in baseball to produce a cash flow picture more attractive to potential buyers.

--His idiosyncratic behavior, such as leading cheers from the dugout roof, surfacing with his family in the Mariner dugout in the late innings of winning games, bringing friends and business associates on the field at rival stadiums to get a close-up look at batting practice and occasionally participating in spring practices with the Mariners.

When Argyros recently told a reporter for the San Diego edition of The Times that he might consider Padre first baseman Steve Garvey for a front office position with the team, breaking a gag rule on statements alluding to his involvement with the Padres, National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti said that “Argyros is the James Watt of baseball,” a reference to the former Secretary of the Interior, who was given to ill-advised remarks.

The owners also question the link between Argyros and Ueberroth, neither of whom responded to interview requests. Nor did Beth Benes, the La Jolla attorney who represents Kroc, and Padre President Ballard Smith.

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Already angered by Ueberroth’s intervention in the holdout of Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, some owners now claim that Ueberroth convinced Kroc to hold the Padres in storage for Argyros until his recent sale of AirCal to American Airlines could be completed, providing him with improved liquidity. And until he could then sell the Mariners.

At the time of the March 26 announcement, Argyros said his purchase of the Padres was a sudden thing, having been put together over the previous two or three days. He has since acknowledged that he did get Ueberroth’s advice. Some owners insist Argyros had a lock on the Padres throughout the period that Benes was accepting calls from prospective buyers, most of whom are said to have had a difficult time acquiring her criteria for ownership.

Among those who called were Garvey, Jerry Buss, Marvin Davis, Jack Kent Cooke and Donald Trump. Both Cooke and Trump wanted to move the club, which Kroc would not approve. One prospective buyer said he was told by Benes in early March that his interest was appreciated but that a deal with another buyer was close to consummation.

Rich Levin, a spokesman for the commissioner, said that Ueberroth was informed of Argyros’ prospective purchase of the Padres only several days before it was announced, and that anyone who says he had put the Padres in storage for Argyros isn’t dealing in facts.

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Why would Ueberroth go to bat for Argyros, as some owners believe? There’s no definitive answer. Argyros was among the first and most vocal supporters of Ueberroth’s candidacy for commissioner. They have homes in the Newport Beach and Laguna Beach areas and move in some of the same social and charity circles. Argyros’ ownership of AirCal put them in allied businesses since John Ueberroth, the commissioner’s brother, now operates the Ask Mr. Foster travel service that his brother founded. Spokesman Levin said that Ueberroth did not know Argyros at the time he was running his travel business.

The commissioner did fine Argyros $10,000 for calling Padre Manager Larry Bowa to congratulate him on an April victory, but the significance of that is debatable.

The commissioner has also made a Seattle sales appearance on Argyros’ behalf and, according to some owners, is assisting in the filtering of potential buyers.

It is also known that Ueberroth privately told Seattle interests in early April that they would have to come up with a local buyer by early May or outside buyers would get priority. Argyros reportedly put up only $2.6 million of his initial purchase price of $13.1 million for the Mariners, financing the rest.

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He is said to be attempting a tax-free exchange in which he would sell the Mariners for approximately the same amount he has agreed to pay for the Padres. It’s been learned that the amount is $40 million.

Argyros, however, has refused to set a price on the Mariners in what is believed to be an attempt to stimulate bidding, but as one owner said: “How would he expect anyone to be interested if you can’t call and get a price.” Bruce Engel, a Portland, Ore., lawyer and lumberman, said last week that he had made a $37-million offer that had been rejected. It has since been learned that the cash portion of the offer was considerably less than $37 million, that the $37-million total was based in part on potential Mariner revenue.

Said Don Drysdale, who investigated the Seattle situation on behalf of a Milwaukee surgeon and unidentified associates: “It’s a mine field. It’s not worth the time, money and effort.”

The Mariners figured to be a hard sell under the best of conditions. There were no local buyers in the winter of ’81 when Argyros eventually came from Southern California to purchase the club from the original owners.

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The Mariners, in 12 seasons, have never finished at .500 and have never drawn more than 1.3 million in attendance. They sold about 4,500 season tickets this year and, despite their strong start, drew less than 100,000 for last weekend’s three-game series with the New York Yankees.

Now a Seattle land developer named David Sabey is said to be the latest prospective buyer. There are also rumors that Garvey and his group remain interested in either the Padres or Mariners.

How explosive is the mine field?

The city, county and state, convinced that Argyros has voided the escape clause through violations of the lease, has threatened baseball with a lawsuit if the Mariners are moved, which is how all of this started. When the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970, a similar lawsuit resulted in Seattle getting the Mariners as an expansion team in 1977.

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Now you have the threat of another lawsuit, the likelihood of a sham scenario involving the sale of the Padres, the possibility of a suspicious alliance between Ueberroth and Argyros, two franchises still in limbo and a number of upset owners.


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