BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Key Votes This Week May Determine Mariner, Brewer Futures

The future of the Mariners in Seattle and the Brewers in Milwaukee could be decided this week.

Voters in Washington's King County--primarily Seattle--will go to the polls on Tuesday to consider funding a $270-million retractable-roof stadium through a sales tax increase.

The Wisconsin Assembly is expected to vote by Friday on a plan committing $160 million in public money toward construction of a $250-million convertible-roof stadium.

"There's no question but that this is a critical time for Seattle and Milwaukee, and I would include Pittsburgh as well," said acting Commissioner Bud Selig, the Brewers' owner.

"We need a new stadium to maximize revenue. There's no other place to look [for revenue] in this market. We can be competitive if we get it, but not if we don't."

In other words, would it be difficult for the Brewers to stay?

"Difficult isn't accurate," he said. "Impossible is more like it."

John Ellis, chairman of the Mariners, agreed.

"Without a new stadium, it would be economically impossible to keep major league baseball in Seattle," he said. "We would have no alternative other than to offer the club for sale, and it's very unlikely--which is an understatement--that any local group would be willing to come forward and absorb the type losses we have without assurance of a new stadium producing the type revenues that new stadiums produce.

"It was an absolute miracle when Mr. [Hiroshi] Yamauchi came in at the 11th hour [in July of 1992] to help keep the club in Seattle, but I don't know where the next Santa Claus is."

Yamauchi, president of Nintendo in Japan, contributed $75 million when Jeff Smulyan sold the team for $106 million. Ellis said ownership has since lost about $60 million above interest and amortization. He acknowledged that the 1995 situation has been exacerbated by reaction to the strike but estimated annual losses would still be about $15 million with a mid-level payroll.

The Kingdome has no luxury boxes and only about 10,000 premium seats to tempt season-ticket buyers, a figure that would be more than doubled in a new stadium, which would also enhance TV and advertising sales.

The Mariners released their financial records to try to convince county and state legislators that their stadium argument was worthy of ballot inclusion. The proposed 0.1% sales tax increase would cost King Co. residents about $8 per year, but the club knows it has a tough sell.

It's a difficult time to ask for more taxes--"a lot of people would be against it even if you were trying to build the Statue of Liberty," Ellis said--and that sentiment is compounded by the public's perception of greedy owners and players.

In addition, maybe it's a losing fight because nobody really cares in Seattle. Ken Griffey Jr.? The preference seems to be for cafe latte.

The Mariners have drawn more than 2 million only twice in 19 years and are averaging only 19,722 in 1995, ninth in the American League and down from 25,096 last year.

This despite the club's bid for its first playoff berth and management's commitment--reflected by the re-signing of Jay Buhner, the retention of Randy Johnson and the trade for Andy Benes--to make it a successful season in hopes of generating ballot support.

Selig faces similar conditions in Milwaukee. He has been booed at hearings and heard chants of "go" when raising the probability he will have to move if he doesn't get a new stadium.

"Moving franchises is not the solution to the industry's problems, but it's not economically viable for us under current circumstances here," Selig said.

Wisconsin voters have already rejected a state lottery that would have financed the new stadium, but now it's up to politicians.

The proposed plan--still in committee--would permit an 0.1% increase in the sales tax in Waukesha and Milwaukee counties and a 1% increase in the hotel room tax to pay for $160 million in bonds.

A state audit showed that the Brewers have lost $39 million since 1990, but the proposed plan calls for the team to borrow $50 million from a Wisconsin developmental agency, contribute $90 million to construction, commit another $33 million in rent over the 30-year lease and own 36% of the stadium.

The hope is to have it ready for the 1999 season, but the project may have to be scrubbed if financing problems delay a vote until October, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said recently.

Said Selig: "There is no professional sports franchise that has made the commitment to work with a governmental entity the way we have. In most cases, it's 'Look, you either do this or we're gone.' We're doing more to stay in our area than any other team by far. We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think we could make it, but we need the new stadium to be competitive."

Of course, Selig and Ellis also continue to believe that the small markets need increased revenue sharing and some form of salary restraint, but low-key talks between lawyers for owners and players have failed to produce progress.

There probably will be nothing significant until the World Series is over and the owners make it official and bring Randy L. Levine, head of labor relations for New York City, to the table as latest lead negotiator, succeeding Jerry McMorris, John Harrington, Chuck O'Connor and Richard Ravitch.

In the meantime, Selig and Ellis would hope that all fans felt like the late Thomas E. Fallihee, an 80-year-old dairy worker whose recent obituary in Seattle area newspapers ended: "In lieu of flowers, a 'Yes' vote on the new baseball stadium would be appreciated."

PIRATE MOVE

With Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg preparing to play in 1998, it is uncertain where the Mariners and Brewers would move if it came to that. There is also the longshot possibility that the Pirates could beat them to it--as soon as 1996.

The situation: With local suitors having failed to deliver the required cash, Sacramento Bee owner Kevin McClatchy has been given exclusive bargaining rights until Sept. 22. McClatchy has said he wants to keep the Pirates in Pittsburgh, but only if the deal includes guarantee of a new stadium by 2000.

In the meantime, a group headed by paging company executive William Collins III of Washington, D.C., insists he is prepared to buy the Pirates (he has also offered to buy the Mariners if the new stadium is rejected) and move them to RFK Stadium while a new stadium is built in Northern Virginia.

"They've been trying to sell [to a local] for 18 months," Collins said of the Pirates. "They're running out of choices. We can write a check tomorrow. I've told our organization to plan for us to begin playing next year."

Northern Virginia has a chance to become the extortion wedge that the Tampa area once was, with teams romancing it in hopes their own cities respond with a new stadium. At the same time, owners believe the area and the Collins group are for real, but would prefer to save his resources for the $150-million-or-so expansion payoff in 2000. It will be interesting to see if he can be delayed that long.

WYNKEN, BLYNKEN . . .

ESPN and WGN cameras have now caught Dodger manager Tom Lasorda napping on the bench during games. Similar behavior was a factor in convincing Walter and Peter O'Malley that it was time for Walter Alston to step down in the last week of the 1976 season. Asked about the manager recently, Peter O'Malley said: "I think Tommy continues to do a good job."

OVERLOOKED

The Atlanta Braves are the first National League team in 71 years to finish first four years in a row (excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season), but Manager Bobby Cox is seldom credited or even mentioned in that success. It was Cox who laid some of the foundation as general manager from October of '85 to midseason of 1990, when he returned to the field, where he is obviously doing something right. In his last five full seasons as a manager, he has led teams to division titles: 1985 with the Toronto Blue Jays and '91, '92, '93 and '95 with the Braves. The last manager to win five straight titles: Casey Stengel with the New York Yankees, 1949-53.

"Am I proud?" Cox said. "You bet. There's nothing like winning. It's the way you have fun in this game--either win or be building a team that will win later. If you're in between building and winning, you're just stuck. I've been there, too, and that's not fun."

NAMES AND NUMBERS

--Does it matter to the Colorado Rockies if they win the National League West title or reach the playoffs as a wild card? Indeed. They would play the first two games at Coors Field no matter what, but as a winner they would play the Cincinnati Reds, against whom they have a two-year record of 12-4 in Denver. As a wild card, they would play the Atlanta Braves, against whom they are 3-16 in Denver and 6-30 overall.

Fearing the worst, perhaps, Red General Manager Jim Bowden emerged from a Rocky sweep in Denver last week calling Coors Field a joke and the world's largest pinball machine, "a place where they play arena baseball."

--It should be no surprise that a team owned by Marge Schott would withhold $81,395.39 in salary that Ron Gant of the Reds lost when suspended four days for fighting with Pat Borders of the Houston Astros, but it came as a surprise to the disappointed Gant, who also seemed to forget that the Reds paid him for a year while he sat and recovered from a broken leg.

"I'd like to stay here four or five more years, but not paying me during the suspension doesn't show me much," Gant said. "I was sticking up for the team when I got suspended. I won't forget it when we negotiate."

--The San Diego Padres began a weekend series against the Chicago Cubs with the redoubtable Fernando Valenzuela being their only starting pitcher to have a victory in the last 23 games. Valenzuela (6-3) has won four of his last five starts, with an earned-run average of 1.80 in that span.

--The Cleveland Indians rejected the request of Baltimore Oriole owner Peter Angelos to talk with assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd, a clear indication Angelos plans to replace General Manager Roland Hemond. If the Indians continue to reject the O'Dowd overtures, Padre GM Randy Smith may be next on Angelos' wish list. The future of Oriole Manager Phil Regan is equally tenuous and did not improve this week when Regan had heated arguments with pitchers Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald.

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