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Mr. Vincent goes to D.C. to talk M's

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent comes to the U.S. Capitol today, summoned by House Speaker Tom Foley to hear from the state of Washington's congressional delegation just how badly it wants the Mariners to stay in Seattle.

Foley, one of the most powerful men in the nation's capital, is a Democrat from Spokane. In the closed-door "afternoon tea," he is expected to remind Vincent about baseball's statutory exemption to federal antitrust law and about the clout it gives Congress over Major League Baseball.

"There is no pre-set agenda, except to express to the commissioner the breadth and depth of Washington state's support for finding a way to keep the Mariners in Seattle," said Foley's spokesman, Jeff Biggs.

Three weeks ago, the family that founded Nintendo Co. Ltd. announced its willingness to become the new majority owner of the Mariners. Vincent has said baseball's owners are unlikely to approve the sale, because 60 percent of the money would be from outside North America. Major League Baseball has a policy prohibiting foreign ownership.

"He needs to hear there isn't anybody else standing out there willing to put up the money," Rep. Norm Dicks, another member of the Washington delegation, said of Vincent.

"This is the only valid offer that is going to be on the table, and it should be accepted," said Sen. Slade Gordon, who helped put together the Japanese-led group.

Congressional staffers and Washington lobbyists accustomed to working with Japanese firms have been struck by Nintendo's high profile in negotiations and by its aggressive push for approval.

Feb. 8, a week after the proposed purchase was announced, the New York Times quoted Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi as saying he hopes Nintendo eventually will move its world headquarters from Kyoto, where it has been for more than 100 years, to the Seattle area, location of its North American headquarters.

The United States is the video-game company's biggest market, and Nintendo employs 1,400 people in the Seattle area compared with 880 in Japan.

But the remark was timed to show Nintendo's ties to America, as the stir it generated in Japan the next day demonstrated. The uproar prompted Yamauchi to backpedal, saying a "formal" headquarters would remain in Kyoto even if all operations moved to Washington state.

Seattle backers were pleased nonetheless.

"That helped reinforce all the arguments that we've made," said Bob Hartley, head of the public relations for the Seattle ownership group.

On Capitol Hill, rumors have Nintendo offering to share television revenues from satellite broadcasts of Mariners games to Japan, where American baseball is popular. The offer was painted as an attempt to curry favor with owners, who do not share media revenues generated by single clubs but in many cases would like to. Baseball's rules call for equal sharing of proceeds from foreign broadcasts, regardless of the teams involved.

The baseball executives who oversee broadcasting say they have heard no proposal from Yamauchi's group.

"It hasn't even crossed my desk," said director of broadcasting Dave Alworth said. "No one's asked me that question."

Still, the whispers fed the impression of a company willing to buck public opinion.

"I've been surprised at how tenacious they've been myself," said Jerry Johnson, a public relations executive who worked six years as a consultant to Japan's ministry of foreign trade. "When this first surfaced and there was all the uproar, I figured they would quietly back off."

In a capital where almost no foreign company likes to make waves, the Japanese are particularly famous as the strong, silent types.

"That's just a matter of prudence," said Arthur Alexander, president of the Japanese-financed Japan Economic Institute. "You wouldn't just barge into the (Japanese) Diet and buttonhole members. You'd want to have a friend there who knows the ropes."

Alexander added, however, that Japanese companies in recent years have learned the importance of public relations, and in a business as public as baseball "it's probably smart to get out in front of it."

Johnson said Nintendo is different from older, much larger Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi, which place a premium on caution.

"People do not realize that Nintendo is a very unusual company," he said. "It is a little company that got very big very fast. Its staff is very young, very dynamic. They've generated so much money they don't know what to do with it."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.