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Washington politicians meet with Vincent

In a small, preposterously ornate room in a corner of the U.S. Capitol, eight Washington state politicians took seats Wednesday afternoon with their guest. The coffee was poured and the table set for a light snack. But the seating arrangement suggested confrontation.

Directly across from baseball commissioner Fay Vincent sat Slade Gorton _ the lean, intense U.S. Senator who as his state's attorney general sued baseball for moving one team out of Seattle, and who has threatened court action if it rejects a Japanese-backed offer that would keep the Mariners from making for St. Petersburg. As camera crews briefly crowded into the room before the meeting, Gorton sat ramrod straight in his chair, his eyes gleaming in the television lights.

But after an hour behind closed doors, there were no fireworks, or even so much as a veiled threat. What House Speaker Tom Foley billed as an informational meeting turned out to be exactly that. Everyone came out smiling.

"We've had a very useful and very constructive and positive discussion," said Foley, the Spokane Democrat whose aversion to conflict is itself sometimes controversial.

"I think we all felt that overall we had a sympathetic hearing."

"There was no threats. There were no insults," said Rep. Norman Dicks, a Democrat from Tacoma.

"A friendly conversation," said Sen. Brock Adams, also a Democrat.

Gorton was on the same page.

Asked whether Vincent was reminded of the possibility of an attack on baseball's exemption to antitrust laws, Gorton replied, "Our goal today was to build bridges with the commissioner and with organized baseball, to show them that we were good people and to give him a chance to show us the same thing.

"It would've been most inappropriate to talk about anything negative and it didn't come up directly or indirectly."

Vincent declared himself optimistic that the Mariners would stay in Seattle, repeating Major League Baseball's resistance to franchise relocations.

"We want to keep baseball in Seattle," he said. "That is the only perfect solution."

But even surrounded by Washington politicians, the commissioner once again alluded to the reason the Mariners are for sale in the first place: They lose a lot of money.

"The community ultimately decides where baseball goes or baseball stays," he said. "If the community in Seattle and the business people and the civic leaders want baseball to stay there, it will stay there because they will ensure it happens."

Vincent deflected all questions about the prospect of Japanese ownership, deferring to baseball's ownership committee. The committee, which has a policy prohibiting significant ownership from outside North America, is still assembling information on the Yamauchi family of Kyoto, Japan, which founded the Nintendo video game company and owns 60 percent of the group that proposes to buy the Mariners for $100-million.

Speaking anonymously, however, one lawmaker told the Associated Press that Vincent remained "quite negative about non-North American ownership" in the meeting.

"It's pretty clear baseball would like to find another solution," Gorton said. He senses opposition to the offer "seems to be melting somewhat," but quickly added: "I don't want to overestimate that."

The delegation has been doing its part to shape opinion on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, sent every congressman a letter explaining why the Nintendo offer does not amount to "the selling of an American tradition to a foreign country."

"We know a little something about baseball, America and apple pie in Washington State," his letter concludes. "After all, where do you think all those apples come from?"

Gorton, meanwhile, has asked senators from states that already have baseball to ask their owners to hear the Nintendo offer out. It was not clear whether his request included Florida, where the expansion Marlins have not yet started play. But the reception from Connie Mack, the Florida Republican and grandson of a baseball great, would not be warm.

"The last thing he wants to happen is see the Mariners in Seattle, especially with Japanese ownership," said Mack press aide Mark Mills.

The delegation also bent Vincent's ear on the issue.

"Some of us made suggestions such as it was time that baseball take some steps forward since it was an international world that had grown much smaller," Adams said.

Such appeals are apparently the only course open to Washington, as the Yamauchi family apparently has rejected suggestions that it reduce its stake to a minority position. Gorton said the Baseball Club of Seattle offer as presently constituted "or with immaterial changes" will be the final offer.

"We pointed out to him that there are no other options," said Dicks. And with that, he made his way down Statuary Hall, leaving behind _ entirely by happenstance _ the one permanent display the state of Washington has in the U.S. Capitol: the bronze likeness of Mother Joseph, a woman on her knees, praying for all she's worth.