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To persistent buzz regarding potential sale, Mariners say buzz off

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

The whispers are pure Conspiracy Theory. And the truth is, there isn't even a grainy Zapruder Film to go with them as evidence.

But in the aftermath of the Mariners trading Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees, many baseball industry folks are wondering whether Hiroshi Yamauchi, Seattle's aging Japanese owner, is preparing to sell the team -- or, at least, his share of the club.

That, or whether the Mariners will bring Ichiro back as a free agent this winter.

For their part, the Mariners, who have been dealing with these rumors for years regarding their reclusive and mysterious owner, firmly deny the sale rumors.

"I know there has been some speculation that the Mariners are for sale, or planning to put the franchise up for sale," CEO Howard Lincoln said on the day the club traded Ichiro to the Yankees last month. "I've read this and I've heard it, and all I can tell you is that it is absolute nonsense.

"There are no plans by this ownership group to sell the Mariners. This decision [to trade Ichiro] and any other decisions we make stand on their own and has nothing to do with any kind of sale."

The Mariners are not allowed to speak directly on Ichiro because of major league tampering rules. But there is no evidence of any sort of backroom deal in which the iconic outfielder will return to Seattle this winter. And sources with knowledge of the Mariners' thinking all but dismiss it out of hand.

Still, the buzz persists that there must be something more to this than a simple parting of the ways that allows the Mariners to avoid what would have been a highly complicated situation this winter.

"What else could it be?" one veteran executive familiar with the Mariners says. "The old man thinks Ichiro walks on water. He thinks Ichiro is the guy you go to church for on Sunday.

"He thinks he's the best human being ever."

No small part of the reason why the Mariners have spent so much time fending off sale rumors is because of Yamauchi, the founder of Nintendo. At 84, he's never seen his Mariners play in person -- not even when they opened this season against the Athletics in Japan. And it is believed that he's never set foot in the United States.

Yet he's been the Mariners' majority owner for 20 years -- and, as one Mariners person points out, for a full decade before Ichiro signed in Seattle.

Point is: Ichiro did not build the Mariners, and he especially did not build them under Yamauchi and Nintendo.

Only thing for certain at this point is that Yamauchi one day will no longer be involved in owning the club, and given that he's in his mid-80s, that day certainly will be, relatively speaking, sooner rather than later. There is some thinking that it will be a "restructuring", not an outright sale, and that when Yamauchi decides to step aside, it will not be with a sale but with a reorganizing of shares with a minority owner stepping up to become the controlling partner.

As things stand, though Yamauchi sold his stake in the Mariners (roughly 55 percent) to Redmond-based Nintendo of America in 2004 for estate planning purposes, he remains the majority owner.

And through roaring whispers and rampant speculation, the Mariners expect it to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

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