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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Jayne: Slade Gorton had a lot on the ball

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

Four years ago, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Slade Gorton.

He was 88, a former state legislator, state attorney general, United States senator and member of the 9/11 Commission. And he was full of life and wit and insight. So what did we talk about when this giant of Washington politics visited The Columbian’s Editorial Board? Baseball, of course.

Gorton, you see, has been instrumental in the Seattle Mariners throughout their existence. As in, they would not exist without him. Literally.

So when Gorton died Wednesday at the age of 92 and when obituaries and tributes sang his praises as a thoughtful politician, I thought about that meeting and the transformational power a single person can wield.

Seattle had Major League Baseball prior to the Mariners. The Seattle Pilots existed for one year, 1969, before being sold and becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. “I was in my first year as attorney general of the state,” Gorton said, “and I sued the American League for fraud and breach of contract.”

It was a bold strategy. Gorton hired attorney Bill Dwyer — who later became a federal judge — as a special assistant, and Dwyer pushed to get American League owners in front of a jury. In the book “Out of Left Field,” a history of the Mariners, author Art Thiel quotes Gorton as saying, “They were a terrible bunch of people. My conclusion was that if any American League owner moved into your neighborhood, he would lower property values.”

After much legal wrangling, the owners agreed to award a new franchise to Seattle — the Mariners. The team has been there for 44 seasons, and Gorton deserves credit for that, as well. When underfunded, absentee owner Jeff Smulyan wanted to sell the club in 1991, the then-senator played a key role in finding an owner.

“Nintendo of America is located just outside of Seattle,” Gorton told the editorial board. “So I had my scheduler call Nintendo and ask for an appointment. And they were very polite, they said, ‘What’s the subject?’ ‘The subject is baseball.’ Well, their reply was: ‘We’re not interested in baseball, but if the senator wants to come and see us, we’ll be happy to see him.'”

The Nintendo people became interested, and that has led to three decades of stable ownership, a new stadium, and plenty of success off the field if not much on. Meanwhile, the Mariners have stood as one of Seattle’s sentinels as the city around them has turned into a world-class destination.

Of course, we didn’t talk only about baseball. There were some politics, as well. And with the meeting coming months before the 2016, election, Gorton — a Republican, by the way — offered some insight. “Trump wants to make a deal. He talks about how well he is at making deals. But Trump’s definition of a deal is, ‘I win, you lose,’ it’s a zero-sum game. But the deals the president of the United States makes aren’t like that. With a really good deal, both sides benefit.”

Not that he had any love for Clinton, saying she “has no guiding philosophy except what’s good for the Clinton family.”

Last year, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, Gorton urged Congress to weigh impeachment charges against Trump. “To my fellow Republicans, I give this grave and genuine warning: It’s not enough merely to dismiss the Ukraine investigation as a partisan witch hunt or to hide behind attacks against the ‘deep state,’ ” he wrote.

“History demands that we all wrestle with the facts at hand. They are unavoidable. Fifty years from now, history will not accept the position that impeachment was a referendum on the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. It must be a verdict reached on the facts.”

Late in life, Gorton remained thoughtful, composed and even-tempered. And you can’t help but think part of that came from being a baseball fan in his hometown of Chicago and his adopted home of Seattle. As he said at that meeting four years ago: “If a long lifetime of cheering for the Chicago Cubs and the Seattle Mariners doesn’t teach you patience, nothing else in life will.”