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Two baseball greats, one jersey number, and an investor asks Nintendo's CEO to pick

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Executives can squirm as numbers get thrown around at an annual shareholder's meeting, but one that led to Nintendo chief executive Satoru Iwata choosing his words carefully was 51. Specifically, the uniform numeral worn by a couple of all-time greats for the Seattle Mariners.

The late Hiroshi Yamauchi, the third president of Nintendo, purchased the major league baseball club in 1992. Yamauchi transferred his ownership stake in the team to Nintendo of America about 10 years ago. Howard Lincoln, the former chairman of Nintendo of America, is the Mariners' CEO and Nintendo's representative in the ownership group.

That still puts Satoru Iwata in a position of nominal leadership over the club, and an investor asked for a forward-looking statement on Mariners' plans to retire a uniform numeral anytime soon — specifically the 51 of Randy Johnson, who will be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame later this month. Johnson spent 10 of his 22 seasons with the Mariners, winning a Cy Young Award in 1995 and setting a club record for strikeouts and shutouts.

Why would someone in Japan care about that? Well, national hero Ichiro Suzuki, who set a major league record for most hits in a single season in 2004, played 12 seasons for the Mariners and wore 51, too.

"I speculate that it might be possible for the Seattle Mariners to consider retiring his uniform number of 51," the investor asked, "but to Japanese people, the uniform number 51 of the Seattle Mariners belongs to Ichiro Suzuki. About this possibility, I would like to know the opinion of Mr. Iwata who is also the CEO of the principal owner of the Seattle Mariners, Nintendo of America."

Uh ...

Iwata noted that Nintendo of America "is not the 100 percent owner of the Seattle Mariners," and that itself has been a touchy fact of the company's ownership. Major League Baseball initially opposed Yamauchi's bid to acquire the team, then required that he control no more than 50 percent of the team's voting stock. That stance has since relaxed, making Yamauchi and now Nintendo of America now have majority ownership and control of the team.

"It was rather an exceptional thing for a Japanese company to become the principal owner of a Major League Baseball team," Iwata noted. "Nintendo was able to have such a unique position, which cannot be secured only by paying money, and we cherish this relationship."

But reading between the lines, he is not about to interpose on operations-level matters such as what number is retired for whom. Nintendo "makes important decisions with other owners of the team," he said, adding that he has met with Ichiro many times "and I personally would like to maintain a good relationship with him.

"However, it is not appropriate for the CEO of Nintendo of America to share my comments on your speculation at this sort of public occasion," he said.

Iwata's remarks suggest an awareness that a foreign company could create a lot of bad will doing things other American sports ownership groups could get away with, such as meddling in this kind of a club honor. Quite the contrary, Nintendo has had a very warm relationship with MLB and particularly the fans in Seattle.

Yamauchi purchased the team, he said, as a thank you to the city of Seattle for being so welcoming of his company's American headquarters. At the time, the franchise was playing the outdated and unsightly Kingdome, and had the team been sold to other interests it almost certainly would have been moved to Florida.

Under Nintendo's ownership, the Mariners (formed in 1977) have made all of their four postseason appearances, opened the retractable-roof stadium Safeco Field, and in 2001 won 116 games, tying a 95-year-old Major League record. Ichiro joined the club that year, becoming only the second player to win both the the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. He is still active, playing with the Miami Marlins.