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With a Light Touch, Heavy Hitters Pursue D.C. Team

Baseball Group Hopes Payoff Is Near After Years of Perseverance

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page B01

In the mid-1970s, while most 10-year-olds were watching Saturday morning cartoons, Jeff Zients was poring over the classified ads, searching for buried treasure.

His quarry: mint-condition Topps baseball cards. Every Saturday, he telephoned two dozen garage sales, picked the most promising, begged his dad to drive him and used money from his paper route to buy up stacks of cards. By the time Zients went to college, his collection was worth almost $30,000.

Jeffrey Zients is president and CEO of the Washington Baseball Club. (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)

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Since then, Zients has applied his enterprising skills to more serious pursuits. He built two innovative research and consulting firms that went public in 1999 and 2001 with blockbuster offerings. In 2002, he made Fortune magazine's list of the 40 richest Americans under 40, with a net worth of $149 million, just ahead of Julia Roberts.

But Zients's heart still belongs to baseball. And in June, the 37-year-old Washington native agreed to become president and chief executive of the Washington Baseball Club, a group of wealthy area investors who hope to operate the capital city's first major league franchise in more than 30 years.

Before that can happen, Major League Baseball must first agree to move a ballclub to the District, and then choose Zients and his partners to buy the team. Both issues are undecided. But after 2 1/2 maddening years of on-again, off-again talks with Washington and other interested jurisdictions, baseball officials say they are finally ready to choose a new home for the financially struggling Montreal Expos. The District and Northern Virginia are said to be at the top of the list.

Baseball watchers are hoping for a decision soon after MLB team owners meet this week in Philadelphia. Baseball officials say they will act before the season ends in October.

"It feels like it is imminent," Zients said during an interview last week in his sleek offices at the Watergate Hotel. "And what I believe will happen is baseball will come back to D.C."

Zients is the newly designated frontman for a deliberately low-key group of very wealthy men who have toiled for five years to bring baseball to Washington. They include Frederic V. Malek, a former Nixon White House official who was part-owner, with George W. Bush, of the Texas Rangers; James V. Kimsey, the billionaire co-founder of America Online; local real estate developer Joseph E. Robert Jr.; and Franklin D. Raines, who directed President Bill Clinton's Office of Budget and Management and now serves as chairman and chief executive of Fannie Mae, the largest non-bank financial services company in the world.

Collectively, they are worth well over $1 billion. Together, they have spent more than $1 million to promote the city's bid for a baseball team. But with baseball at last on the eve of a decision, some members of the club seem a little weary and said they have mixed feelings about spending the vast sums that will be needed to build a winning team.

"This group has held together for a long time," Raines said. "We will have achieved a great success if the District gets the team, even if we are not the owners."

This spring, the group designated Zients as president and Raines as chairman of its executive committee in an attempt to telegraph to baseball that the group is packed with heavy hitters and ready to do business, said D.C. lawyer Stephen W. Porter, one of the club's founding partners.

"Jeff is a very smart man with a lot of experience in business. And Frank is just a highly respected, well-known national figure," Porter said. "Any business that can get Frank Raines as your chairman is basically announcing to the world that, hey, you know what? We're a serious group."

But there are no guarantees. Baseball officials bought the Expos in February 2002 and have been losing money since. Some insiders expect MLB to negotiate the team's sale at the same time officials pick its new home. Others say baseball is likely to put the Expos on the auction block to attract the widest array of bidders and fetch the highest price.

In an interview last week, Long Island real estate magnate Mark Broxmeyer said he would bid on the Expos if baseball sends them to Washington, and that he is putting together an ownership group that could include publisher and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

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