Beware The Buyer

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Everywhere you go, you hear rumors that baseball may be considering another cynical "bag job" akin to the way the Red Sox were handed to the John Henry-Larry Lucchino group because they were "baseball insiders" rather than the high bidders. It worked in Boston. But if Jeff Smulyan of Indianapolis is awarded the Nationals, despite multiple qualified Washington ownership groups, it may be a disastrous decision for baseball, Washington and the Nationals.

The D.C. Council and the public would have every right to go ballistic if local buyers are bypassed, especially for outside ownership that smacks of old-boy-network string pulling. Smulyan is a particularly poor choice.

His credentials as owner in Seattle (1989-'92) are unflattering. From the start, he was underfunded and his Mariners loan was called in by his bankers. He bad-mouthed Seattle as a baseball town and tried to find ways around his lease so he could move the Mariners to Tampa Bay. When he couldn't bust his lease, he sold to a Nintendo-led group for $110 million. Three years earlier, he'd bought for $76 million. No wonder he wants back in.

Seattle cheered when Smulyan left. And this is the name baseball is running up the flagpole to see how Washington reacts?

If the Nats aren't sold to owners with deep Washington-area roots, especially since groups including Zients-Malek and the Lerner family are willing to hit baseball's $450 million price tag, then the Council has every right to think about doing a major refurbishment of RFK Stadium rather than take the risk of spending $535 million on a new park on the Anacostia River.

Baseball officials want the District to sign off on a lease for that new park before it announces its choice of owner. Well, naturally they do. But the District shouldn't be in any hurry. Let baseball give a clear indication of its choice of owner first.

Now that the Smulyan scenario has surfaced, with former Braves president Stan Kasten perhaps playing the "team operator" role held by Lucchino in Boston, D.C. would be crazy to lock itself into a publicly funded ballpark that would be given, lock, stock and barrel, to a guy from Indianapolis who happens to be friends with Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Don't the sport's owners remember the most important name in D.C. baseball history: Bob Short?

Apparently not. Smulyan is as close as you could come to unearthing a modern-day equivalent of Short, who was an under-funded carpetbagger without local roots who ran the team on the cheap, bad-mouthed Washington as a baseball city, constantly sought concessions from the District government and then absconded to Texas, where the cash looked greener. Smulyan's record in Seattle isn't nearly as bad as Short's in D.C. But no one in Washington politics will miss the painful parallels.

If no excellent Washington ownership groups existed, then Smulyan might be palatable. But several such potential local owners are already in the Final Eight. Even though Smulyan is richer than he was 15 years ago, he's still not as deep-pocketed as some others in the hunt. Basically, his only trump card is that he's part of the old-boy club where, once you've owned a team, you take a number and hope to be awarded the next available franchise.

As for the rumored connection of Smulyan to Kasten, if Stan's so hot, then maybe one of the Washington groups will pick him up as team president. Everyone in baseball knows Kasten is first rate. But he's no reason to give the team to Smulyan.

This week, Smulyan made the round of D.C. pols, with a handful of newly unearthed Washington-based "partners." Council members and fans should realize that none of these partners is remotely rich enough to prevent Smulyan from being the team's controlling partner. In other words, Smulyan would be the only vote that counts, like Peter Angelos in Baltimore.

Never underestimate the Reinsdorf factor. The White Sox' owner wears the brass knuckles in the Selig administration. He and Smulyan are friends. Reinsdorf was baseball's point man in the fight to neutralize Angelos and move the Expos to the District. So, the way baseball thinks, that means Reinsdorf has juice when it comes to picking the new owner for Washington, too.

Washington needs to make it clear to baseball that Smulyan is a ticking political bomb. Opponents of the Anacostia ballpark have not disappeared. They've simply been waiting for fresh ammunition.

A community's only natural defense against a team skipping town someday is ownership with roots so deep in the area that moving the club would be as painful, at the personal level, to the owner as to the city. More important, a local owner whose business fortune is tied to Washington risks damaging his finances badly if he becomes a Short-like pariah.

The Malek group has worked for six years to bring baseball to D.C. and has the mayor's backing. The Lerner family would be eminently qualified -- rich, philanthropic, the deepest imaginable local roots. True, they never lifted a finger to help Washington get a team but, once it arrived and was a success, they said, "Wow, let's buy it!" But that's not a major problem.

However, if you want to see Washingtonians go bonkers, just try to jam a once failed, out-of-town owner down our throats after this area's business people and politicians have spent 30 years trying to get a team. Many have tried to make this point to Selig. Doesn't he remember the joys of dealing with Linda Cropp? Doesn't the name Marion Barry ring a bell?

My best guess is that if any outside ownership group gets the Nationals when several local groups are willing to pay the freight, then the money for the stadium will disappear. If the public is enraged, politicians will capitalize on it. Niceties of contract law and leases will be circumvented and the Nats would probably end up playing in a brushed-up RFK indefinitely. Baseball might then decide to move the franchise again. Talk about a colossal and unnecessary lose-lose outcome.

Perhaps such a stunning snafu is what baseball deserves after the shabby way it has treated Washington for years, culminating in the current Comcast-MASN battle that's left millions of fans unable to see most of the team's games on TV.

But it is certainly not what Washington or the Nats themselves deserve.

Building a $535 million park without a cent contributed by baseball is risky enough, even in the glowing light of the Nats' first season. However, constructing such a park then giving it to an out-of-towner with Bob Short proclivities would be insane.

Be warned, the folks who gave the Nats' TV rights to an owner in Baltimore are up to it again. The only way to stop them is to use the only leverage available: the new stadium. Memo to baseball's brass: Hope you guys like 44-year-old RFK and its authentic aroma of decay because if you stiff Washington again, that's what you deserve. And it's probably what you'll get.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company