Two Area Groups, Smulyan Lead in Bid to Own Nats

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Two prominent Washington area groups and an Indianapolis-based media executive have emerged as the front-runners in the bidding to become the new owners of the Washington Nationals because of the support they have within Major League Baseball, according to sources with intimate knowledge of the sale.

The top candidates include a Washington-based syndicate headed by businessmen Fredrick V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients; the Lerner family, which runs a Bethesda-based real estate empire; and Jeffrey Smulyan, founder and chairman of an Indianapolis-based media conglomerate, the sources said.

The timing of baseball's announcement on the sale remains unclear. The league initially said it hoped to have a new owner selected by midsummer, but it has repeatedly pushed back the announcement as it held multiple meetings with representatives of all eight groups that put in bids for the team.

However, the sources with knowledge of the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Commissioner Bud Selig and his close advisers are focusing on the two Washington area groups and Smulyan.

The sources cautioned that Selig has said that none of the eight groups has been eliminated. They added that since the decision ultimately is Selig's alone to make, they are hesitant to rule out any bidder or to handicap the front-runners.

Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is representing baseball in talks with the District on the Nationals' lease of a new baseball stadium, said last week that a decision is unlikely until November, or at least until the White Sox are eliminated from the playoffs. Some members of the D.C. Council are seeking to review the lease agreement, which baseball officials say must be completed before a new owner can be selected.

"I know it's taking a long time," Selig told reporters in Chicago on Tuesday. "No one is more sensitive to this than I am."

A further complication emerged yesterday when Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's chief financial officer, said the stadium financing deal must go back to the council for technical amendments. It prompted concerns that some council members will seek to renegotiate the carefully crafted deal with Major League Baseball that brought the sport back to Washington.

One factor in baseball's decision is what one source called Selig's "comfort level" with the new owners. The commissioner is expected to meet with Malek and Zients, and with members of the Lerner family as early as next week, one senior baseball official said. The official said Selig would meet with other groups as well, including those who aren't considered front-runners. The Lerner family is headed by Theodore "Ted" Lerner, his son Mark and his two sons-in law. Selig already knows Smulyan, the former owner of the Seattle Mariners. Selig declined through a spokesman to comment for this story.

District officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, have made it clear that they favor local ownership of the Nationals, and some members of the D.C. Council have warned that selection of an outside owner could negatively affect support for construction of a new stadium for the team on the Anacostia waterfront. Baseball, which has owned the Nationals franchise since 2002, selected Washington as the site of the team last year based on Washington's commitment to build the $535 million stadium project.

Some top baseball officials are known to favor the Malek-Zients and Lerner groups over Smulyan because both Malek and Zients and Lerner have longtime ties to Washington and thus, they believe, would have more local political backing. Williams has publicly expressed support for Malek-Zients, and sources said political allies of the Malek-Zients group have lobbied Selig on its behalf. Malek was one of the leaders of the campaign to bring baseball back to Washington.

Some baseball insiders support Lerner because the team would be owned by a family with deep financial resources and with close ties to the community. The Lerner group also has appeal with baseball because the Lerners don't have a long list of investors, as does Malek-Zients and Smulyan, that could complicate the management of the team.

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