By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 29, 2005
Jeff Smulyan's bid to buy the Washington Nationals has been discredited by District leaders, who have argued that the Indianapolis media mogul is a carpetbagger whose local partners would play a minor role.
But D.C.-based lawyer Eric Holder and others said yesterday that they would have key decision making power in a Smulyan-led franchise. Making the rounds of local media, Smulyan's partners championed his bid as one that includes an unprecedented number of minorities and a commitment to investing in the city.
"What got me about Jeff was his notion to have a successful team but also to do something that would be unique in the fabric of this city," said Holder, a former U.S. assistant attorney general, who added that he turned down more than one offer to join other bidding groups.
In many ways, Smulyan is fighting an opposite battle from that of his chief rivals in buying the Nationals from Major League Baseball -- groups headed by local businessmen Frederic Malek and Jeffrey Zients and by the family of Bethesda-based developer Theodore Lerner.
The Malek-Zients and Lerner groups are well-connected locally but need to impress Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig. Smulyan, who became friendly with baseball's decision makers when he owned the Seattle Mariners, is trying to win friends here.
Over the past two months,
Smulyan has tried to change his group's image, recruiting 15 influential Washingtonians. The group includes business leaders such as lawyer Richard Wiley, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and former Redskins Calvin Hill, Art Monk and Charles Mann.
But city leaders remain unimpressed. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) recently renewed his endorsement of the Malek-Zients group and said he opposed Smulyan because he is from out of town. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) expressed concern about the true influence of Smulyan's new partners: "I would want people to have a say in what goes on, a controlling say, not just window dressing."
Smulyan's response yesterday was that his investors would contribute $100 million, about 40 percent of the cash Smulyan would need to finance the team. (The rest of the expected $450 million sale price could be borrowed against the value of the franchise.)
In return, Smulyan's partners would have veto power over any proposed move out of the District, he said. Under the management structure, Hill would oversee a hiring committee aimed at ensuring diversity in the front office, and Holder would lead a community outreach effort.
"We're not tokens," insisted banker Bob Pincus, who helped push for a baseball team for the District in the mid-1980s. His voice rising, Pincus jabbed his forefinger on a conference table and added of Smulyan: "He did not swoop in here and sign us up to sugarcoat this."
"We wouldn't be interested if that's all it was," added Dwight Bush, a D.C. businessman who had never met Smulyan when he got a call asking him to join the group.
"Somehow, he knew I was a big baseball fan," Bush recalled. "I looked at the group he had compiled who were active in the city and listened as he talked about his vision. I signed up right away."
The partners wouldn't contribute equal sums of money. A large share is expected to come from communications executive Alfred C. Liggins III, a longtime friend of Smulyan's. Liggins and Jeff Thompson, co-founder of a local accounting firm, helped Smulyan put together the local group, even making calls on his behalf.
Smulyan "has put together one of the greatest packages of minority participation in this sport," said Liggins, chief executive of Radio One and chairman of TV One.
Unfortunately for Smulyan, most key local endorsements were already taken. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce long ago endorsed the Malek-Zients group, known as the Washington Baseball Club, which helped lobby baseball officials to move a team to the city. Several council members lined up behind another local group headed by D.C.-based entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky.
"He's going up against people who have been active in the community for a long time and have a lot of relationships," Robert A. Peck, head of the D.C. Board of Trade, said of Smulyan.
In the end, Smulyan's partners said they want enough support in the city to convince baseball officials that District leaders will accept Smulyan if he is chosen.
"If we get the team, there should not be a firestorm," Pincus said. "This city council would embrace this group. There's a deep level of local influence. In my opinion, they will not try to stop or block us."