THE BIDDERS A Look at the Washington Nationals' Potential New Owners
The Outsider Positions to Get Back In
Thursday, November 3, 2005
Behind the doors to a private Ritz-Carlton dining room, Jeff Smulyan has come dressed for breakfast in a blue pinstriped suit and with the proper accessories -- a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and an ex-deputy U.S. attorney general.
If ever Smulyan needs to look both local and rich it is now, because his failure to do either might be the ruin of his bid to buy the Washington Nationals.
Smulyan, 58, runs Emmis Communications, an Indianapolis-based radio empire that generated $591 million in revenue last year, but his most important work now is in image management. The one realistic candidate to own the Nationals who brings an intimate knowledge of Major League Baseball also is the man whose record is his biggest detriment. His tenure as the out-of-town owner of the Seattle Mariners from 1989 to 1992 stand as "the one thing that I didn't walk away from and say, 'Wow, this is pretty good,' " he said over breakfast.
But this had a lot to do with the fact that baseball was becoming a big-money game and Smulyan turned out to not have a whole lot of money at the time. "It's a different time, we're different, our company is different," he said.
Smulyan says that his current investors are worth more than $2 billion even if his personal worth has only been put at $299 million. He talks about a partnership for his bid loaded with local names that include Richard E. Wiley, the ex-FCC head; former Washington Redskins Art Monk, Charles Mann and Calvin Hill; Alfred Liggins III, the chairman of TV One and chief executive of Radio One; and Eric H. Holder Jr., a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. And he says the financial commitment from African Americans in his bid is the largest in baseball history -- a fact baseball does not deny.
The men who run the game, it seems, love Smulyan. He is close to Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a top adviser to Selig on the Nationals' sale. When league officials told him this summer that he needed to buttress his bid with more money and bigger names, Smulyan jumped on the telephone and called total strangers, not only luring them onto his team but in the case of men such as Hill and Holder, persuading them to invest more than they ever dreamed they would.
But as baseball nears its decision on who will own the Nationals, Smulyan remains the outsider when compared to the other front-runners -- the group led by Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey D. Zients and that of the Lerner family, both of which have longtime local credentials. District officials have kept their distance. Smulyan has traveled to Washington repeatedly, visiting the offices of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council members, charming many in their face-to-face meetings only to be disappointed later when the support he believes he gets in those conversations changes in the public comments made later.
Williams said last month that he liked Smulyan, then added: "I am concerned he's not in the city. The last thing I want is some long-distance corporation to have a major stake and control over the organization."
Some, including D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), have questioned the voice Smulyan's local investors will have in the Nationals' operation. Smulyan insists he will not take $100 million of people's money without letting them have a say.
"If you look at the people who are investors here there are no shrinking violets," Holder said. "And if the notion that these folks are at the table to get their picture taken and smile for the camera and be shuffled off so Jeff can make all these decisions, they don't know who we are."
Said Smulyan: "I think people have gotten to know us. I think we were portrayed as a group of outsiders who will come in and take the team away."
He said this is the last thing he wants. But in a city which has lost baseball teams twice before, the idea of an owner from the Midwest, whose previous foray into baseball included allegations he tried to move the team from Seattle to the Tampa Bay area, it is easy to understand the fight Smulyan is going to have against public opinion.