Nats Forced To Push the Hold Button

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

From Washington to Florida, the highest-ranking officials of the Washington Nationals felt as helpless as any of the team's fans late Tuesday night, as the D.C. Council voted down the city's stadium lease agreement with Major League Baseball, a move that, for a few hours -- until the Council reconsidered the issue in an emergency session and approved a modified agreement -- plunged the vagabond franchise back into an unsettling but familiar state of uncertainty.

Tony Tavares, the Nationals' MLB-appointed president and CEO, was watching the council hearing on television at his Washington home with his wife, Betty Ann, when the agreement was voted down, 8-5, at about 8:40 p.m.

"I just shut off the broadcast," Tavares said yesterday, "and said to my wife, 'That's it. We're up in the air again.' It wasn't until later that I got a call from one of our lawyers telling me the lease was going to be approved. But when they voted it down, I thought we were done in Washington."

The Washington Nationals lived to see another day, thanks to the Council's unexpected U-turn. But that is about as far ahead as the franchise is able to look these days. MLB, which owns the Nationals, must approve the city's modified agreement, and as of yesterday afternoon baseball officials had yet to receive anything from the city to review.

"It would be great to move this process along, maybe get an owner in here in time to get established, get to know the team," said Brian Schneider, the Nationals' veteran catcher. "Every day we lose is another day that sets us back."

Still, regardless of what comes next, it may be too late to undo the damage that already has been inflicted upon the Nationals during this winter of political hardball in their home city. With the team ready to open its spring training camp next week in Viera, Fla., the franchise -- which came to Washington last season after being known for the previous 35 years as the Montreal Expos -- lags far behind most others in terms of marketing, ticket sales and even player acquisitions, and it remains the only franchise in baseball without real, independent ownership.

"These are not pleasant circumstances, to say the least," Tavares said, "but we've been dealing with unpleasant circumstances for five years. Now, we're back to uncertainty about our future, which is never helpful. Right now, we could be tying up long-term sponsor relationships. Those are on hold. In normal circumstances, we'd be selling luxury suites and club seats for the new stadium. We'd be starting on the naming rights.

"It really runs the gamut, and it's stressful for the people working for us. They don't know whether to buy a house, or rent. And it doesn't help us when we're trying to recruit people into the front office, or with free agents."

Tavares cited conversations with several agents who told the Nationals their clients were scared off by the uncertainty regarding the franchise.

Still, if anything, the team's baseball operations department, which is responsible for the product on the field, has suffered the least from the uncertainty. General Manager Jim Bowden, who helped construct the team that surprised many in baseball by going 81-81 last year and remaining in contention until the season's final weeks, was given a payroll budget for 2006 of around $60 million, an increase of 20 percent over last year's figure of around $50 million.

Bowden has used that extra money to sign a slew of low-cost players in hopes of boosting the franchise's depth. Yesterday, in fact, he signed first baseman-catcher Matt LeCroy, previously with the Minnesota Twins, to a one-year deal worth $850,000. LeCroy, 29, could back up both Nick Johnson at first base and Schneider at catcher.

The Nationals have also sweetened their offer to former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who spent last season with the Baltimore Orioles, changing it from a minor-league deal to a major-league deal -- although it would still not be guaranteed unless he makes the team in spring training -- in order to make it more palatable to Sosa, who needs 12 more homers to become the fifth member of baseball's 600-home-run club.

The Nationals' low-ball offer -- the contract would provide a minimal salary with numerous incentive bonuses -- probably has more to do with Sosa's declining skills than with the franchise's financial shortcomings.

"Every GM operates with some [financial] constraints, and I'm certain the constraints of every team are different," said Adam Katz, Sosa's agent. Katz, however, refused to discuss the negotiations regarding Sosa and the Nationals.

Bowden's one extravagant acquisition this winter was second baseman Alfonso Soriano, in a trade with the Texas Rangers. Although Bowden has long coveted Soriano for his combination of speed and power, this afternoon, in a conference room at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., a team of negotiators representing the Nationals will use Soriano's career numbers against him in an effort to win a salary arbitration case.

At stake is $2 million in 2006 salary -- the difference between the team's offer of $10 million and Soriano's figure of $12 million -- and team executives say privately there is little hope of reaching an agreement before today's hearing. For the Nationals, the difference between winning and losing the hearing could be an extra bullpen arm, or some extra cash to play with in trade talks this spring.

"It's a huge number for us," Bowden acknowledged during a telephone interview from his Viera office. However, Bowden declined to comment when asked how the franchise's uncertainty has affected his ability to do his job.

Meantime, in Washington, the team yesterday put season tickets and mini-plans on sale to the general public, as it continues to seek to convince its 2005 ticket-holders to renew theirs. The team drew more than 2.7 million fans to RFK Stadium in 2005, ranking 11th out of 30 major league teams in attendance.

The Nationals had hoped to ride the momentum of last year's strong performance on the field to an equally strong showing at the box office this offseason. But Tavares said the team's renewal rate -- from its 2005 season-ticket base of around 22,500 -- is between 80 to 85 percent, well shy of the goal of 90 percent, and the Nationals attribute much of that to the political wrangling that filled much of the winter.

Additionally, the team has done virtually no advertising locally and likely will not broaden its penetration into the local television market, with perhaps only 90 or so games to be broadcast locally in 2006.

"They won't have much more exposure in '06 than in '05, and it will probably be the least exposure on TV of any team in baseball," said one person familiar with the team's broadcast efforts.

"If they had ownership in place, they could be making plans for the future, have a longer-term budget and they could select an owner who has great marketing acumen," said Marc S. Ganis, chief executive of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. "An owner with strong marketing skills would be a huge help."

Sometimes, even when the Nationals seek to rise above their humble circumstances, they fail miserably. This week, the team put in a new central telephone system at the office, in order to help alleviate the problem of long hold times for fans seeking tickets or other information.

On Monday, the system crashed, giving callers -- some of who, no doubt, were potential ticket buyers -- no way to reach the Nationals for almost 24 hours.

Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.

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