Nats' Certainty and Uncertainty

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

VIERA, Fla., March 8 -- They have all the positions other baseball organizations have, a team president and a general manager, a manager and a coaching staff, a clubhouse attendant and a video coordinator. But for the last four years, the Washington Nationals have been a major league organization in name only. More often than not, the players who put on the uniforms -- first as the Montreal Expos, then last year as the Nationals -- thought of themselves as something of a collection of lost souls, "a bunch of misfits," Manager Frank Robinson called his team during last season.

But with Tuesday's news that the D.C. Council and Major League Baseball had finally agreed to terms on a lease for a new stadium to be built on the waterfront along the Anacostia River, something else trickled through the Nationals' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. There was the hope that with a new stadium deal would come a new owner, and a new owner would mean that this bunch of misfits might finally become a team with a predictable and stable future.

"An owner's kind of your leader," right-hander John Patterson said in the clubhouse here Wednesday. "He's setting the example. He sets the tone, the expectations. The general manager and the manager do the same, but when you have an owner that owns the organization, you really kind of set the tone for what's to come in the future. When we get an owner, the organization will have a direction."

That direction has been almost impossible to predict since Major League Baseball bought the Expos in February 2002. But MLB officials are now expected to move quickly in choosing among the eight groups who are willing to pay $450 million to purchase the team. And when the sale goes through, the organization could be fundamentally overhauled from top to bottom.

Tony Tavares, the team's president, said Wednesday by phone from Washington that the entire front-office staff "is relieved that this is finally coming to a conclusion." Tavares said that even if a new owner is named in the next month, he thinks it's unlikely the group would clean house in such departments as sales, marketing and ticketing before the end of the season. "I don't think that will be the priority," Tavares said.

Tavares, though, understands the reality for both him and his executive vice president, Kevin Uhlich, as well as for General Manager Jim Bowden and Robinson. The leadership structure might be the first to go when new ownership is named. And he says all have been prepared for this fate from the time they accepted their jobs.

"Honestly, I think I'd say the happiest person on the planet is probably my wife, because I won't be living out of a suitcase anymore," Tavares said, "The uncertainty will be over, regardless of what the outcome is. And that's true for all of us."

At spring training, the Nationals' players spoke optimistically about the impact of new ownership, even if it means a change in leadership. There is the perception among players that the club was hampered in its offseason pursuit of free agents, and several agents told Bowden that the uncertainty in Washington meant their clients couldn't seriously consider the Nationals even if they made offers that were competitive financially.

"I think they were kind of hamstrung," said St. Louis Cardinals catcher Gary Bennett, a National last season who has played for six teams with traditional ownership structures. "I mean, it's obvious with the moves they could do and what they could not do this winter. Everything's kind of up in the air, so you can't really go out and get top free agents. You kept hearing: 'They're going to announce the owner. They're not going to announce the owner.' That [uncertainty] had to handcuff them."

So the immediate assumption among the current Nationals is that everything from the lineup to the locker rooms will change with new ownership.

"I believe it's going to be a different scenario," outfielder Jose Guillen said. "An owner who comes here and pays $450 million, he's going to have money and spend money. Just look at the situation last year. I know Jim wanted to make some moves, and he did okay, but we didn't have much money, and it could be a different story. Money talks. Look at the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Cubs. When they need something, they can go out and get it."

But Tavares and others caution that just because a new owner takes control doesn't mean the payroll will necessarily be expanded. "A new owner isn't going to be a panacea," he said. The Nationals' projected payroll of $60 million already is an increase of $7.2 million from last year, and the total would have ranked the team 20th of the 30 major league clubs a year ago.

"To me, if I'm a player, the important part of this isn't the new owner," Tavares said. "How many players really have a relationship with the owner of a team? That's not going to help us get more hits or make fewer errors.

"What's important is that the players know now that they're going to be in Washington. They know that the team isn't going anywhere. That's the impactful part of this."

The players, though, already are salivating. They can envision the new stadium. They can envision a new owner. And they can envision what that finally might mean for them.

"They're spending $611 million on a stadium?" Patterson said. "That's setting a pretty good example of what they expect from baseball in the future there. Washington, D.C., could definitely be a hot spot for free agents to play."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company