Ownership Race in the Homestretch

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

If it makes Nationals fans feel any better, Bud Selig is miserable. Though they may doubt it, their problem is now, finally, his biggest and most pressing issue. They desperately want an owner for the Nats. So does Selig. And he's going to decide soon.

"I was up at 2 a.m. [Monday night] thinking about the Washington ownership situation after I got back from the Cardinals game in their new ballpark," Selig said yesterday. "My wife says she's never seen me agonize like this. It outstrips everything, even labor.

"My daughter Wendy said: 'Look at it this way: Whichever group you pick, you can't go wrong. They both fit your classical criterion. You could have no groups.' "

Both?

The Nats' ownership race is down to Ted Lerner vs. Fred Malek-Jeffrey Zients, with Jeffrey Smulyan of Indianapolis now a long shot and former Braves president Stan Kasten very likely to end up merging with whichever group gets the team.

For Washington fans, this is the best possible horse race. In other cities, such competition in the closing days has forced groups to meld their best elements to make the clinching bid. Lerner and Malek-Zients have been the strongest local groups all along. Kasten has been the wild-card free agent star executive -- playing the role of Larry Lucchino in Boston -- for two years. "Maybe the best odds of all are that, whoever gets the team, Kasten will be running it," one highly placed source said.

Even the ebullient carpetbagger Smulyan -- you have to respect how passionately he wants to own the Nats -- has done a service as well. His strong push to include local minority partners in his ownership group has highlighted the one weakness in the Lerner family's bid. When baseball asked the Lerners to make a similar effort for broad minority participation, they dawdled for months. In fact, as recent as yesterday, a top baseball executive asked, "Have you heard if the Lerners have added anybody yet?"

A Lerner spokesman claims they've got it covered. Yet, as the decision approaches, top executives in baseball say they don't know who these minority partners are. Actual names would be helpful.

Nobody, no matter how rich, philanthropic and family oriented, will be handed a team that plays in a publicly financed park in the District until they demonstrate their good faith on minority inclusion. If the reclusive Lerners think their spotless reputation will suffice, they're wrong.

Even if the Lerners fix their problem belatedly, they may have lost momentum to the Malek-Zients group that includes former secretary of state Colin L. Powell. For many weeks, the Lerners had the inside track. Did they take too much for granted?

"The Lerners aren't just private. They sometimes seem disengaged," one baseball source said. When baseball was up to its armpits in alligators wrestling the D.C. Council, the Malek-Zients and Smulyan groups were in the fray twisting arms. The Lerners were otherwise engaged. Baseball noticed. Even Smulyan, the out-of-towner whose financing has concerned baseball, wanted a piece of the fight more than the ultra-rich locals.

"The Lerners have a lot in their favor. They are one [family] entity, not a group [with different interests]. God knows they have the money and the real estate expertise" in helping to build or consult on a ballpark, one baseball source said. "They'd bring in baseball people to run the team and let them do their jobs."


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