By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006
With Major League Baseball poised to select a new owner for the Washington Nationals within the next week, the family of local real estate patriarch Theodore "Ted" Lerner yesterday was very close to teaming up with former Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten in an effort to buy the Nationals, sources said.
The talks between the Lerners and Kasten, which sources said have been in the works for weeks, would bring Kasten and several of his minority investors to the joint effort. Sources said the talks were in the final stages yesterday, but they cautioned that both sides were still working on finishing documentation on the deal. Sources declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Baseball officials said earlier this week that the Lerners, who at times have been baseball's favorite to purchase the franchise, had jeopardized their chances of landing the team for the $450 million purchase price because they had not moved quickly enough to add more minorities to their ranks.
Members of the Lerner family could not be reached to comment.
The identity of the Kasten investors also could not be learned yesterday, and the Lerners have not identified their minority investors.
The Lerners are among three groups believed to be the finalists for the right to purchase the Nationals. The other two groups are a syndicate of investors led by Washington businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, and a group of Washington investors led by Indianapolis media executive Jeffrey Smulyan.
It also was learned yesterday that Malek and Zients late last year added new minority members to their group. They are native Washingtonian George Haywood and Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, who join more than a dozen other area businessmen already in the group.
Kasten has long been assumed to be a vital factor in baseball's decision, in part because he successfully ran the Atlanta Braves for 17 years, was president of the team during the construction of Turner Field and is known in baseball circles as a capable executive. That experience could be helpful to the new owner, who is expected to play an important role in the construction of a new, $611 million stadium project the District is building for the Nationals along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.
With Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig expected to name an owner as early as next Friday, city officials and members of various bidding groups were buzzing with rumors of mergers and of which group was most representative of the Washington community.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who has publicly endorsed the Malek-Zients group, expressed reservations to a local television station on Wednesday about whether Lerner is the best choice, saying Lerner's group apparently does not have significant minority participation, according to the Web site of WRC (Channel 4).
"Again, my criteria is, is the group local? Does the group have minority participation? What is the group's commitment in general, in terms of knowledge of baseball, advancement of baseball in the district?" Williams said, according to WRC.
"I am excited we are still having conversations about local ownership and minority ownership and Major League Baseball is making a statement here making sure local minorities have ownership in one of their franchises," D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said. "Smulyan's group has led the way in the conversation about local minority ownership with the 40 percent minority ownership they have at the table."
Ted Lerner made his fortune in the Washington real estate market. His son, Mark Lerner, also is a member of the group, as are Ted Lerner's sons-in-law.
One person familiar with the composition of the Lerner group, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the process, defended the Lerner group's makeup. "When the mayor learns the truth, he will be very pleasantly surprised," the source said.
Baseball has been criticized for not having selected a new owner more quickly, but city officials as late as yesterday were still signing paperwork for the lease, defining the terms under which the Nationals will rent the stadium. Selig has been reluctant to name a new owner before all the paperwork on the lease is finished.
Smulyan, Malek and Zients, and members of the Lerner family, all attended the Nationals' home opener on Tuesday.