By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten has joined the family of Theodore Lerner in a bid to purchase the Washington Nationals, sources said, boosting the Lerners' chances in what baseball insiders believe is a three-way race to buy the team for $450 million.
Kasten, 54, would become the Nationals' president and would own an interest in the franchise under the agreement he struck with the Lerners, according to people familiar with the Lerners' makeup but who declined to be identified because baseball has asked people not to speak publicly about the process. The Lerners currently have several minority partners in their group, sources said, and several more are expected to join Kasten.
Kasten, who was president of the Atlanta Braves for 17 years, and the Lerners declined to comment.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig is expected to select a new owner from among eight bidders in the next several days, and baseball insiders believe the race is between the Lerners; a group of investors led by Washington businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; and Indianapolis media executive Jeff Smulyan, who leads a group of Washington area investors.
The addition of Kasten adds a baseball person with a proven track record to the Lerner group, which did not have one before. But Kasten does not guarantee the Lerners will win the Nationals, according to one person close to the sale process and familiar with Selig's thinking.
The Malek-Zients group has several minority partners, including Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, former secretary of state Colin Powell and native Washingtonian George Haywood. Smulyan also has gathered a strong group of local minority partners, including businessman Rodney Hunt, former deputy U.S. attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. and Radio One chief executive Alfred C. Liggins III.
D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and other city officials have pushed baseball to ensure that the buyer of the Washington Nationals has significant minority representation.
"Any owner should have significant local ownership and, clearly, minority ownership," Brown said. "It sends the right message. I don't think it's a laboratory experiment when you say that you are going to have local minority business owners who are going to have an investment in the team."
Baseball's 29 owners bought the Nationals, then known as the Montreal Expos, from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million in February 2002. Selig has put a price tag of $450 million on the team, which comes with a $611 million stadium project that the District is building along the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast Washington.
Last week, baseball officials said the Lerners, who at times have been considered the favorite to land the franchise, had jeopardized their chances of landing the team because they had not moved quickly enough to add more minorities to their ranks.
The names of all the Lerner partners could not be learned yesterday, although the list includes CBS Sports anchor James Brown, a graduate of DeMatha High School, and BET executive Paxton Baker, according to sources. Brown and Baker did not return telephone messages.
Kasten has long been assumed to be a vital factor in baseball's decision, in part because he successfully ran the Braves and was president of the team during the construction of Turner Field. Kasten is known in baseball circles as an able executive, and he also has run the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers. His experience could be helpful to the new owner, who is expected to play an important role in the construction of the stadium.