Impending Nats Sale Arouses Speculation

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006

Former U.S. deputy attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. walked into his barbershop at Fifth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE around 1 p.m. for his haircut. His visits usually are marked by idle chatter about friends, family and life around town.

Not yesterday. As soon as Holder sat down in the chair, he said, another customer popped the question: So are you going to buy the Nationals?

Holder, an investor in a bid for the team led by Indianapolis media executive Jeffrey Smulyan, said he told the man he didn't have a clue.

"This town," Holder marveled in a telephone interview later, "is really rife with speculation about who is going to own the Nats."

After months of delay and missed deadlines, Major League Baseball's senior leadership appears close to picking a new owner for the Nationals. With so much at stake, the impending decision has touched off a frenzy of gossip and rumors, which rose to a new level yesterday after a local television station reported that the deal was done.

The report completely overshadowed the game between Washington and Cincinnati at RFK Stadium that ended in a 5-0 Reds victory. "When I walked into the stadium there were a number of television cameras that greeted me," said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. "I simply said that MLB had confirmed that no decision had been made. It's the buzz. It's the hot subject around town."

After months in which there was little apparent movement toward a decision on ownership, the league's efforts have picked up speed in the last two weeks. Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and his chief deputy, league president Robert DuPuy, held separate meetings this week with the leading candidates -- a group headed by the family of Bethesda-based developer Theodore N. Lerner and one led by Washington business executives Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients.

Baseball officials said privately afterward that the sessions marked the end of the fact-finding phase of the process. Although the officials remain vague about the timing of the announcement, they have signaled that one could come within days. Baseball is asking for $450 million for the franchise, which the league's 29 other clubs have owned since 2002.

The leading candidates have sought to shore up their bids in recent days by announcing the addition of prominent African Americans and other minorities. Baseball and District officials have pressed the groups to assemble an ownership team that reflects the makeup of the District, which is developing a $611 million stadium project on the Anacostia waterfront.

Another prominent member of the Lerner group surfaced yesterday. Raul Romero, who is a close friend of President Bush's and one of the president's top fundraisers, will be part of the Lerners' bid coalition, sources said.

Romero, 52, is a Panama-born engineer and the former chief executive officer of S&B Infrastructure Ltd., a Houston-based engineering and construction firm. He currently heads up Alliance Consulting Group in the District. When Bush was governor of Texas, he appointed Romero to the state's General Services Commission, which oversees state contracting. He later appointed Romero as a University of Texas regent.

"He definitely is an insider," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico project at Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He has free access to the White House and is a key player in the Bush administration as a liaison to the Hispanic community. He's known as the kingmaker because he recommends a lot of Hispanics for various cabinet positions."

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