City to Break Ground With Owner

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

District officials said yesterday they expect Major League Baseball to name a new owner of the Washington Nationals in time for Thursday's groundbreaking for a $611 million stadium project that the city is building for the team.

"We look forward to the prospect of having, at long last, the new owner join us for the groundbreaking ceremony," said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig said at a meeting with sports editors in New York yesterday that "we are very, very close" to selecting a new owner to buy the team for $450 million.

"Negotiations have been really intense," Selig said. "I've had more people call me and wrangle and lobby [on this] than I have over anything else."

There are eight bidders vying to buy the team at the $450 million price that baseball has set, but the contest has come down to the family of Theodore Lerner, a syndicate led by Washington businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, and a group of Washington investors headed by Indianapolis media executive Jeffrey Smulyan.

A decision is expected any day.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) made another last-minute pitch for the Malek-Zients group on Washington Post Radio and pressed MLB to make a decision so the new owner can "get out in the community, which is vitally important to maintaining [fan] interest in the team."

Baseball President Robert DuPuy, who is Selig's top deputy, said at a news conference yesterday that Selig intends to have the league's 29 owners vote on the sale when they meet May 17-18 in New York, and the new owner is likely to take over in June, according to the Associated Press.

MLB purchased the Nationals, then known as the Montreal Expos, for $120 million from Jeffrey Loria in February 2002.

Once a deal is approved, the incoming owner must finalize financing before the sale is completed.

"My guess is it will close before June 15, in that ballpark," DuPuy said.

While the new owners won't be allowed to make personnel decisions before the sale closes, they will be involved in the ballpark. DuPuy said some of the groups already have spoken with the architects.

Another prominent member of the Lerner group surfaced yesterday. George Muñoz, 54, assistant secretary of the treasury under President Bill Clinton and now a private attorney, has joined the Lerner coalition, sources said. Muñoz is one of several African Americans and Hispanics who have joined the Lerner group in the last several weeks.

Muñoz previously was chief executive officer of the federal government's Overseas Private Investment Corp., where he was responsible for an $18 billion portfolio of investments in Asia, Africa, southeastern Europe and Latin America. He has more than 20 years experience in corporate and commercial transactions, especially in international business and legal matters, according to the Web site of his law firm, Tobin Petkus & Munoz LLC. Muñoz served as president of the Chicago Board of Education from 1984 to 1986.

District officials said they will issue $535 million in revenue bonds on Wall Street on Wednesday. That would make way for the groundbreaking of the project at the 20-acre site along the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast Washington. Baseball and the federal government are contributing $40 million on top of the $611 million that the city is raising.

Clark Construction will build the stadium, a modern-looking design whose key elements are glass, steel and concrete. The ballpark, designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport of Kansas City and Devrouax and Purnell of the District, is a sharp break from the popular red-brick retro stadiums such as Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Staff writers Cindy Boren and David Nakamura contributed to this report. Boren filed from New York.

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