By Thomas Heath and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Major League Baseball is likely to award ownership of the Washington Nationals to a group led by Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner, after efforts by District politicians and others to steer the selection to competing bidders apparently backfired, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who will decide who gets the franchise, was angered by accusations that Lerner's group was unacceptable because it had included minorities only as tokens rather than genuine partners, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations.
D.C. Council members Marion Barry and Vincent B. Orange Sr. held a news conference yesterday to accuse Lerner's family of "renting blacks" in its effort to win the right to buy the team from Major League Baseball.
Although there is no timetable for an announcement and Selig likes to deliberate at length, two sources familiar with his views said he has virtually ruled out Lerner's two main rivals: a group led by D.C. businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients and a conglomerate led by Indianapolis media executive Jeffrey Smulyan.
As Lerner's prospects for winning the team have improved in recent weeks, Major League Baseball has come under pressure from national and local supporters of the other bidders. The lobbying -- including from some members of Congress -- came to a head yesterday with the Barry and Orange news conference.
Baseball officials closely monitored the session at the John A. Wilson Building. There, Barry (D-Ward 8) and Orange (D-Ward 5) suggested that the Lerners recently added several high-profile African American investors to their group solely to answer MLB's call for racial diversity. Those investors won't have any significant authority or input if the Lerner family is named team owner, the council members said.
"We can't have blacks being rented for a day," Barry said. "We want real participation. We need to do better than [teams] have done around the country.
"If you name the Lerners, you're five steps backward and five years backward."
When Selig and other baseball officials learned about the comments late yesterday, they were incensed and strengthened their resolve to back Lerner, according to the sources.
Michael Shapiro, a spokesman for the Lerner family, declined to comment. Associates of the Lerners said the family is abiding by a directive from MLB in the fall that asked the groups to refrain from talking publicly about the sale of the Nationals.
The significance of minority participation in running the franchise has grown more pronounced as MLB nears its decision.
The District is contributing $611 million in public money for a new stadium, and council members have said they expect the team owners to invest in the city and reflect its diversity. MLB officials have said they are seeking minority involvement in part to help rekindle interest in the sport among inner-city communities.
It is not clear how much of the $450 million purchase price that MLB has set for the Nationals would be paid by the minorities in the Lerner or Malek-Zients groups. Smulyan has said minority investors would put up $50 million in cash.
Neither Orange nor Barry offered conclusive evidence that minorities in the Lerner group would play a smaller role in running the team than would minorities in the other two groups.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has praised the Lerners for their major development projects, including White Flint Mall and Tysons Corner Center. Graham said yesterday that minority participation is "extremely important," and he added that he has no evidence that the Lerners are not committed to diversity.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who has endorsed the Malek-Zients group, has said that he has never spoken with the Lerners. The mayor has not weighed in on whether he believes their minority partners would have a significant role in the franchise.
The Malek-Zients group includes such high-profile African Americans as former secretary of state Colin Powell and Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert.
Smulyan signed up more than a dozen District-based partners, including several African Americans such as former deputy U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder. Smulyan has pledged to name a black team president.
The Lerner group has several minority partners, too. However, some appear to have been added only after MLB officials urged the family to add black investors two weeks ago. Former U.S. transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater and Washington area banker B. Doyle Mitchell Jr. were identified last week as having joined the Lerner group.
Both had been members of a bid by former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, who recently joined Lerner's group.
"They only got minorities the last few weeks," said Orange, who is running for mayor. "It's pretty much a front."
Messages left with Slater were not returned yesterday, and an MLB spokesman declined to comment.
Two sources with the Lerner family, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of baseball's directive not to talk about the sale, said yesterday that the Lerners had been in talks with minority investors for as long as a year and that they recently finalized agreements with those investors after prompting from MLB. Brown has been an investor with the Lerners since last year, according to a family source.
Orange and Barry vowed to introduce an emergency council resolution today calling on MLB to award the team to either the Malek-Zients group or the Smulyan group.
The resolution, which would be nonbinding, would need support from nine of the council's 13 members to be approved.
Staff writer Thomas Boswell contributed to this report.