By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
When District politicians look at the selection of an owner for the Nationals, one issue dominates all others -- progress toward racial diversity, using the ballclub as a symbol of that fight. They want more social justice. And more votes, too. When baseball looks at this same process, it has one overriding consideration: which ownership group, provided it has addressed diversity issues, is most likely to build a successful franchise in Washington.
Neither side comes at this problem with a tarnished agenda. In fact, both think of their goals as eminently worthwhile. Yet, at the moment when this area could be celebrating the announcement of a new Nats owner, as well as the groundbreaking for the new ballpark tomorrow, D.C. Council members and Major League Baseball officials -- who have battled for 20 months over every issue except whether the sun rises in the East -- are now bitterly at loggerheads over race.
Bad blood may be blinding them both. Each side's view is defined by its own interests and obsessions, yet, at this point, everybody needs to understand that they are close to agreeing on the most central point of all. Everyone finally has the same goal: D.C. politicians, who have authorized a hugely expensive park at public expense, and baseball executives, who are opening a vast and rich new market, have a powerful motivation to promote the long-term success of the Nationals.
Step back. Look at it this way. See if it helps. Imagine the year 2020. The Nats, playing in their new park in Southeast, are almost as successful in baseball as the Redskins are in the NFL. The Nats have played in the World Series. Crowds are in the top 10 in baseball almost every year. Restaurants, hotels, stores and a prosperous economy have spread out from Half Street to revitalize a whole section of the city. Ask any D.C. taxpayer or Nats fan if that $611 million price tag for a new park was worth the cost and the worry. Ask if the politicians who voted for this baseball dream, as well as the Nats' owner who helped make it a reality, are local heroes or not.
Of course, everyone answers, "Yes!"
Now imagine a second scenario. It's 2020 and the Nats are almost as bad as the old Senators. Nationals Park is as bereft of fans as RFK Stadium was in 1971, just 10 seasons after it first opened for baseball. The District franchise has been run as ineptly as it was in the last-place days of Calvin Griffith or Bob Short. Washingtonians routinely refer to "The $611 Million Nightmare."
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig considered these two scenarios yesterday. "That nails down what we face in choosing a Washington owner," he said. "It is a decision with long-term consequences that can last generations. There are a myriad of factors that go into it. What I want to do, as I tried to do in Boston [four years ago], is pick the owner that gives Washington the best chance for the most success. We pulled it off with the Red Sox, though I got a lot of criticism at the time.
"Having diversity in an ownership group is one of those important factors. I'm very sensitive to it."
But from baseball's perspective it is not the only factor. Picking the ownership group with the most racial diversity -- especially when both of the final contenders for the Nationals have several prominent minority partners -- is not all-important.
Perhaps baseball is wrong in this. Perhaps using a baseball team as a symbol of racial progress should be the defining criterion for the new Nats owner in a predominantly African American town that's paying a $611 million tab. But it isn't going to be. Racial inclusion will only be one of the key considerations. Baseball is a business. It owns the team. Selig gets to decide.
So owner Ted Lerner, with Stan Kasten (architect of the Braves success) as his team president, is going to get the Nationals with an announcement any nanosecond. That means the local group headed by Fred Malek and Jeffery Zients will be bypassed, despite their emphasis on racial diversity and community involvement in their ownership pitch for at least the last five years. And despite their role as the local "point" group for six years that nagged Mayor Tony Williams into offering baseball a ballpark deal it couldn't refuse. Their overwhelming (financial) force strategy, sold to Williams, ultimately broke the blockade by Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
It is natural that City Council members, as well as Williams, should strongly support the Malek-Zients group. However, from Selig's perspective, the strength of the Lerner group is as clear to him as the virtues of Malek-Zients are to Vincent B. Orange Sr. Selig is convinced that some types of owners tend to be far better than others. He believes that extremely wealthy single-family owners with hometown roots tend to be stable baseball stewards for generations. They are financially supportive in hard times and have a family-business vested interest in fielding winning teams.
In other words, they become a true baseball family, inextricably bonded to the game by blood and, thus, always prepared to defend the sport's multi-generational best interests. As for "groups," you just can't always trust 'em. They fuss, they feud and sometimes that Mr. Perfect heir apparent doesn't ever actually get to run the team. They meddle, they ego-trip, they are in it for the action and the fame, rather than to go about the quiet, out-of-the-spotlight task of nurturing a family and civic heirloom.
Why would Selig believe something along these lines? He cites exemplary families such as the Fetzers in Detroit. But, of course, except for a lack of wealth that hamstrung the Milwaukee franchise, the description would fit Selig himself and his daughter Wendy. He thinks a family -- like his family -- makes the best owners. Even the Lerner family's aversion to publicity works for Bud. "I've only met Ted Lerner once," Selig said this week. He meant it as praise, a mark of modesty. Also, Selig believes the best owners hire the best executives then keep their hands to themselves. The Malek-Zients group, and their supporters, have never fit that mold for Selig. Recently, a politician called Selig to pump the Malek group and ended up making a speech about how Kasten "wasn't really a good baseball executive." According to a source, the commissioner was stunned and said, "Stan is one of the best baseball executives ever. And they are calling to tell me that he isn't?"
To Selig, Lerner's willingness to accept Kasten, and his financial demands, was another proof that his family could be trusted to handle the Nats as John Henry handled the Red Sox -- by handing them over to Larry Lucchino, then slipping from view except to make a brief modest speech at that little World Series ring presentation ceremony.
Everything about Lerner-Kasten rings Bud's bells. And the longer he is exposed to the Malek-Zients group, the more their fingernails seem to scratch a chalkboard to Bud's ears.
Is he right? Who knows. Maybe he's got it backward. But he's the commissioner. Picking new owners is one of his core responsibilities. Some calls are made from the gut. That's where this one came from. And Bud's sure, right or wrong.