By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Stan Kasten pulls an 8x10 photograph out of a folder in the trunk of his car. "My favorite photo of me and Ted," he says. In the photo, taken during a news conference at the opening of Turner Field in 1997, Turner is sitting to Kasten's right with a big grin on his face. He has just blasted the high concession prices at the new stadium named for him. To Turner's side sits Kasten, the Atlanta Braves' president, his head buried in his hands.
"That pretty much sums it up," Kasten says. "Twenty-five years with Ted Turner. You just never knew what was coming next."
For Kasten, however, the quarter-century he served as Turner's loyal lieutenant -- beginning as a $200-a-week legal counsel fresh out of law school in 1976, and ending as president of all three of Turner's sports teams until Turner sold them in 2001 -- left him with one of the most dazzling résumés in professional sports.
And now, after nearly three years on the sidelines -- he retired from his three-headed job in 2003 -- Kasten, 54, is preparing to get back into the game, under a new general who, in this case, is also a business partner.
Major League Baseball is poised to announce the sale of the Washington Nationals to a group of investors led by Washington area real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner and his family. Kasten, who led his own group of bidders before merging with Lerner, is expected to be the Nationals' president, as well as a prominent investor, under Lerner.
If so, Washington is getting, in Kasten, someone viewed by baseball's leadership as a model executive -- not only because of the Braves' impressive track record on the field under his command, but especially because of his financial track record. Although the Braves' revenue afforded them the luxury of having one of the highest payrolls in the majors during the 1990s, they rarely overpaid for talent, and the stadium deal Kasten negotiated for the Braves was seen as highly favorable for the team.
On its own, the Kasten group's bid for the Nationals was given little chance of succeeding, but because he is viewed so highly by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and his lieutenants, it was widely assumed Selig would seek to merge the Kasten group with another prominent one. The merger last month vaulted the Lerner coalition to the top of the list of contenders.
"If he is the selection, they've gotten themselves a first-class sports executive," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "It's fair to say it would be hard to replicate somebody with Stan's wide range of experience and his successes."
Still, others view Kasten as arrogant -- a label he begrudgingly accepts -- and unaccepting of opposing views, such as those that might be held by agents and the media, two groups with whom he has clashed in the past.
"I understand that [word]. I don't mean to be," he said when confronted with the label of being arrogant. "I do have a passionate, self-confident style when I'm trying to make my point."
In a recent interview in Atlanta, Kasten refused to discuss the Nationals, the Lerners or the Washington market. But he said he had turned down multiple offers to run other teams since his 2003 retirement, while looking instead for something meatier to "throw myself into."
"I've been blessed with great people who want to invest in something," Kasten said, "and they're waiting for me to say, 'This is the right deal. This is the right team.' "
After years of searching, Kasten found that deal and that team in the Nationals.
John Moag, whose Baltimore-based sports management group is advising Kasten, recalled a conversation with Kasten early in the Nationals' sale process. "He said, 'This is arguably the most exciting sports project to come along in quite a while, and that's the one I want,' " Moag recalled Kasten as saying. "He looks at Washington as one of the most exciting opportunities anywhere. Not only is it in the nation's capital, but it also requires someone to build a franchise and build a stadium. Notwithstanding the one year they've already played in Washington, the Nationals are very much a blank slate."Fighting His Way Up
When the Atlanta Hawks made a goodwill tour of the former Soviet Union in 1988, Stern and his wife, Dianne, tagged along, spending a few extra days at the end sightseeing with Kasten, then the Hawks' president, and his wife, Helen. One night, the couples stayed in a grand old hotel in Leningrad that unfortunately had no screens on its windows. Overnight, a swarm of mosquitoes attacked, leaving the Sterns full of red bites and the bitter air of the utterly defeated.
In the Kasten's room, however, it was a different story: It was a massacre, Stern recalled recently, with mosquitoes splattered all over the walls and the Kastens, though bitten a few times, none the worse for wear.
"Stan," Stern said with a laugh, "had fought the good fight."
Kasten, in fact, fought the good fight -- at least as he and his allies would term it -- for 27 years in professional sports, beginning in 1976, when, after a chance meeting, he approached Turner at a baseball game and offered his services. Turner gave Kasten his business card and told him to write a letter. Weeks later, Turner offered him a job.
In 1979, Kasten became the youngest general manager in NBA history when Turner promoted him to that position with the Atlanta Hawks. Kasten later won NBA executive of the year awards in back-to-back seasons. In 1986, he ascended to the job of Hawks' president, and eight months later took over the same duties with the Braves. Finally, in 1999, Turner added the duties of president of Atlanta's professional hockey franchise, the Thrashers, to Kasten's plate.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, one of Kasten's best friends dating from their days together in the NBA in the early 1980s, recalled that Kasten decided to take up ice skating when he became president of the Thrashers, as a way to better understand the movements of hockey. "But I don't know -- it may have just been a midlife crisis," Bettman said, "because he also started learning to play the banjo."
Among Kasten's legacies in Atlanta was trading for (and later trading away) NBA all-star Dominique Wilkins, hiring Braves General Manager John Schuerholz, signing pitcher Greg Maddux and overseeing the construction of both Philips Arena, a gleaming glass edifice that is considered one of the most innovative basketball and hockey venues in the country, and Turner Field, the Braves' ballpark, which evolved from the Olympic Stadium that served as the centerpiece of the 1996 Atlanta Games.
If there is a knock on Kasten in Atlanta, it is that he won just one championship -- the Braves' 1995 World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians. "I wish we had won more," Kasten said, "but I'm proud of all the things we did do in Atlanta -- especially given the fact all three teams, when I took them over, were either dead last or an expansion team."High Praise in Tough Times
On Dec. 22, 1999, Kasten was on a skiing vacation in Colorado when his cellphone began ringing. Sports Illustrated was about to publish a story about Braves closer John Rocker in which Rocker made inflammatory comments about minorities, homosexuals and immigrants.
Kasten, the son of two Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland after World War II, was angered as both a businessman and a second-generation American.
"I was born in New York City," he said. "I'm particularly sensitive to what's written on the Statue of Liberty. That was ingrained in me. My parents were Holocaust survivors. My parents beat that [message] into me every day as they were showing me the Holocaust pictures. . . . I took some time to share that with John."
The Rocker fiasco dominated the next six months of Kasten's professional life, as he fought to defuse a volatile situation that required the most delicate of touches. The Braves had no intention of getting rid of Rocker, a dominant pitcher due to make only $290,000 in 2000, but needed to placate an angry coalition of activists that was calling for Rocker's head.
The key parts of Kasten's strategy were to immediately distance the franchise from Rocker's comments, to agree to every meeting requested by every angry interest group, and to leave Rocker's punishment in the hands of baseball's head office. Kasten believed Rocker was not racist, just immature. "He got carried away," Kasten said, "with his own wrestling character."
Ultimately, Rocker was suspended for 14 days, but the Braves' handling of the situation drew praise.
Kasten "is a man with integrity -- that's what I took away from this incident," said former Atlanta City Council member Derrick Bozeman, a leader of the anti-Rocker forces at the time. "I didn't always agree with him. But he did what he said he was going to do. He could have hid out and said, 'Let's just let this blow over,' but he didn't. . . . I told him to save those teary-eyed stories [about his parents] for someone else. But I did get the real sense that it went deeper than just business for him."
Like Atlanta, Washington is a majority-black city that holds a central role in the nation's civil rights history. In recent weeks, the role of minority investors within the competing groups of bidders for the Nationals became a major issue, with critics in the D.C. government accusing the Lerner group of tokenism.
Kasten views himself as someone attuned to the plight of the disenfranchised. Asked about the District's demographics and baseball's efforts to retain African American players and fans, Kasten touted the Braves' efforts at minority outreach during the 1990s. When other teams were content to snatch up a couple of African American scouts and hold them up as examples of diversity, he said, the Braves started a minority scouting internship in 1994, pulling students from Atlanta's traditionally black colleges.
"No one was out in the community more than the Braves," Kasten said. "We worked very hard at that. . . . Wherever I go next, that's going to be an important part of what we do."Inner Development
When Kasten agreed to take over the Braves in 1986, he spent the first few months studying the franchise's operation. The Braves' business model, he told Turner, was a losing formula. That model was fueled by a desire to create compelling programming for Turner's superstation, TBS, for which it relied heavily upon pricey free agent talent, with mostly lousy results.
The better approach, Kasten told him, was to invest in player development -- by buying additional minor league teams, signing more draft picks and improving minor league facilities.
"To his credit," Kasten said, "Ted told me: 'I don't need a speech. Just fix it, whatever it takes.' "
In 1991, a year after finishing last for the third straight year, the Braves captured the National League West title and came within a whiff of winning the World Series before losing in seven games to the Minnesota Twins. The Braves have won their division title in every year it was awarded (the strike wiped out the end of the 1994 season), a streak unmatched in professional sports.
Still, it is Kasten's experience during his first four years with the Braves -- when the team lost an average of 98 games and finished last three times -- that would be most applicable to his new situation with the Nationals. Washington's baseball team appears headed for a difficult season, and its farm system is ranked among the worst in the game.
Spending huge money on free agents, Kasten said, "takes yourself farther from your goal, not closer."
Not surprisingly, the triumvirate of Kasten, Schuerholz and Manager Bobby Cox became the model for what the power structure in a baseball franchise should look like. Each knew the limits of his role, but partly because of Kasten's background as a general manager, the open lines of communication were often used by the team president to challenge the GM's ideas.
"Don't forget I did 10 years as a GM. I speak their language. I'm sympathetic to the challenges they face," Kasten said. "I think all my GMs would tell you that. . . . None of them would try to [b.s.] me. They're not built that way. But it would be a waste of time trying to [b.s.] me."
Schuerholz said: "I suppose [Kasten's influence] could be intimidating or problematic for somebody who doesn't have confidence in their ability and their knowledge and their work ethic. But if you don't lack those traits, then it's a vibrant, energized environment to be around."
Although Nationals GM Jim Bowden, whose job status will be immediately up for consideration once a new owner is named, is the opposite of Schuerholz in terms of personality -- Bowden is glib and cocky -- Kasten insists there is no template for a Kasten GM. Kasten would not discuss Bowden, or the Nationals' front office, but said he considers Bowden a friend.
As the Braves' reputation as a model organization grew, so, too, did Kasten's influence in baseball's highest power circles. In 1994, he was offered the job of chief negotiator for MLB during its labor negotiations, but turned it down. However, he accepted a spot on the owners' negotiating committee, and was part of the team that dueled the union during the players' strike of 1994-95.
"I always told him he should be the commissioner" of baseball, said Marty Blake, the NBA's longtime director of scouting. "If he was commissioner, you wouldn't have any of the problems you have in baseball now. Of course, he wouldn't have too many friends among the owners. But I honestly felt he would've put his foot down and cleared all this mess up."
Kasten "had a very realistic view as to how the process unfolded in '94-95," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor relations. "He is not someone who kids himself about what goes on in the negotiation -- which is a mistake some negotiators can make. One of Stan's strengths is evaluating whether or not there's a deal to be had."
One outgrowth of Kasten's involvement in the labor process -- he also served on the NBA's labor negotiations committee -- and in individual contract negotiations was a belief that agents were ruining sports. According to Kasten, agents have "superimposed this culture of individuality on what is the most collective of all our cultural endeavors -- team sports."
"Why," Kasten asked rhetorically, "should the most extraneous of elements, the skill of an agent, be the biggest determining factor in how much someone makes?"
David Falk, one of the most powerful agents in the NBA, said he believes Kasten's viewpoints on agents are said "mostly tongue-in-cheek." But Falk said he recalls thunderous screaming matches between him and Kasten.
"I'm very fond of Stan today -- I would consider him a good friend," said Falk, a longtime D.C. resident. "But when we were younger, he was the one guy who could get my goat."
Despite the unprecedented nature of Kasten's career achievements -- no one has run three professional teams in three different sports at the same time, and no team has ever won as many consecutive division titles as the Braves -- he believes there is still a higher plane, one that apparently originates in the nation's capital.
"I absolutely plan to accomplish bigger and better things," Kasten said. "Whatever I do, wherever I go, it needs to be more and bigger and better than anything I've done so far. I'm not coming in to come close or replicate something. I'm shooting for moving beyond that."