Lerners, MLB Finish Details of Nats Deal
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner and his family were wrapping up final details with Major League Baseball last night on the purchase of the Washington Nationals for $450 million, after a year-long competition during which they won the confidence of Commissioner Bud Selig.
A formal introduction of the Lerners as the team's new owners could come as soon as today, just as the Nationals return to Washington for a five-game homestand at RFK Stadium and city officials plan to break ground on a $611 million stadium complex along the Anacostia River in Southeast tomorrow.
Once the sale is announced, baseball has promised, the league's 29 team owners would approve the deal this month and the Lerners would assume operation of the Nationals by mid-June. Former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, who joined forces with the Lerners last month, would oversee day-to-day baseball operations.
They will inherit a franchise that had a charmed first season in Washington a year ago but this year is struggling on the field and has been playing before diminished crowds at home.
True to their game plans, neither the Lerners nor MLB officials made public comments yesterday. A person with knowledge of the negotiations, who asked not to be identified because MLB has asked people not to speak publicly, said the parties were trying to coordinate a strategy to introduce the family to the city by arranging their schedules so that Selig, the Lerners and the family's collection of investment partners were available.
Several D.C. Council members publicly denounced Selig's possible selection of the Lerners, and others said they hoped Selig would select one of the other bidders.
"It looks like we're headed to divorce court before we even say, 'I do,' " D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said of the city's relationship with the Lerners. A day earlier, Orange and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had said that the Lerner family had not done enough to include black investors in its bid for the franchise.
"I hope baseball does the right thing and picks an owner we can get along with," Orange said. "If not, it will be a long ride."
The council also inserted itself into the impasse over cable television rights to Nationals games by approving emergency legislation that threatens to strip Comcast's operating license in the city.
The council's actions have rekindled some of the hostile feelings between the city and MLB that many hoped had dissipated since their bitter fight over a stadium lease agreement was resolved last month. Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and council colleagues said Orange and Barry had gone too far with their racial accusations, most remained leery of the Lerner family, which is not well known at the John A. Wilson Building.
"That's out of bounds. I don't support that," Williams said of statements in which Orange and Barry accused the Lerner group of adding black investors as tokens.
Williams and some council members have long supported a rival group headed by D.C. businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, and other council members favored a syndicate led by Indianapolis media executive Jeffrey Smulyan. The Malek-Zients and Smulyan groups lobbied city officials repeatedly in the past year, but the Lerners remained quiet, talking solely with MLB and declining to discuss their bid with city leaders.