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Lerners, MLB Finish Details of Nats Deal

Ted Lerner
Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner and his family earned the confidence of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

"I'm disappointed that we appear to have a choice of owner who has not reached out to the city," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who favored Smulyan.

Another person associated with the Lerner group, who asked not to be identified for fear of hurting the group's chances at the last minute, said: "The Lerners are not defensive about any of these charges [from the council] because the facts will make everything clear. All these concerns thrown around about us are figments of people's imagination."

The Lerner family apparently earned the confidence of Selig and other top baseball officials by dutifully following their instructions and proving that they would be a responsible addition to MLB's ownership ranks.

The family, for example, did not lobby city officials after MLB issued a directive last year instructing the bidding groups not to discuss the sale of the Nationals. At the request of MLB, the Lerners recently added Kasten, a rival bidder with baseball experience. They also added a number of high-profile minority investors, including former U.S. transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater and Washington banker B. Doyle Mitchell Jr.

But if the Lerners impressed Selig, they gained almost no support at the District building, where rival groups were picking up endorsements through heavy lobbying. Although the Lerners built major projects in the suburbs, including White Flint Mall and Tysons Corner Center -- and in the District, including a major office building at L Street and Connecticut Avenue NW -- most city officials have rarely seen them, much less spoken to them.

Williams and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who also supported Malek-Zients, spoke with Selig by telephone for 45 minutes Monday afternoon. According to Evans, Selig told them that he had not made up his mind and could not tell them when an announcement would come.

Evans said he responded by telling Selig that the Orange-Barry news conference Monday, during which they accused the Lerners of "renting blacks" who would have little say regarding the franchise, was a sign of what could happen if Selig selected the reclusive Lerners.

"We're putting up $611 million, so we ought to have some say," Evans said in an interview. "I don't know what will happen if they pick the Lerners, but there could be all sorts of backlash."

From the beginning, Selig talked with city officials about the bidders but made it clear that he would decide which group would be selected.

Yesterday, Orange and Barry introduced an emergency resolution demanding that Selig select either the Malek-Zients or the Smulyan group. Evans joined them in supporting the resolution, but others took a wait-and-see approach.

"If we adopt this resolution, what do we accomplish other than create more divisiveness?" asked Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7). "We need to move on and make the best we can of it. We need to get an owner to invest in the team and make it competitive."

The council was more proactive in trying to force a resolution of the dispute between Comcast and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos that has kept Nationals games off cable television for 1 million subscribers in the region.

Angelos's Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was awarded a majority stake in the Nationals' cable rights by MLB as part of a settlement that brought the franchise to Washington. But Comcast has failed to meet Angelos's demands to carry the games, and an effort by Congress has failed to solve the impasse.

The council approved an emergency measure yesterday that requires all cable companies in the city to broadcast Nationals games. If the legislation is signed by Williams in the next 10 days, Comcast would have five days to come to an agreement with Angelos or risk losing its operating license. About 100,000 Comcast subscribers live in the District.

Evans, co-sponsor of the bill, pleaded from the dais with Comcast and MASN representatives in the gallery to find a solution.

"Why are you wasting our time here?" he asked. "Work out a deal, guys!"

Evans said the city would have the right to strip Comcast's license because the company would be harming the city's investment in the Nationals' stadium complex by denying District subscribers a chance to watch the team, therefore limiting the fan base.

"We're thrilled they did this," MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. "The council took a step to force Comcast to do what five other cable companies already do: show the games."

But Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen said in a statement that experts have said, "This legislation will not have any legal effect as local government efforts to mandate programming are clearly impermissible under federal law."

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