By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"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."