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After 17 Months, Baseball Introduces Nats' Owners
"There's only one acceptable solution," said Kasten, who ran the Braves for 17 years. "And that is all the games to be on Comcast with no exceptions. I can't tell you exactly when, but we will get there."
Kasten, who will oversee the day-to-day operation of the ballclub, outlined a "global vision" to turn the franchise around. The team has one of the worst records in baseball, plays in a 44-year-old stadium and has a farm system in disarray after years of neglect. The Nationals are averaging 24,928 in paid attendance this season, but the actual number of fans in the stands has been far fewer most games.
"We are going to become the next big sports phenomenon," Kasten said. "And when we succeed, because every country in the world which plays baseball has a media presence here, we will be a phenomenon not just nationally, but internationally."
Kasten said Nationals fans should not expect quick results. "Number one, you build a team from the ground up with player development," he said. "Two, you focus on the fan's experience from the minute they leave their home until the minute they leave the stadium. And third, you completely immerse the team in the community."
Kasten refused to be drawn out on whether he planned any immediate changes in personnel, but he said the new ownership will begin its work as soon as the sale is approved by the 29 other league owners, who meet in New York May 17-18.
City officials and developers who own land near the new baseball stadium said the Lerners' vast real estate experience will help in the plans to develop the more than 50 acres around the stadium into a vibrant mix of offices, housing and retail.
"Having someone with development experience and retail experience like the Lerners will be helpful in creating a lively, day and night area that will draw people 365 days a year from the Metro down to the waterfront area," said Adrian G. Washington, president and chief executive of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a quasi-government agency that is overseeing the redevelopment efforts.
"With Lerner, we've got someone who gets it," Washington said. "They understand how to create projects that work. We will work together and talk with them."
While the Nationals are the first team the Lerners have been successful in purchasing, they have been at the bidding process for three decades, most recently finishing second to Daniel M. Snyder when he bought the Washington Redskins in 1999 for $800 million. The Lerners tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles many years ago, and they considered buying the San Francisco Giants in 1976 with the intention of moving them to Washington. "This was our last chance," Ted Lerner said.
Speaking at a news conference last evening at the Fairmont hotel in the District, Lerner said he wanted to repair relations with District leaders, who have expressed unease about baseball's choice of the Lerner family over its leading rival, a group led by prominent Washington businessmen Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients. Some District politicians in recent days accused the Lerners of tokenism by taking on additional minorities as investors in an effort to win ownership of the team.
Lerner said he had spent the better part of the day speaking by telephone with District officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D. C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp (D). Two of the family's biggest critics, council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), attended the news conference to offer their congratulations to the family and their investors. Barry and Orange even posed for pictures with the Lerner group.
"The fact that he called and reached out, that's what we've been looking for," Orange said. "That's a good sign, a good beginning. . . . I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because we have a lot of money on the line with the new stadium."
CBS sportscaster James Brown, who is a Lerner investor and a Washington native, said he accepted the olive branch that Barry and Orange extended by attending last night's news conference.
"I would have expected it from them," Brown said. "I told them, 'No harm. No foul.' I told Marion Barry that all of his life he has been pushing for this kind of participation in the economic pie for those who have been disenfranchised. And this is what the Lerner family represents. So I knew that he knew his comments were baseless."
Williams, who had backed the Malek-led bid, extended an olive branch as well. "The fans, the District government and most of all the team need the stability of a single owner," Williams said in a written statement. "Ted Lerner was born and raised in the District, attended high school and college here, and grew up watching the Washington Senators. I spoke with Ted Lerner today after he was awarded the team and I firmly believe he will make an excellent owner and a good partner."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who also supported the Malek-Zients group, said, "My advice to Ted Lerner himself is to be as available as possible in next two weeks, to really be available to meet with the council and mayor . . . whatever the avenue is to make himself known."
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.