Business With MLB Goes Beyond Price Tag
Sunday, May 7, 2006
On Sept. 29, 2004, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig set some priorities regarding the franchise he was moving from Montreal to Washington.
"The sooner we have a new owner," Selig said, "the better off we'll all be."
Selig's chief lieutenant, Robert A. DuPuy, said in January 2005 that he hoped to have the sale "buttoned up" by the time the newly renamed Nationals opened their first season in Washington. A month later, Selig made a revision, telling reporters he wanted to have an owner "by early spring." In May, another revision: "This can be done by midsummer," Selig said. When midsummer came and Selig spoke at the All-Star Game in Detroit, he said, "We will be done this summer, there's no question."
Yet it wasn't until 11:30 a.m. Wednesday when a secretary of Theodore N. Lerner, waiting anxiously in a conference room in his offices at the Washington Square complex on Connecticut Avenue and L Street, sent a message to her boss. Selig was on the phone. He granted Lerner and his group of investors the right to pay $450 million for the Nationals.
Five hundred eighty-one days passed between the moment Washington landed baseball and the day its team landed an owner. The process that led to the naming of the Lerners was fraught with delays and distractions, and it revealed much about the District's political climate. But more than anything, it showed how Selig -- who rules over a $3 billion enterprise that since 1922 has held a unique status as the only sports league exempt from antitrust rules -- works at a pace all his own, influenced more by his methodical, plodding style than by cries from anyone on the outside to speed up the process.
In the end, Selig achieved his goal of putting the team in the hands of a respected local owner with deep pockets, ending a four-year period in which the franchise was a ward of baseball's 29 other teams. But by taking so long to make up his mind, Selig left unaddressed most of the franchise's long-running problems. The Lerners, who take over the club in a month, will inherit a team with a substandard farm system, its executives working on six-month contracts, its fans unsure when they are able to watch games on television and its players wondering who will sign their next paycheck.
The process also exacerbated a rift between the District's politicians and Major League Baseball, resulting in an explosive situation in the final weeks in which the racial makeup of prospective ownership groups became a public debate.
"Bud has his own timetable," said Tony Tavares, the current Nationals' president who was hired by Selig in 2002, when baseball bought the struggling Montreal Expos franchise for $120 million. "To think that he was going to act differently about this versus what he has done in the past, I think, was folly."
On March 7, the D.C. Council voted 9 to 4 to approve a construction contract for a 41,000-seat baseball stadium to be built along the Anacostia River for the Nationals, capping spending at $611 million. Yet even as the city cleared what baseball officials had called the last hurdle to naming an owner, the decision took nearly two more months.
"I called Buddy and said, 'Why don't you get an owner?' " said Bowie Kuhn, a former baseball commissioner and a native Washingtonian. " 'We are losing opportunities right and left. Without an owner, we aren't going to pick up players.' He said he was working on it."
Selig surrounded himself with a tiny group of advisers during the Nationals sale process that included DuPuy, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Selig's daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, who ran the Milwaukee Brewers until the Selig family sold the team in 2004. The tight-knit structure forced each of the eight potential ownership groups to determine what they might need to do to curry favor with the commissioner.
One quality that Selig valued was discretion. Washington entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky sabotaged his chances by aligning with D.C. council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and publicly saying he would pay for cost overruns on the new ballpark. Tennessee businessman Franklin Haney Sr. brandished a $100 million check at the John A. Wilson Building, Washington's city hall, in an attempt to win public favor. It only drew the ire of Selig, who loathed such public stunts.