Lerner Group Plans RFK 'Grand Reopening'

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

NEW YORK, May 18 -- The Washington Nationals' new ownership group is planning a "grand reopening" of RFK Stadium on July 21 in an effort to show it is committed to improving the fan experience for a franchise struggling at the ticket gate.

Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner and his partners made the announcement Thursday at Major League Baseball headquarters in midtown Manhattan, shortly after the league's 29 other owners voted unanimously to approve the sale of the Nationals to the group.

From the time the Nationals began playing at RFK in April 2005, fans have complained about long lines, poor service, limited food choices, dusty hallways and a garbled sound system. Stan Kasten, who will take over as team president once the sale is finalized in late June or early July, said the new ownership group will seek to make modest improvements and unveil them when the Chicago Cubs come to Washington for a three-game series after the all-star break.

"We want to demonstrate we're here now and we care," said Kasten, who declined to be specific when pressed by reporters. "Buy your tickets now!"

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig introduced the Lerner group shortly after noon. The unanimous vote was expected by baseball officials because Selig usually shores up support for his major decisions ahead of time.

The sale of the Nationals, for which the Lerner group is expected to pay MLB $450 million, will not be completed for several more weeks because of the complex nature of the transaction.

"They got a standing ovation," Selig said, flanked by Lerner and the other partners -- son Mark D. Lerner, sons-in-law Edward L. Cohen and Robert K. Tanenbaum, Kasten and investor Jarvis C. Stewart, the chairman and managing partner of Stewart Partners LLC, a District-based government and public affairs firm.

"I told them that's good news and bad news," Selig continued. "They got the standing O, but that's the last one they're going to get from this group" of competing team owners.

"It was great," Theodore Lerner said of the ovation. "I'd like to get the next one."

Lerner added that he exchanged greetings with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos but did not talk about the rivalry between the two teams, which open a three-game series Friday at RFK. Nor did they discuss the dispute between Angelos and Comcast over the television rights to Nationals' games, a deadlock that has kept the contests off the cable system for nearly a million Washington area subscribers. Comcast, Angelos and MLB officials met last week to no avail, but more meetings are scheduled for next week, officials said.

Kasten said he will meet with the Nationals' front office, coaches and players for the first time Wednesday. Current Nationals president Tony Tavares will depart after the sale is finalized, but Kasten has not commented on the future of General Manager Jim Bowden or Manager Frank Robinson. Most team officials expect both to be replaced by next season at the latest.

The Lerners and Kasten also are expected to have significant input into the construction of a $611 million stadium near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast Washington.

"We got a crash course [on the stadium design], but we've started to make suggestions," Mark Lerner said. Kasten added that officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission have promised that contractors remain on schedule to complete the complex for the 2008 season.

Perhaps most pressing, however, is the atmosphere at 45-year-old RFK stadium. The Nationals have sold an average of 25,154 tickets through 13 home games, well below last season's pace. Although the team's on-field performance, the cable dispute and the delay in getting a new owner have been mentioned as factors for the sluggish ticket sales, fans have also said that RFK lacks basic services and amenities.

Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Braves, acknowledged that there are significant limitations at RFK, whose corridors are far narrower than those at newer ballparks. But in a recent interview in Atlanta, where he gave some reporters a tour of Turner Field, Kasten said some changes can be made.

He said he has already told Aramark, which provides concessions at RFK and Turner Field, to improve the speed and efficiency of its performance at RFK. Kasten also said he intends to improve the professionalism of the ushers, make the stadium cleaner, re-sod some areas outside the ballpark and possibly add a live band outside the stadium to play music as fans enter.

"There's not a lot you can do physically with RFK this year," Kasten said Thursday. "But we want to show we really care and that this is just a taste of what is coming down the road."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga in Chicago contributed to this report.

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