Nationals' Shepherds Find New Pastures
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
When the Washington Nationals gather at Nationals Park tonight, tomorrow and throughout the season, the people who made their mere existence possible will be scattered about the country. Tony Tavares was in New York yesterday, analyzing various sports and entertainment properties that his group of investors might purchase. Mark H. Tuohey was in the District, back to his day job as a lawyer. Kevin Uhlich was in Kansas City, where the Royals -- for whom he now works -- opened their home season against the New York Yankees.
Each has carved out a new life, post-Nationals. But each of them -- and countless others -- can look back now, as the Nationals play in their pristine new mansion, and know they had a hand in getting them there.
"There should be enormous pride," said Tuohey, who served as the chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a cast of cohorts convinced Major League Baseball to relocate the Montreal Expos in the District, which had lost baseball twice.
The Nationals' current administration -- the ownership of the Lerner family along with team president Stan Kasten -- have marveled at the 22-month timeframe in which Nationals Park was constructed. But when the deal to bring baseball to Washington was brokered, Kasten was a semi-retired sports executive living in Atlanta, Mark Lerner a key player in his family's real estate development company. Each watched from the outside as others brought baseball back to Washington.
"Tony and his team did a great job of executing the task handed them," Kasten said this spring. "They had to get the franchise ready for sale. Our task is different."
There is, in fact, no comparing the two missions. Tavares had been installed as president of the Expos in 2002, when the orders from the office of Commissioner Bud Selig were to prepare the team for contraction -- the euphemism, at the time, for elimination. When the players' union and others balked at that plan, relocation came into the picture. And in October 2004, Tavares found himself calling his old buddy, Uhlich -- with whom he had worked at the Anaheim Angels -- and assembling a front office.
"What I remember most is the fun that we had given the time pressures that were put on us, running around at 90 miles per hour," Tavares said by phone yesterday. "We had to put an executive team together, had to make sure that the renovation of RFK Stadium was meeting expectations and we were getting a major-league-quality experience -- as best we could."
The team Tavares hired worked in trailers in the parking lots at RFK. "They were there with visiting rodents," Tavares said. "Or I shouldn't say 'visiting.' They were resident rodents."
There was no sales group, no marketing operation, no ticketing system. Yet between October 2004 and April 14, 2005 -- when Liván Hernández threw the first pitch at RFK Stadium against the Arizona Diamondbacks -- Tavares, Uhlich and a sales group led by local sports executive David Cope, who now works for D.C. United, built a season ticket base of about 22,500. That year, the Nationals drew more than 2.7 million fans. This year, with Nationals Park opening on national television, the season ticket base is around 18,000, according to club officials.
But in getting to that first pitch at RFK, there were brutal negotiations with the city. Even after the D.C. Council approved the taxes that would provide the money for what is now Nationals Park, there were moments when the key players on either side -- the city and baseball -- thought the entire deal might collapse.
"The enormity of the task, when you reflect on it, was daunting," Tuohey said. The list of characters involved is long, and largely anonymous. Allen Y. Lew was then the chief executive of the sports and entertainment commission, and he was simultaneously involved with overhauling RFK and working with baseball on the plans for Nationals Park. Lawyers at the offices of Foley & Lardner, which had baseball as a client, worked with Tavares in their negotiations with the District. Uhlich, who is now running the business side of the Royals, was charged with everything from hiring staff to arranging for the trailers to arrive in RFK's parking lots.
When Selig selected the Lerners as the winning bidder in May 2006 -- they beat out eight other groups willing to put up $450 million for the franchise -- Tavares had no future in Washington. One of the other leading groups, led by Washington business executives Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, was interested in retaining Tavares, at least in the short term. The Lerners, however, had already paired with Kasten, an experienced sports executive. Tavares was out.
"Tony's a hard-charger," Tuohey said, "but he's a hard-charger who I want in the foxhole with me."
Now, his new venture is as chief executive of Sports Properties Acquisitions Corp., a firm that has raised more than $200 million of capital and intends to purchase a pro sports franchise, a restaurant chain, an agency, a food-service for sports franchises -- some large business that has ties to the sports or entertainment industries. Among the company's board members are baseball legend Hank Aaron, former quarterback and U.S. representative Jack Kemp and Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York.
Less than two years after his departure, Tavares checks the Nationals' box scores. But he did not watch the opener of Nationals Park. "I was traveling," he said. "Unless you're continuing to have an impact, you tend to just move on to the next challenge."
But in the middle of the first true homestand at the park he helped plan, Tavares and his team have a unique perspective on how the franchise might do going forward.
"I still think baseball is going to be very successful in D.C.," Tavares said. "Could you face some short-term challenges? I think they're facing them right now. I think this franchise's toughest years will be the next couple.
"Life should get a whole lot easier once we see the area around the park have the investment put into it, once some of those projects are complete. You have a couple of years where you're going to have to deal with traffic issues, the lack of parking, the neighborhood issues. But when those get resolved, they ought to be able to get that spinnaker out and let the wind carry them."