A Strained Season Off the Field, Too
Monday, September 29, 2008
After the final home game of the Washington Nationals' season, team president Stan Kasten and principal owner Mark Lerner crossed paths in their new stadium's lowest level. The two -- at constant odds, according to sources -- stopped for a minute to chat, then headed in opposite directions. When Kasten stepped into an elevator moments later, he said, sarcastically, "Did you see us fighting over there?"
Though Kasten scoffs at perceived tensions within the organization, others do not. According to numerous team sources and those within the industry, the Nationals' chief problem originates with a private, scrupulous ownership group that maintains painstaking caution over the franchise's spending. That strain ramifies throughout the organization, with each level of Washington's leadership carrying a different, but related, burden. This year, Kasten needed more freedom to operate. General Manager Jim Bowden needed a larger payroll. Manager Manny Acta needed more talent.
Under those circumstances, the relationships between ownership and Kasten, Kasten and Bowden, and Bowden and Acta were tested. In some cases, relationships frayed. In others, they strengthened.
The Washington season ended with 102 losses -- including an 8-3 defeat yesterday in Philadelphia -- unrelenting injuries and personnel dramas, the release of all but one member of the coaching staff, record-low attendance for a new stadium and the Lerner family's refusal to pay $3.5 million to the District in rent. But, because all levels of the team's hierarchy say they will remain for 2009, the challenges that will shape the franchise -- and the relationships that comprise it -- promise to endure.
Ownership and Kasten
When Kasten joined the Lerner group in May 2006, just as Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig selected the Lerners from among eight parties bidding for ownership of the Nationals, he brought with him a formidable reputation for franchise-building, much of it earned as an executive with the Atlanta Braves. He'd run teams for nearly two decades. Ted Lerner, the managing principal owner, had run real estate businesses.
According to some who know Kasten personally, his frustration more than two years later lies with the Lerners' hands-on, tight-fisted management style, which interferes with Kasten's own strategies for penetrating a market noted for its transience and its monogamous affection for the Redskins.
Said one team source: "A guy who's been as successful as he has, you think he'd put his name on the line for some job where he doesn't have last say?"
"He doesn't look like a happy camper," said one Kasten associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to reveal his impressions freely. "There are rumblings that he's very frustrated and ready to walk away."
When the Lerners took over the team in 2006, its payroll stood at $63 million. Washington entered this season with a $55 million payroll. Free spending was never a part of the Kasten plan; he envisioned a bottom-to-top organizational makeover, patience required. But this season, Kasten encountered resistance from a market still new to baseball: The Nationals ranked 19th among 30 teams in attendance and recorded team television and radio ratings so low that Selig questioned their accuracy and dispatched lieutenants to investigate. As a result, the pressure to win soon has ratcheted up.
Those who deal with the Nationals in negotiations describe a division of power in which Bowden searches for creative, low-budget ways to improve the team, and Kasten acts as a conduit to ownership. Ted Lerner remains the "final hammer" on all major decisions, one source said. The Lerner family requires a written rationale for all trade proposals and potential signings.
Kasten's apparent frustration has fostered speculation, both throughout the industry and within the highest levels of the Nationals' hierarchy, that he could depart the organization if another promising opportunity comes along. Some in baseball believe that Kasten could join a group seeking to buy the Chicago Cubs, although there are no indications he is actively pursuing it, and Kasten himself has denied interest.
Baseball officials say they hope to have the sale of the Cubs completed by the end of the year.