A Strained Season Off the Field, Too
Kasten Frustrated by Ownership's Continued Lack of Spending

By Chico Harlan and Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

Last week, Kasten maintained, emphatically, that he was committed to the Washington organization, calling speculation about other potential industry jobs "stupid hypotheticals."

"I am here," Kasten said. "My goal in life is to make this a championship franchise. That's the only thing on my mind right now. I mean, I couldn't be more sincere about that."

Ted Lerner and his son, Mark, declined to comment for this story, deferring questions to Kasten.

Kasten and Bowden

One afternoon last week, Bowden sat in his Nationals Park office alongside two of his assistant general managers, Mike Rizzo and Bob Boone. On one wall hung a massive bulletin board, which listed the name of every player in the organization. Many of those names, for Bowden, represent the pieces of a promising future.

As he munched on a late lunch -- a toasted sandwich and a bag of potato chips -- Bowden spoke of Washington's revamped minor league system, restored to prominence after a period of negligence while the franchise was owned by Major League Baseball. He spoke about this season's major league injuries, which crippled the team's chances to win but accelerated the development of its top talent.

Just then, Kasten appeared near the door of Bowden's office.

"Can I stand here and heckle?" he cracked.

The Kasten-Bowden relationship was a match forced by circumstance -- Bowden joined the organization two years before Kasten -- and their opposing personalities (one emotive, one exacting) have fed an industry-wide perception of tension. By most accounts, that's not the case. Those who work with both speak of an amusing alignment with plenty of bickering, a few flaps, but, in the end, respect. Even when Bowden's name surfaced in the money-skimming scandal in the Dominican Republic -- an investigation is ongoing -- Kasten was one of his staunchest supporters to MLB officials and investigators, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

Bowden describes his relationship with Kasten as "great," and said: "He knows how to build a winner. I've learned a lot from him." Kasten, meanwhile, admires Bowden's endurance for work -- before the 2:30 p.m. sandwich, Bowden had been too busy to eat all day -- and his resourcefulness.

Though the general manager committed mistakes this year with some short-term free agent signings, he also capitalized on several of his trademark risk-reward trades, including the acquisitions of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, which have added to the franchise's promising nucleus of young talent in the major and minor leagues.

Indications are that Bowden will be back, too, in 2009: Nobody within the organization interviewed for this article had heard the slightest hint that Bowden would lose his job.

But many in baseball are amazed that the Kasten-Bowden marriage has lasted this long. Even last week, there was a Sporting News report, attributed to several major league officials, that Kasten wanted to fire a team scout who, while in a press box, had criticized another team's player-development operation. Bowden, the report said, convinced ownership to keep the scout in question.

A Washington team spokesman said later that the scout had been disciplined, but that Bowden and Kasten never disagreed on the matter.

Bowden and Acta

The differences between Bowden and Acta are a matter of both perspective and personality. The general manager watches television alongside his players on clubhouse couches, wears a Manny Ramírez wig when the Dodgers come to town and gives those around him a different mood for every day of the week. The manager, meantime, keeps a reserved profile, stays away from interaction in the clubhouse -- "I give players space," he said -- and never allows his patient optimism to wither.

Acta and Bowden both stressed, repeatedly, that their differences are part of a working relationship both called "healthy." They talk every day, and each, Acta said, knows his territory. The manager doesn't interfere with personnel decisions. And Bowden doesn't influence Acta's day-to-day lineups: "Anywhere I work, the day anybody has to tell me who to play, I'd rather not work," Acta said.

"We have a strictly professional relationship," Acta added. "I don't go for the holidays to his house, and he doesn't come for the holidays to mine. We have a strictly professional relationship. I wasn't brought over here because I was like Jim. I don't think that was his intention. I was brought over here to manage this baseball team, get the best out of these young kids and make them better. Not to agree with everybody here from top to bottom."

The club ended the season yesterday by releasing every member of Acta's staff except pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Gone are bullpen coach Rick Aponte, bench coach Pat Corrales, hitting coach Lenny Harris, first base coach Jerry Morales, third base coach Tim Tolman and strength and conditioning coordinator Kazuhiko Tomooka.

Acta and Bowden enter the offseason with near-identical hopes. Both want the team to add a power-hitting, middle-of-the-order left-hander. Both want a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Their jobs, of course, sometimes require different perspectives. The pieces that Bowden acquires are the people that Acta must deal with, and this year, Bowden filled the roster with free agents fitting one primary profile: They had recognizable downsides -- poor attitudes, diminished track records -- but also, conceivably, they could flourish. Some did. Odalis Pérez and Willie Harris helped the team all season. But others, like Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada and Rob Mackowiak, contributed to a toxic early-season clubhouse environment.

Asked if the team had too many bad characters at the beginning of the year, Acta said: "Umm, I think so. I think so. I think when you're building, like we're doing here, I think you need more high-character guys than what we had at the beginning of the season. Without naming any guys."

Given the same question, Bowden paused for 12 seconds. "Umm, no," he said, "but I would say we had a couple players in the clubhouse where winning wasn't the first priority and we made changes with those players as the season went on."

Organizationally, lesson learned?

"Yes," Acta said, voice lifting with hope. "I think we have. I think we have."

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