By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 11:24 PM
For the past five years, the public face of the Washington Nationals has been President Stan Kasten. Like a pit bull with a law degree, he has stood on the front step of Nationals Park and defended the team and its owners, the Lerner family, from every criticism.
Will he still be there, on guard, next opening day?
Or, after a season of agonizing about his future, will he leave after his obligations to the Nats are over at the end of this year?
"I can honestly tell you that no decision has been made," Kasten said. "Remember, I am the master of misdirection."
Although friends, family and baseball associates know he has been reconsidering his future with the Nats for months, and some are certain he already has decided to leave, Kasten may still want to keep his options open. And as a result, he will continue to have as much influence as possible on the Lerner family, whom he has tried, with mixed success, to move toward his less-frugal way of thinking.
In the past, Kasten has never publicly said the Nats should increase payroll or be aggressive in free agency. Now, he's changed his tune.
"This is the time to act," he said this week. "We are close. This is how it felt in Atlanta just before we turned it around. Once you've laid the groundwork and improved the farm system, you need to add some pieces. That's where we are now."
If the Lerners, with their gradually rising payroll of $66 million, took the decisive step toward the kind of $85 million budget that mid-market teams in new parks typically can afford, would Kasten stay to see his plan evolve?
After all his success with the Braves, it would be out of character for him to leave a job that remains so unfinished: 24th-best record, 23rd in attendance, 22nd in payroll. But, according to those closest to him, his frustration at his lack of effective influence on the Lerners, as well as a desire to get back to his family in Atlanta, will probably end his D.C. days.
If Kasten leaves - even if he soft-pedals his departure, praises his handpicked GM Mike Rizzo and crows about the futures of Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa and the rest - the Nats' reputation will take a hit within the industry. And they will have a hard time replacing his broad skill set.
My preference for the Nats' sake: He stays. My firm opinion: He's gone.
In Washington, Kasten is seen as caustic with the media and a symbol of baseball's second-worst record over the last five years, ahead of only the Pirates. Since he arrived in 2006, just four of 30 MLB teams have failed to have a winning season. This week, Nationals Park had its smallest crowd ever: 10,999. Moreover, Kasten is seen by many as the guy who invited all those insulting Phillies fans to invade his own team's opening day. Maybe he knew Atlanta inside out, they argue, but he has proven tone-deaf in the Washington market.
Throughout baseball, however, as well as the NBA and NHL, where he has run teams, Kasten is still viewed as one of the most successful and versatile sports executives of his generation. At 57, he still has time for one more big run. But probably not here.
"There's a different rumor every week," Kasten muttered of scuttlebutt concerning which team, or even which sport, might be his eventual destination if he left the Nats. Or does Kasten actually provoke that buzz and use it to get more leverage in Natstown?
At the core of Kasten's frustration is the Nats' inability to "brand" the franchise during a unique window with a new ballpark on tap. When Kasten and the Lerners arrived - a competence-plus-local-money match made by Commissioner Bud Selig that has been square-peg-round-hole from the start - the Nats' average attendance in their second year in old RFK Stadium was 26,580. Now, despite that new park, average attendance was 22,715 last year and is 23,011 in '10.
"The Twins did it the right way in their new park this year," one Nats insider said. "They raised payroll [from $65 million in '09 to $98 million] to make sure they put a good team on the field their first season. That's what Stan recommended. It didn't happen."
Instead, the Nats moved to Nationals Park with a payroll $9 million less than what it was in 2006, when MLB ran the team.
In baseball, the theory is that you spend so the fans will come. The Lerners wanted to wait for the fans to come, then spend.
The Lerners opened their new park with 102- and 103-loss seasons. The Nats' No. 1 overall draft picks - Strasburg, now out with elbow surgery, and Harper, just 17 - will have to be mighty good to justify the public image damage of the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
In all his years running the Braves, and eventually the NBA's Hawks and NHL's Thrashers for owner Ted Turner, what Kasten recommended generally became law. In Washington, his views, especially in the Lerners' first three years of ownership, were greeted as if he were just another hired hand with an opinion.
In part, that may be because the quick-witted Kasten loves to provoke and argue, a sarcastic style unlikely to work smoothly with Ted Lerner, 84, the team's managing principal owner who came up the hard way and got his law degree in night school at GW, not at Columbia.
Lerner and Rizzo, son of a career scout, may be a better match. Both are brush-cut, immune to style, fanatic workers. Rizzo is deferential, the only approach that has a prayer, but also dogged.
"You have to prove your case to him," Rizzo said. "Lay it out point by point. He's very logical. But it can be done. If you can convince him, he'll go along with you."
Good luck convincing him his payroll is $20 million short.
As Kasten faces his decision, he claims he is proud of the Nats' current foundation, even if it took much longer than he thought. "And it all happened by accident," he says sardonically.
His first hire, the day the Lerners became owners, was Rizzo, whose scouting-and-development methods now define the team. Last month when the Nats signed Harper, Kasten celebrated in a way that now feels like a changing of the guard. As Rizzo soberly explained the deal, Kasten snuck up behind his GM, splashed a pie in his face as if he'd hit a game-winning home run, then rubbed the last of the whipped cream on Rizzo's bald head.
The team-building mentor and pupil had reached graduation day. In the previous 18 months, they had convinced ownership to extend Ryan Zimmerman's contract for $45 million, to offer Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman $25 million, to sign both Strasburg and Harper to record deals, to hire for 11 additional front office slots and to sign free agents, including Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Ivan Rodriguez, to market-priced contracts.
On that cream-pie night, the Nats resembled a normal team, even if each of these modest hills had required a Mount Everest climb.
"There's a future in place here now," Kasten said.
The next few months will reveal whether he is still part of it.