By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 12:15 AM
Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten, the chief executive who helped the Lerner family take ownership of the team, oversaw the building of Nationals Park and guided the Nationals for nearly five years, announced his resignation Thursday, effective at the end of the season. Kasten's departure leaves a gap in the team's vision for the future, one the franchise has not yet decided how to fill.
Kasten said he reached his decision at the end of the 2009 season and informed principal owner Ted Lerner and few others, including General Manager Mike Rizzo. Kasten is not retiring, but he chose to leave the Nationals, he said, for reasons pertaining only to his best interests and not any fracture or disagreement with ownership.
"I know the stories and speculation," Kasten said, sitting in the Nationals dugout with his son, Jay, to his left. "Let me assure you, this is just about me. This has nothing to do with anybody else or anything else. This is just about me, what's good for me, for my family and my own personal expectations, goals, aspirations - purely that and nothing else. Leaving here, will I miss things? You bet. There's going to be so much that I miss."
The Nationals have not decided how to replace Kasten, or even if they will replace him with someone in a similar role. It is unclear if the Lerners ever fully embraced the role of team president. Also, a high-profile replacement's salary likely would cost more than the Lerners are willing to pay.
In January, at which point the Nationals knew Kasten would be leaving, they hired Andrew Feffer as chief operating officer. Rather than hiring another president, the Nationals could place Feffer in charge of Kasten's non-baseball duties and Rizzo - the first person Kasten hired - in charge of the franchise's baseball operations.
Feffer, though, has yet to garner the respect and support of those inside the franchise and in the Washington business community. "And he's got a long way to go," one Nationals source said. Executive Vice President Bob Wolfe is one spot below Feffer on the Nationals' masthead, but his experience and sway in the organization likely will give him an increased role in shaping the Nationals' vision, more so than Feffer. Mark Lerner could also take a more active role in the team's operations.
Kasten expressed confidence in how the team will continue without him. "The franchise is strong," he said. "There is a great apparatus now in place on the baseball side as well as the business side. So I wouldn't concern myself with it."
There is more clarity on the baseball-operations side. In Rizzo's year and a half making baseball decisions, he has taken command with steady leadership and greatly enhanced his stature in the eyes of the Lerners. With Kasten at his side, Rizzo signed first overall draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and built a respectable player-development system.
Rizzo will be in control of baseball decisions, and he credited Kasten with helping him to meld his natural scouting ability with different aspects of running a baseball team.
"He was much more involved than most of the team presidents I've worked with," Rizzo said. "Because he knows the game inside and out. He knows players. He knows personalities. And he knows talent. He was very active in our offices. We're going to have to fill a void. I'm going to have to employ the things he taught me to take over and to take on the responsibility. I think that I've been well-trained for it."
Across the business and baseball sides of the Nationals, Kasten's combination of experience, expertise and energy will be impossible to replace. He helped build the Atlanta Braves dynasty in the 1990s, and with the Nationals often advised ownership toward a less frugal approach, advice not always taken. Publicly, Kasten was an ever-vigilant guard dog for the Lerner family, defending and advocating for them at every turn. Privately, he often grew frustrated and wondered how much the Lerners embraced his thinking.
Kasten was an ever-present figure around the Nationals, more involved and more visible than most executives in his position. He bounded through executive offices on the third floor of Nationals Park like a dervish. "He was a human 5-Hour Energy drink," one Nationals employee said. "When he wasn't there, you knew."
He spoke with Rizzo every day. "Never a dull moment," Rizzo said. "At times, you can be animated with him. He allows you to be yourself."
He peppered reporters with barbs around the dugout and the batting cage. Starting pitchers who entered the clubhouse after they finished typically found Kasten in a clubhouse recliner, watching the game. He offered encouragement after good performances and said nothing after bad ones.
"He was always around," starter Craig Stammen said.
"Over his tenure he has positioned the Nationals to become one of the most exciting franchises in baseball and we thank him for all that he has accomplished," Ted Lerner said in a statement. "We certainly respect his decision to pursue other interests at the end of the regular season, but will continue to call upon him for his vast knowledge of the game, the league and the franchise."
Kasten declined to elaborate on his future but said, "I want to do something." His broad experience - he has also run NBA and NHL teams - gives him vast possibilities. His name will likely surface as a candidate to replace MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who plans to leave his post after the 2012 season.
Kasten's last day at work will be Wednesday, the day of Washington's final home game. On Thursday morning, Kasten left messages for D.C. politicians Adrian Fenty, Vince Gray and Kwame Brown, three men he considers friends. He met with the Nationals players in the clubhouse, tears welling in his eyes as he spoke.
In an 18-minute meeting with the media, Kasten wore sunglasses to conceal any tears and became most emotional when speaking about Washington and the bond he formed with the city. He will maintain his home in the area and visit frequently, he said.
"Anything I could to continue to play a role in doing good things for the city," Kasten said, his voice cracking, "I'd be thrilled to."
The future, for both Kasten and the baseball team he leaves behind, remains unclear. The only certainty is the Nationals will not be the same without him.