By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:09 AM
Almost every day, for five years, Stan Kasten sat inside his office at Nationals Park and saw the sign he had tacked up on one of the walls. The only thing written on it was the number 31. Kasten had been to the playoffs 30 times as a sports executive, in three different sports, and his intent was that his next trip would come as president of the Washington Nationals.
"It's worth everything you do to get there," Kasten said. "I do think we here at the Nats are on the course to get there. But I miss not being in the postseason. I really do. And it will be worth all our struggle and pain once we do get there."
On Wednesday, Kasten met with the media for roughly 30 minutes as he worked his final official day with the Nationals, which actually will not be his final day at all. Kasten will technically be in their employ until the end of the year, and he will maintain his minority ownership stake until he decides what he wants to do next, which he said will likely be by next spring training at the earliest.
While he is no longer a day-to-day employee, 31 no longer an aspiration but a mission unfulfilled, Kasten will remain a part of the organization as he steps away.
"I'm devoted to this franchise, in any way I can help them, officially, unofficially or otherwise," Kasten said. "They have continued to reach out to me over the last two weeks. I'm sure that will continue in the future."
Before the end of the year, Kasten hopes to accomplish three objectives:
l Finish negotiating a contract for the Nationals' radio rights, a project headed by Nationals Chief Operating Officer Andy Feffer. Kasten said Feffer, for the time being, will handle business matters and General Manager Mike Rizzo will have autonomy in baseball decisions.
l Make more progress on cleansing corruption from the Dominican Republic operation, which shook the Nationals 18 months after the player known as Smiley Gonzalez was found to have a fraudulent age and name. Kasten revealed that he "started hearing stuff that troubled me" about Gonzalez's falsified age two years before it came to public light.
l Figure out where the Nationals will hold spring training; he expects the Nationals to have reached a resolution by this time next year. Currently in Viera, Fla., they have run into scheduling problems since the Los Angeles Dodgers' exodus from Vero Beach for Arizona left few nearby teams. The Nationals have a lease that ends in 2017, but they could afford to pay if they move.
Kasten has toured every site in Florida, and he mentioned the possibility of the Nationals becoming the only East Coast team to train in Arizona. He said he has visited all but two facilities in the Cactus League, and Mark Lerner has visited those himself. "I wouldn't rule anything in or out," Kasten said.
While the Nationals' dearth of on-field success, which includes 298 losses in three seasons, left Kasten disappointed, he believes the team is close to becoming what he envisioned based on what he perceives as upgrades to their farm system.
"I think we count now on consistent delivery to the major leagues of real, bona fide players every year," Kasten said. "That was very important. We can debate whether it could have been done quicker. I think that's a fair position to take. Perhaps it could have.
"I think the future is really bright and that we now are in a position maybe for the first time since we got back to D.C. to really, really compete. And it's a short distance from competing to contending. Is it success yet? No, it isn't. Success is winning, and we haven't done that yet. But we've made real progress, and the future, I think, is very, very bright."
Kasten also believes the Lerners will make the financial commitment necessary this offseason to pursue free agents. Rizzo has said he wants to add at least one, if not two, front-line starting pitchers.
"They're intent on backing Mike up and pursuing the things he wants to pursue and giving him the resources to do it," Kasten said. "That's all we talked about all summer. So when I talk about an active offseason, it's because it's what we've all talked about, internally with each other. I do know the desire is there. The willingness is there. And I think the follow-through will be there."
As for his own future, Kasten was noncommittal. While saying they flattered him, he dismissed questions about becoming baseball's next commissioner as "kind of silly and really unrealistic" because "I know no one in baseball who thinks Bud [Selig] is stepping down in 2012."
Kasten had decided to leave the Nationals one year before announcing his resignation on Sept. 23, and word circulated around the sports world. He said he received many offers over that time, all of which he declined to speak about until his time in Washington ended.
"So I have a bunch of people that I need to talk to and see and visit and listen to," Kasten said. "Truthfully, I'm really busy between now and Thanksgiving."
Kasten's imprint, visible on every piece of the Nationals, will not vanish. Owner Ted Lerner has said he will solicit Kasten's opinion well into the future, and Kasten, it seems, will oblige. Even if he is no longer officially a part of the Nationals, the Nationals, it seems, became part of him.
"Remember," Kasten said, "I remain an owner, at least for the time being. So I want the very best that we can have here."