Washington businessmen Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients, who lead a local syndicate that is bidding on the Washington Nationals, met with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for several hours yesterday in Milwaukee, as the long sale process entered its final stage.
The substance of yesterday's meeting could not be learned. People close to Selig said he is seeking a "comfort level" with bidders before he selects an owner.
The Malek-Zients group, known as the Washington Baseball Club, is considered one of three front-runners for the team, according to senior baseball officials. Another favorite, the Lerner family of Bethesda, which operates a locally based real estate empire, has been invited to meet with Selig today, sources with knowledge of the discussions said.
Eight bidding groups are trying to buy the Nationals. Indianapolis media mogul Jeff Smulyan is considered the third favorite, but baseball sources have emphasized that no group has been eliminated. Selig is expected to meet next week with Franklin Haney Sr., a developer-financier who has offices in Washington and Tennessee, and Sallie Mae Chairman Albert L. Lord, both of whom are leading their own bids for the team.
Each group has agreed to meet the $450 million price that Major League Baseball has set for the team. Selig is expected to make a decision in the next two weeks, before a baseball owners' meeting Nov. 16 and 17.
In the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) pushed during his weekly news conference for baseball to speed the sale and to select a local ownership group.
"We need to get baseball to make a decision for ownership, and it should be someone local," said Williams, who has endorsed the Malek-Zients group.
The $535 million stadium project along the Anacostia River remains controversial with some residents, and Williams believes a local ownership group would help stadium opponents embrace the publicly funded ballpark.
"I do not support Smulyan. I'm concerned he's not in the city," Williams said. "The last thing I want is some long-distance corporation to have a major stake and control over the organization."
The mayor added, however, that he was impressed with Smulyan's recent push to sign up partners in the District, including business leaders and former sports stars.
Williams also said he and his aides were on "alert status" regarding a coming vote by the D.C. Council on technical changes to the baseball stadium financing legislation. The council will be asked next month to approve the three tax-related amendments to satisfy Wall Street bond raters, who have said they will not grant the project investment-grade status until the changes are made.
Some council members have said they might try to reopen the financing package to reduce the public investment in the project, although Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said this week she will use procedural rules to limit such moves.
"This is a very tenuous thing," Williams said. "We're very, very vigilant about it."
Derailing the stadium project would be foolish because developers are sinking millions into the Anacostia waterfront in anticipation of an economic revival, the mayor said.
Comparing that site to a location near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium that has been favored by some council members as a way to reduce costs, Williams said: "There's no longer any comparison in my mind. In terms of a tax base, community benefits, this [waterfront location] is a hugely powerful site. We need to keep it at this site."