AS THE TIME seems to approach for a decision on who is to own Washington's new baseball team, there is some feeling that the owners want a "baseball person," which is to say one of the fellows they've been hanging around with for years and with whom they feel comfortable. Given our city's limited involvement with the game for three decades, that implies the possibility of an owner with few if any Washington connections. Not a good idea.
Major League Baseball, which owns the Nationals, has every right to choose someone who it thinks can do a good job of running the team and who has the financial wherewithal. But as it prepares to sell the Nats for a price of around $450 million, it needs to keep in mind just what has made this franchise -- woebegone and slated for dismantling only a few years ago -- so valuable all of a sudden.
First and foremost are the baseball fans of the Washington area, who have kept coming out through an up-and-down season to an old, unglamorous stadium. When the final figures are in, the Nationals will have drawn about 2.7 million people. In Baltimore, the Orioles finished their home season with an attendance of 2.6 million unofficially, only slightly down from last season's showing.
Second are the local leaders in business and government who helped achieve the deal that spares the team's owners the expense of building a stadium and thus greatly increases the club's price. If things go well, the stadium arrangement could be a winner for the city, but the people who brought it off have taken some big risks, political and otherwise. They didn't do so to see the team go to an owner who lacks a solid, long-term commitment to the Washington area.
Such a commitment should be the primary criterion in the sale of the Nationals. More than a half-dozen well-financed groups are bidding for ownership of the team. Evaluating the strength of their local ties can be difficult; this is a transient town. But a lot of the people who have come here and done well have formed solid attachments to the city, bolstered its institutions and supported its charities. They mean to stay. Baseball needs to make it its business to ensure that these are the sort of people who will represent the game in the nation's capital.