Just one year ago, what odds could you have gotten that Washington would not only have a big-league team but that those new Nationals would have a better record than the Yankees and that billionaires and world figures -- from former secretary of state Colin L. Powell to financier George Soros -- would line up to bid for the honor of owning the team? No oddsmaker could have calculated all those possibilities. But if you had found somebody to cover your crazy bet, you would probably be rich enough now to be a partner in one of (at least) seven groups vying for ownership of the Nats.
Before this season is over, and perhaps even before the summer is done, the Nats likely will have an owner. No one can be sure of when. The timing of major events in baseball tends to be both capricious and sluggish. But, right now, those who drive the decision-making in the sport know a good thing when they see it. Baseball has something for sale -- a franchise that's suddenly gone from junk to jewelry, a team that is hot right now. Hot at the gate. Hot in "buzz" and cachet.
Baseball moves slowly -- except on those rare occasions when there is a large pile of money on the table. Then, things speed up nicely. Right now, while the Nationals are playing well -- perhaps even above their heads -- and crowds of 32,000 per game are pouring into old RFK Stadium, you couldn't find a better time to sell a franchise.
You move real estate when the flowers are bursting and the sun is shining, not when it's freezing and the trees are barren. And, if you're smart, you sell a baseball team while the honeymoon is in full bloom.
Those who think baseball will take its sweet time to pick an owner, or that it will be necessary for the current Comcast vs. MASN unpleasantness to be settled before the Nationals can be sold, probably are wrong.
Right now, baseball is soliciting separate bids for the Nationals and for the slice of MASN that the sport owns. The reason? The sport thinks it's got plenty of serious money at the table right now. No more players are needed to ensure a big pot.
While Washington baseball still has its problems, finding suitable filthy-rich potential owners is no longer one of them. The field has gotten so crowded that you can't tell the players in the ownership game without a scorecard.
The front-runner likely is the local Fred Malek-Jeffrey Zients group that has worked for six years laying the groundwork for the Nats' return. Without them, there probably would be no team playing at RFK now. Their financial muscle made the District's bid credible. Besides the favorite-son blessing of Mayor Anthony Williams, the group contains bipartisan political power players. Their group's diversity and civic-mindedness is documented. And, recently, it added Powell as a public-relations coup.
The best news for Washington is that, a year from now, the Nationals will either be owned by the Malek-Zients group or by somebody who can beat them. Because Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig has expressed his strong preference for a group with Washington roots, racial diversity, social conscience and a long-term commitment to stay in the city, only a strong group should oust Malek-Zients.
Yet that may happen. Front-runners are always targets. In the end, money talks. And every group is neck-deep in cash.
If any of the three main groups led by Washingtonians wins such a blow-off-the-roof bidding contest, it shouldn't cause any long-term problem. However, if out-of-town wealth somehow carries the day, then you could see fireworks.
The other local groups are led by Mark Lerner, whose father has built several shopping malls, including White Flint to Tysons Corner, and Bill Collins, the Virginia businessman whose group was joined by Sallie Mae Chairman Albert L. Lord, a move that adds financial credibility.
The Lerners, who can just write a check for the team if they please, have been in the baseball-discussion picture for many years and also surfaced when the Washington Redskins were for sale. They keep a low profile, seem to have a price ceiling on their bids and may not have the over-the-top passion for sports to carry the day. But they would make responsible owners.
Collins has been fanatically ardent in fighting for a team for many years -- except he wanted it in Northern Virginia. The addition of Lord as the group's lead investor makes his bid seem more plausible and more District-friendly.
While all three of these groups have a long history of interest in Washington sports, there's also a great deal of money coming into this contest late and from out of town. Baseball should be very leery of any group without long-established ties to the District. Why? Because the one disastrous tripwire that can still blow up this baseball project is the D.C. Council. The name "Linda Cropp" makes Selig scream in the night. Good. Anything that keeps baseball on its toes probably helps D.C.
Why should the District build an expensive ballpark and then give the keys to an owner without deep local interests and affinities? The odor of Bob Short, carpetbagger, has not yet left this city. Nor should it. The next Nats owners should be people who understand the history of the sport in Washington and who tear out their hair at the thought of the city losing a third team.
Nobody knows who'll be elected mayor next year or what that mayor's position will be toward the new ballpark. However, if the big bucks used to buy the Nationals belong to Jeffrey Smulyan (Indianapolis), Ronald Burkle (Los Angeles) or citizen-of-the-world Soros, who knows how it will sit with the D.C. Council? And who wants to find out?
The final bidder is, apparently, Stan Kasten -- who ran Ted Turner's teams in MLB, the NHL and NBA. Like Larry Lucchino in Boston, Kasten runs teams for others with fatter wallets. Is he baseball's insurance policy? Maybe Selig wants the comfort of saying, in the end game, "If one of you rich blockheads had Stan running your operation, that would put you over the top."
Of course, maybe Kasten is the front man for some baseball-backed bidder -- the role Lucchino played in the Red Sox "bag job" when out-of-towner John Henry was anointed owner despite a higher competing bid.
There might have been a time when Washington needed outside help to buy or run a big league team. Those days are over.
When the fate of the Nationals is decided, the bar should be set higher for out-of-town interests.