The status of the Washington Nationals, with their general manager interviewing for another job and their manager unsure whether he'll be back, was already in a considerable degree of flux before yesterday. But Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig added to the uncertainty when he said that the Nationals will not have a new owner by next week's owners' meetings, preaching patience despite the fact that, last year at this time, baseball had an objective to sell the team by last January.
All this left the manager, Frank Robinson, to consider the team's plight.
"It's not fair to this ballclub and this organization to be put in this position for the coming season because we're behind on moves and things we can do and approaching players, the free agent market, either signing free agents or even really seriously talking to them," Robinson said. "Just overall, the feeling and the atmosphere around this ballclub is that we're at a disadvantage."
The period in which clubs are allowed to sign free agents begins tomorrow, and the Nationals don't have a clear idea of what their budget will be for player payroll in 2006.
Robinson's remarks, made during an interview at a Georgetown hotel, came in the hours before Jim Bowden, the team's general manager, met with officials from the Boston Red Sox to discuss the general manager's job there, and before Selig said he still has three more potential ownership groups to interview before choosing among eight interested parties.
"All these people have spent an enormous amount of time, money, effort," Selig told reporters at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, Calif., where baseball general managers were meeting. "And they certainly deserve one interview. I've enjoyed it. I've done five groups so far. I have three to go, and I'm trying to do those as quickly as possible."
Selig has met with the groups led by Tennessee developer Franklin Haney; local businessman Jonathan Ledecky, who once had a stake in the Washington Capitals and Wizards; Bethesda-based real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner; Sallie Mae chairman Albert L. Lord; and Washington venture capitalist Frederic V. Malek. He must still meet with groups headed by billionaire Ronald Burkle; former Atlanta Braves President Stan Kasten; and Indianapolis communications executive Jeffrey Smulyan, a former owner of the Seattle Mariners.
"I'll say this for the groups: They have plans in waiting," Selig said. "It's just a question of who gets the team. They'll react pretty quickly."
Baseball, conversely, has moved slowly, missing a series of self-imposed deadlines for selling the team. Just last month, MLB President Robert DuPuy, speaking at the National League Championship Series, targeted the owners' meetings Nov. 16-17 in Milwaukee for a decision. "We all think it's critical to get the team sold as rapidly as possible," DuPuy said. "My goal is to have a vote at the owners' meeting in November."
When MLB purchased the Montreal Expos for $120 million in 2002 and eventually moved the franchise to Washington for the 2005 season, Selig named Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder, as the field manager. At the time, Robinson believed it would be a one-year commitment. But should he return, next season would be his fifth. He was in town yesterday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in an afternoon ceremony at the East Room of the White House, where he was honored with 13 other Americans, ranging from the outgoing chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, to Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul."
President Bush, in addressing a packed assembly, ticked off the accomplishments from Robinson's Hall of Fame career. "He serves today as the skipper of the hometown team, the Washington Nationals," Bush said.
But as Robinson sat in a dark blue, three-button suit and white shirt, listening to the adulation, the fact of the matter is he didn't know if he would return. Bowden has said that, should he remain in his current job, he wants to wait until new ownership is on board to make a decision on Robinson and, subsequently, the coaching staff. Last week, Bowden said that he told all of the coaches that they are free to look for other jobs. Yesterday, Robinson fiercely defended his coaching staff.
"It's not as frustrating for me," he said of the uncertain situation. "It's really just not fair for the coaching staff. These guys depend on these jobs, and they just can't go and get another job. . . . To hang them out there and to say, 'We don't know what's going to happen here. You feel free to go look for another job.' That's worse than saying, 'You're fired,' because if they're fired, then they know they have to go look for a job. . . . It's a very unfair situation here as far as that's concerned. It's even worse than in Montreal."
Robinson said he had fielded calls from most of the members of the coaching staff, who were asking about their futures. And even as he said his staff "worked as hard as they could have," there is a possibility, Robinson knows, that a condition of his return could be that the coaching staff be partially or completely overhauled.
"I would react diplomatically," Robinson said of that potential scenario. "In the past, I would be hitting the roof. I would listen to what they would have to say, and I would have my say. I would be strongly against changes.
"But today, the manager doesn't really have total control over these situations. . . . I certainly would be opposed to [changes]. But it wouldn't be either/or. I wouldn't put any ultimatums out there on myself."
The entire series of events over the last four years surprises even Robinson, who has been involved with baseball for more than half a century. "To be sitting here, after the move to Washington last year, and to have Major League Baseball entertaining groups of prospective buyers for the ballclub, I couldn't have envisioned that," Robinson said. "You're talking about the middle of November, and you still don't have one. I felt sure ownership would be in place by now, and this ballclub would basically be on the same type of grounds and be able to play and conduct business the same as the other 29 ballclubs are able to do. And right now, we're not."
Bowden, meanwhile, was the first candidate to interview with Red Sox management, including team president Larry Lucchino, at the general managers' meetings. Other potential candidates include Jim Beattie, the former co-GM of the Baltimore Orioles, as well as current members of Boston's front office. One person at the GM meetings said yesterday that the buzz in California is that there's still a possibility Theo Epstein will return.
Bowden is signed through April. If he leaves, Nationals President Tony Tavares said in an interview last week that there's a possibility Tavares would have to serve as interim GM, because hiring someone new with ownership pending wouldn't be prudent. "It's not something I relish," Tavares said.
Nationals Notes: The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which owns television broadcasting rights for the Nationals, announced a deal with Verizon to broadcast games on fiber-optic television when the communications giant brings the technology to the Washington area next year. . . . Tavares said that David Cope, the team's vice president for sales and marketing, has not been asked back for next season. The Nationals won't fill the position until a new owner is named. . . . Veteran outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who retired from the Nationals in May, filed for free agency yesterday, though it's unlikely he'll try to make a comeback.