"You're talking about the middle of November and you still don't have an owner. It's not fair to this organization."

-- Frank Robinson,

Nationals manager

Just three years ago, if baseball had auctioned off the Montreal Expos, it would have been lucky to get $100 million. Now, Washington has a billion dollars on the table with baseball's name on it, free and clear, for the same ex-Expos. That's $450 million to buy the Nationals and about $550 million to build a new stadium for the team, not one cent of it provided by baseball or the team's eventual owner. Just a clean, round number: a billion dollars invested in the baseball industry.

In return, what does the city and team ask? Not much, just an owner, like every other franchise, so the club can begin to compete on a level playing field. And what does baseball do, over and over? Promise and renege, promise and renege.

The Nats were told they'd have an owner by January, then by the all-star break in July, then before the end of the season in September and then at the owners' meetings next week. Now, Commissioner of Baseball Bug Selig says it won't be next week, after all.

Selig's excuse is that he has only interviewed five of the eight potential ownership groups. What's the problem? Can't fit eight lunches into 365 days? Does somebody need a desk calendar for his birthday?

Of course, few buy this "getting-to-know-you" fairy tale. What's really going on? As usual, baseball is using the leverage inherent in its antitrust exemption to bicker with the District over the final clauses in a lease for the new ballpark. Baseball never misses a chance to reassert that, as a sanctioned monopoly, it can extract the terms it wants in negotiation with any city. Even under the noses of Congress in the nation's capital. Why be the only business with the right to play dirty if you don't use it?

The District, for its part, has noticed that the Nationals drew nearly 34,000 fans a game last season. And it's noted that billion-dollar price tag, too. Isn't that worth something? What the District probably wants, beneath the surface discussion of exotic lease clauses, is simply a friendly stage-whispered assurance from baseball that Washington can at least expect to be granted a local owner. You know, a boss with deep Washington connections rather than another Bob Short. Oh, nothing in writing -- just the sort of business understanding that's common between equal partners.

Unfortunately, baseball is more comfortable with cities as supplicants. Which would explain baseball's foot dragging and its implicit threat to damage the Nationals' ability to compete if the city doesn't knuckle under.

The commissioner, however, claims not to see any significant problem with his repeated ownership postponements.

"There will be an owner very shortly," Selig told me yesterday. "I don't think anybody is being penalized."

Long ago, someone nicknamed Selig "Commissioner Bud Lite." On days like this, I certainly hope it was me.

Every person in the Nats' organization and every Washington fan is being penalized every day that Selig delays. As open season on free agents began yesterday, that penalty immediately became more severe. Will the Nats lose two of their best pitchers, Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco? Both would like to stay in Washington but how can they if they have no idea who will own, operate or manage the team, much less what salary they will be offered? For that matter, what free agent of real quality will seriously consider a team in such flux? Will native New Englander Jim Bowden, whom Selig says "did a very good job" as general manager, be hired away by the Red Sox, who have already interviewed him?

Bowden has already told all the Nats' coaches to look for jobs because the team can't promise anybody anything. No owner means no job security. It's every man for himself. "It's really just not fair for the coaching staff, to hang them out there," said a disgusted Frank Robinson. "That's worse than saying, 'You're fired.' Because then they know they have to go look for a job."

For the last 15 months, baseball has treated Washington disgracefully, whether the issue was the availability to TV broadcasts to the general public, the quality of the team's faint radio signal or the misappropriation of parts of Washington's TV rights to Baltimore's owner. But such neglect and disrespect eventually has its cost.

On the surface, naming a Nats owner may seem to be at an almost obscene standstill. However, there are signs that this agonizing process is finally approaching an end. Selig, so addicted to consensus and procrastination, is finally paddling toward a decision. He mulls. He interviews. He picks every brain. Maybe he tries to channel Mountain Landis. Selig truly believes that no amount of wasted time is in vain so long as it finally brings him clarity on important subjects.

And he seems to be getting there. "You don't buy a team for a week or a month," he said yesterday. "You buy it for decades, for generations. Everybody talks about local ownership [in Washington]. Who's the guy in baseball who's always spoken up for the importance of local ownership? I'm the guy. Remember what we went through to get a team for Milwaukee."

Then, the commissioner tells several stories that, in a couple of weeks, may carry weight. All are about potential owners with Washington roots, none about out-of-towners. All are flattering. "All really good groups," he said. "A tribute to Washington."

But most of the anecdotes seem to be about Ted Lerner and his "fine family," the man who perhaps best fits the profile that makes Selig comfortable. "One of my heroes was [the late Tigers owner] John Fetzer," said Selig. "He said the best owners were quiet, thoughtful and stayed out of the way." Fetzer also liked generation-to-generation family ownership as well as one boss who could write the whole check. All that spells Lerner.

Several in baseball worry that members of the Lerner family, who are as private as they are wealthy, do not have a high profile as "Washingtonians," but more as semi-reclusive suburban shopping-mall developers. Selig may be working his way through that issue, wondering how much weight to give that factor.

However, Selig recalls a recent conversation with ex-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was born and raised in Washington and worked the scoreboard at old Griffith Stadium. Kuhn and Ted Lerner went to high school together at Roosevelt High in the District. "Bowie said, 'I don't like Ted Lerner. I love Ted Lerner. I can't imagine a better owner for my beloved home town."

There's no white smoke coming from the commissioner's chimney yet. But it might arrive sooner than many think.

So far, it's been promises, promises from Commissioner Bud Selig, who has yet to name a Nationals owner.