The family of Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore N. "Ted" Lerner is in talks with former Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten about teaming up to buy the Washington Nationals, a sign that the fiercely competitive race to own the Major League Baseball team may be approaching a resolution.
Baseball sources cautioned that the addition of Kasten would not automatically make the Lerner group the front-runner, but sources said the combination would be formidable.
Among the eight groups bidding on the Nationals, the Lerners; a group led by Indianapolis media mogul Jeffrey Smulyan; and a Washington-based syndicate led by Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients have gathered the most support within baseball, according to top baseball sources.
Major League Baseball President Robert DuPuy declined to comment on whether Lerner and Kasten are talking, but said the bidding groups are allowed to communicate.
"We have not prohibited groups from discussing their composition," DuPuy said. "We have not allowed them to share details of their offers with each other. I have no comment on whether any such discussions have occurred."
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig is known for merging various buyers, including personal friends and associates from baseball, in order to get an ownership group with which he is comfortable. Kasten would bring years of experience to the Lerners.
Selig, in Washington yesterday, briefly addressed the ownership situation in a meeting with reporters.
"We need to get an owner. We need to get the stadium lease done. We need to do it as soon as possible," said Selig.
The Lerners did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail yesterday afternoon. Kasten declined to comment.
Kasten, 53, has been among the quietest bidders, relying on the reputation he built as an executive when he managed and helped shape the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL for more than two decades. During that time, Kasten's teams went to the playoffs 30 times, won 15 division championships and five National League championships, and won the World Series in 1995.
Kasten guided the design and construction of Turner Field, home of the Braves, and Philips Arena, where the Hawks and Thrashers play, which might make him a merger candidate for another group seeking his expertise in running a team and his help in the construction of the $535 million baseball stadium the District plans to build along the Anacostia River.
The sale of the team, which is priced at $450 million, has dragged on for nearly a year. The league has said it will not make a decision until it reaches an agreement with the District on a stadium lease.
District officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), have asked Major League Baseball to announce an owner for the Nationals at the same time that the city and league reach a deal on a lease for a new stadium, city sources said. Williams has said that having an owner, especially one with local roots, would help win over skeptics of the stadium project.
The lease negotiations, which cover the terms by which the team will rent the new stadium scheduled to open in 2008, have been going on for three months. The city is demanding that baseball give a $24 million credit letter that would ensure that rent is paid even in the case of an unforeseen disaster in which the stadium is not used. City officials also have asked for $20 million to build parking under the stadium.