The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What are the Orioles and MASN doing? Maybe getting ready to go on the market.

Members of the Orioles grounds crew practice social distancing during a game against the Nationals last season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

On Thursday, an amazing sight was seen in the D.C. area: a Washington Nationals spring training game on television. Nationals fans could get a look at new sluggers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, and watch Jon Lester pitch two solid innings in his first start.

They could see how comfortable Luis García, 20, looks at second base and how uncomfortable Carter Kieboom, 23, continues to look at third. They could watch a lean version of Victor Robles lash a double while Juan Soto and Trea Turner looked just like themselves.

And, of course, these rare sights were available only because the game was being broadcast by — not MASN, the network that carries Nationals regular season games.

On Thursday, MASN announced it would telecast the Nationals’ final two exhibition games March 28 and 29, as well as its first two Orioles games next week. What took so long? Why would any team forgo promoting its product just to save a few nickels? Why would any network alienate loyal fans in both cities by trimming staff, including talented play-by-play man Gary Thorne in Baltimore and popular studio host Dan Kolko in Washington?

When a sequence of events appears to make no sense, that often means there are dots to connect, and that’s part of a columnist’s job.

Top executive is latest to depart MASN amid network’s preseason upheaval

Here are some dots to consider. Peter Angelos, 91, has been in declining health for a few years and, in November, MLB approved his son John to replace him as the person who makes all key decisions for the Orioles.

Peter’s cost basis was $173 million when he bought the team in 1993. Now, the Orioles might be worth $1.4 billion. The Mets, a mess for years, sold to Wall Street’s Steve Cohen for $2.4 billion. If Angelos’s heirs decide to sell the team, they will pay vastly less in capital gains taxes after his passing than they would if they sold now.

The Baltimore Sun reported that as many as three groups may be interested in the O’s, if they come up for sale, including the Carlyle Group led by David Rubenstein and the Allegis Group of Jim Davis. MLB has said publicly that, if the team ever changes hands, it hopes Cal Ripken Jr. is part of the ownership group. Sensibly, Cal has made no comment.

At the same time, no buyer is likely to want to invest a billion-plus in a sport that might be headed for a strike or a lockout, so no sale is likely to happen until MLB reaches a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union after this season.

So if you hope to sell any business, but not for a year or two, what do you do? You make your business as beautiful as possible. Or you cut expenses to the bone, take the heat for layoffs, grab all the profits you can and maybe end up with the lure of a No. 1 draft pick in the process.

Right now, the O’s sure look like Door No. 2 to me.

However, the decade-long legal war between the Nats and MASN would be a hindrance to any sale. Who wants to buy into that migraine? For perspective, I wrote a column saying the Nats-MASN war had dragged on far too long and should be settled soon — nine years ago.

For a decade, the Angeloses have weaponized the legal system to stall on paying the “market price” they contractually owe the Nats for their broadcast rights. MASN latched onto the word “market” like a tiger with raw steak. Who decides what is a fair market price? And if we don’t like that number, let’s just go to court to find another arbitration body — forever.

The O’s had a valid argument that the price should have been set by an entity outside MLB. The Angelos family is unpopular within the sport, so a board of three MLB owners, who also have incentive to inflate the value of any team’s regional TV rights, might not be the fairest arbiter.

But last year, the Orioles lost an appeal in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division on an MLB decision that called for the Nats to receive about $100 million in compensation for the rights during the 2012 to 2016 seasons. That doesn’t even count what would be owed for recent years.

Naturally, the Orioles appealed — the Angelos way — to the New York Court of Appeals. But the writing may be on the wall. In 2019, MASN put about $100 million into a private escrow account pending the appeals.

Translation: If the Orioles lose — and they will; it’s just a matter of how much they owe and how long they can delay paying it — the money needed to cover the shortfall is available. And if Angelos’s heirs ever wanted to sell, and MLB had a labor agreement in place, that money would solve the only significant hurdle that would repel a potential buyer: the Nats-MASN brawl.

More Boswell: Everyone has feelings about crowd size at ballgames. Let’s stick with facts.

Maybe the Angelos family does not want to sell or won’t be offered a price that they’ll take. But now three questions are tied together. How long will Peter Angelos live? What will the next CBA look like? If Angelos’s heirs decide to sell, will they first resolve their battle with the Nats?

If so, that might be the time for the Nats to forgo some of the money they are owed in return for their freedom: full control of their own TV rights, as opposed to the 20 percent of MASN they have now.

And here you thought this was all about the Orioles spitefully preventing Nats fans from seeing exhibition games or poking the Nats in the eye by booting Kolko, Alex Chappell and Bo Porter from the TV team.

When MASN made those layoffs, the Nats made a statement: “To say that we are incredibly disappointed and upset by MASN’s decisions would be a gross understatement.”

But all of the Orioles’ cost-cutting — from nickels and dimes at MASN to slashing their major league payroll by many millions during the offseason by dumping veteran players — looks like standard “put lipstick on that pig” as they prepare to go to market.

Many in Baltimore wish their baseball team had new ownership. Many in Washington, including more than a few named Lerner, wish they never again had to hear the phrase “Nationals-MASN TV rights dispute.”

All of this probably would take at least a year, maybe more, to fall into place, but connecting the dots in a certain way draws a picture that could have lots of fans getting their wishes.