- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Now that the games have ended on the field at RFK Stadium, we can turn our focus to the game that really counts: the fight over who will own the Washington Nationals.

Make no mistake about it: This is a boardroom version of a Pier Six brawl, pitting two frightening forces — the heavy-handed cronyism of Major League Baseball and the volatility of District politics — against each other. The normally chaotic politics of the District have been made even more so by the announcement that Mayor Anthony Williams will not seek a third term.

I’d say it is good vs. evil, but nobody is putting any halos on anybody in this battle.

It’s more like Freddy vs. Jason.

The sudden emergence of Jeff Smulyan, an out-of-towner, as the bidder favored by MLB has prompted District politicians to join and fight for an owner who is local.

First, though, they need to decide what constitutes “local ownership.” There is a fight among the bidding groups about which is more local than the other. It has gotten so out of hand that anyone who wasn’t born on home plate at Griffith or RFK stadiums may not be considered local.

Smulyan isn’t local, but the Indianapolis-based media mogul has something going for him that could prove more important: the blessing of the powers that run baseball, Cadillac Bud Selig and his lieutenants.

Smulyan’s public relations blitz through the area last week might have seemed desperate, but the message is just the opposite. Smulyan is no outsider. He owned the Seattle Mariners from 1989 to 1992 and has remained close to Cadillac Bud and powerful White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf since, even advising them on media issues.

This is a guy who knows the rules, knows how the game is played. Normally, the game for ownership is not played by talking to every media outlet that will listen. Heck, the Lerner family has hired a PR guy to tell everyone that they won’t talk to anybody. Baseball likes quiet, low-key, under the radar.

But what Cadillac Bud and the owners like even more is someone they know they can trust. Not think they can trust but know — family.

They thought they could trust Tom Hicks when he bought the Rangers, and he turned around and signed Alex Rodriguez to a $250million contract.

Even if the other bidders sign in blood a pledge that they won’t do anything that stupid, owners have seen enough neophytes intoxicated by the ultimate fantasy baseball exercise that they tend to trust only family.

You can be sure Smulyan came to town for his media campaign with MLB’s blessing and maybe its urging. Even Smulyan’s rival bidders privately acknowledged that, which is what made the tour so unnerving to them.

The rivals hope, however, they have found a weakness in Smulyan’s bid: One report last week indicated his bid, for the most part, will be financed not with his personal wealth but by his communications company, Emmis, in the form of a subsidiary company.

Baseball has a history of welcoming corporate money to prop up teams.

Heck, Cadillac Bud’s own Milwaukee Brewers were one of several clubs — the Montreal Expos also were one — to receive loans from a concessions company called Emprise, according to testimony before a Congressional committee in 1972.

That same year, Emprise was convicted by a federal jury in Los Angeles of conspiracy for hiding loans to mobsters, one of whom owned a Michigan racetrack at which Emprise did the concession business, to buy an interest in the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

This was the same Emprise that Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles was looking into when he was killed by a car bomb in 1976.

So I don’t think Cadillac Bud and company are going to be bothered if Smulyan’s money comes from his Hooterville radio and TV business.

I raise the Emprise history in part because local baseball supporters believe the D.C. political bosses can outmuscle the Lords of the Realm in this fight for the ownership of the Washington Nationals.

They may very well do so.

But they need to remember one thing: Cadillac Bud ain’t no bandleader.

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