Jeff Smulyan must really want to own the Washington Nationals.
How badly does he want to own this franchise? He had coffee with me yesterday morning.
Now, I am pretty far down the food chain of people he has to convince. But apparently he has made his pitch to nearly everyone else in town, so he finally got to me.
If you happen to meet someone on the Metro tonight shaking hands and telling you he'd be a great baseball owner, it's probably Smulyan. He'll be easy to spot. He'll be the guy wearing the "I'm not Bob Short" sign around his neck.
He might also ask if you want to invest in his bid, though by all accounts he has the money to foot the bill himself with his Indianapolis communications empire. But he is trying to erase the District's version of the Scarlet Letter -- or letters, in this case: NL, as in Not Local.
Not long ago, Smulyan added to his bid group Radio One communications executive Alfred C. Liggins III and lawyer Richard Wiley, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He said yesterday he has since added others, including former Redskins Art Monk and Charles Mann and former Dallas Cowboy Calvin Hill.
There's one problem, though. Bill Collins, who also is leading a bid group for the Nationals, believes Monk and Mann still are investors in his group.
"As far as I know, they are part of our community partners," Collins said. "They are no longer Class A partners, but part of our Class B community partners."
Neither Monk nor Mann could be reached for comment. Perhaps they were being wooed by the six other bidders for the franchise.
If there is confusion, you can attribute it to the presence of Smulyan in the bidding. It has thrown the process of determining who baseball will pick to own the Nationals into a tizzy.
Those who figured Smulyan was just a stalking horse used to drive up the price of the Nats have been taken aback by his quick emergence as perhaps the favorite.
If Smulyan is a stalking horse, well, he is going to the whip and riding hard. He is not afraid to use his less-than-three-year tenure as owner of the Seattle Mariners -- stormy though it was -- to make his case for owning the Nationals.
"We believe if the issue is who is best to manage this franchise and who will be the best stewards in this community and make baseball an integral part of this community, we believe we win hands down," Smulyan said. "We have done it. It is a very challenging proposition. Having done other businesses is not quite like baseball. But there are probably more parallels in broadcasting and baseball, and we have done both."
Some would say he didn't do the baseball part well in Seattle.
Smulyan bought the franchise from Southern California real estate developer George Argyros in October 1989 for $76 million and showed an ability to promote the team, putting in place a number of innovative marketing features.
But his teams, playing in the unfriendly confines of the Kingdome, didn't win. Smulyan eventually sold the Mariners for $100 million in July 1992 to a group whose main investor was Nintendo Corp.
Not many tears were shed in Seattle when Smulyan left the game. He was vilified for criticizing the community's failure to support baseball, and there were numerous reports that he tried to move the team to the Tampa Bay area. But Smulyan believes he made the most of a bad situation in Seattle.
"We are proud of some of the things we did in Seattle. We created some things that are now done in every ballpark in America," he said. "Sure, I am unhappy that we sold the team. But if you look at our record overall for the last 25 to 30 years, we have created organizations where people care passionately about what they do and create great results."
Smulyan did enough to stay on good terms with his fellow owners, so much so that he was used as a resource by them for advice on media issues -- including for Cadillac Bud Selig when the commissioner owned the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Yes, I have given free advice to Bud, Jerry Reinsdorf [the powerful owner of the Chicago White Sox] and a number of other people who own franchises and other businesses," he said.
However, Smulyan said he doesn't believe his contacts in baseball will make or break this deal for the Nationals, even though who you know traditionally counts for almost everything in this game.
"This isn't about who has the most friends," he said. "It is about who can be the best steward for this game in this community."
There has been a furor in town over the prospect of an out-of-town owner getting the Nationals -- and the use of a $535 million ballpark funded by the city. D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp wrote a letter to Cadillac Bud last week calling for the new owners to be "vested in the District."
That means local, and the consensus is that "local" means the bids of Jeffrey Zients and Fred Malek; Collins and Alfred Lord; the Lerner family; and Jonathan Ledecky. Heck, by the time this is all done, Indianapolis may be viewed as a Washington suburb.
Sources insisted not long ago that once the $450 million sales price set by baseball was met, local ownership and minority representation would be the deciding factors in who gets the team.
Now, no one has a clue.