- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

“This is very difficult to handicap.”

Those are the words of someone with a direct stake in handicapping the competition for ownership of the Washington Nationals.

“It depends on who you talk to and what time of day you talk to them. Bud can change his mind 10 more times before he makes a final decision.”

Those are the words of someone who knows Cadillac Bud Selig well enough to know the commissioner’s decision-making process.

But after rounding up the usual suspects in an exercise that has gone on way too long, the consensus is the selection is down to two groups. But there is no consensus over which two those are.

Some believe it is down to the Washington Baseball Club and the Lerner family-Stan Kasten merger. But many others think it is between the Lerner-Kasten group and Jeff Smulyan.

Since Lerner-Kasten is a finalist in both scenarios, it would appear to be the choice.

“Bud is very comfortable with the Lerners,” said one baseball insider familiar with the process.

But he also is comfortable with Smulyan. And, perhaps just as important, his lieutenant, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, considers Smulyan a close friend.

That’s why, until Cadillac Bud issues the final decree about the Nationals’ new owner, it will be difficult to believe it won’t be Smulyan, the Indianapolis radio mogul and former owner of the Seattle Mariners.

It could come down to Cadillac Bud, Reinsdorf and baseball chief operating officer Bob DuPuy sitting together in one room in the next several days, with Reinsdorf pushing Smulyan and DuPuy making the case for the Lerners.

And from a distance, a host of powerful and influential voices could be reaching Cadillac Bud through the walls of that room to make the case for Washington financier Fred Malek and the Washington Baseball Club — Capitol Hill voices, the sort that have dragged baseball officials to Washington in the past to make their lives miserable.

“There is a lot of pressure from Washington for baseball to name Malek,” one observer said.

Malek and his Washington Baseball Club can bring that kind of heat.

Malek has been a major figure in the Republican party for more than 30 years. His so-called “Jewish cabal list” duties in the Nixon administration may have hurt his image but certainly not his influence. He was a close political associate of former President George H.W. Bush and helped set up his son — President George W. — as the front man in the ownership of the Texas Rangers. People in power take Fred Malek’s phone calls.

Add former Secretary of State Colin Powell as one of the limited partners and that’s some heavy-duty pressure.

But Washington pressure is not the same as District pressure, and ironically Cadillac Bud is getting pressure from some D.C. Council members to pick the once-perceived outsider, Smulyan. The feeling is that the rest of his investment group — it includes District business leaders like Radio One chief executive Alfred Liggins; businessmen Ernie and William Jarvis, part of the politically connected Jarvis family in the District; and attorney Eric Holder — has the strongest combination of a District presence and minority representation.

All the furor around baseball supposedly pressuring the Lerners to increase their minority representation has served only to put the spotlight on the strength of Smulyan’s local investors. That may not be by accident.

If Smulyan is out of it, the group is not acting like it. It recently hired a high-powered New York public relations firm, either out of desperation or preparation. They have been working to get together documents for Cadillac Bud, as if there possibly could be any more papers in this process that haven’t already been reviewed. They could be the final pieces of approval — or walking papers — depending on what time of day Cadillac Bud reads them and whether he is comfortable when he reads them.

Whatever makes Cadillac Bud comfortable, it’s not the political landscape in the District. No one in baseball should think the next 12 months will be any less politically volatile than the last 12 — which would make Lerner a curious choice. The Lerner family has a local identity because its members live and do business in the area. But the next city official to step forward and say he has had any sort of conversations with the Lerners about anything to do with the Nationals and baseball in Washington will be the first.

By the way, Mark Lerner has pretty much been the family member most identified with their bid. But his father Ted is still around. If District officials think Major League Baseball played hardball over the new ballpark, wait until they deal with Ted.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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