- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Tony Tavares received a call from Major League Baseball around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. The president of the Washington Nationals was told commissioner Bud Selig had decided to sell the Nationals to the Lerner family and that there would be a press conference that afternoon to announce it formally.

Tavares’ first thought was a natural one. “I need to tell my employees before they find out from someone else,” he said.

Just one problem: He wasn’t in Washington at the time. He was sitting on an airplane on the tarmac in Salt Lake City, and because his flight for the District was about to take off, he was required to turn off his cell phone.

So while word of the Nationals’ ownership change was trickling through the organization all afternoon, Tavares was 37,000 feet in the sky, unable to communicate with anyone on the ground.

It was an appropriate symbolic ending to Tavares’ four-year stint running baseball’s forgotten franchise. MLB had ignored this team for so long, so maybe it wasn’t surprising no one bothered to call the club president in advance and let him know he was about to be out of a job.

“While I was initially annoyed,” Tavares said, “I have come to understand that it’s just the way it was.”

There have been no shortage of trying times for Tavares during his tenure with the Nationals franchise, and no one ever will know just how difficult his job was. Outside observers have an idea, though, just from looking back at all the obstacles he had to overcome from the moment he was hired by MLB to take over this vagabond team.

There was the initial task of selling tickets to Montreal Expos fans, who were convinced (like everyone else) that the team was going to be contracted following the 2002 season. Once contraction was off the table, Tavares had to figure out how to stage 22 “home” games a year in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And then came the relocation to Washington, a mammoth task that had to be condensed into a narrow, six-month window.

When Tavares arrived in the District in October 2004, he had nothing. No office. No employees. Heck, the team didn’t even have a name at first. They just kept calling them “Baseball Expos” until the Nationals moniker and logo finally were chosen.

He worked out of the Hilton hotel, joined by his old cohort from Anaheim, Calif., Kevin Uhlich, and together the two set out to build a major league organization from scratch by Opening Day.

And this is the thanks he gets? Unceremoniously shown the door after the Lerner family announced Stan Kasten would be taking over as club president once the sale process is completed next month?

“I give a lot of credit to Tony Taveras and [manager] Frank Robinson and [assistant general manager] Tony Siegle and the people who have been here for four-and-a-half years,” said GM Jim Bowden, who was hired by Tavares in November 2004. “They have operated under extreme difficult circumstances, extreme restrictions, bare-bones operations in almost all areas, and yet they battled to be respectable. They have done a tremendous job under the circumstances.”

Tavares, though, doesn’t tend to get a lot of public credit. When people talk about the Nationals’ impressive 81-81 inaugural season, they generally heap praise on Robinson or Bowden, not the man they both work for.

If anything, Tavares has taken more criticism than anything. Some of it may be warranted. Plenty of it, though, was out of his control.

Was it Tavares’ fault the D.C. Council held up stadium lease negotiations for so long that it hindered the Nationals’ ability to sign top free agents last winter? Is Tavares to blame for sticking to his MLB-imposed budget, one that shortchanged the franchise’s barren farm system when it was in dire need of repair?

“They had to work under the worst conditions I’ve ever seen a sports executive work under,” Kasten said. “It’s amazing the job they’ve done under these conditions. Because of that, though, they had awful limitations, and that’s where the team finds itself today.”

You won’t hear any complaints from Tavares, though. He might not have known what he was getting into when he signed on four years ago, but he knew there would be little personal glory involved.

“I tend to be more of a ‘we’ guy,” he said. “I don’t try and place myself in front. In sports, you’re only as good as the team you have on and off the field. This was a collective effort. And if you liked our effort, there were a lot of people who deserved credit. If you didn’t like our effort, I guess blame me because I’m the top guy. That just comes with the territory.”

Tavares does have a few regrets as he prepares to hand over the keys to his office to Kasten. He wishes he had taken better care of the farm system back in 2002, when former GM Omar Minaya traded away top prospects like Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips in an unsuccessful attempt to win the National League wild-card race.

“But you have to remember, all of us were operating as if we had no future,” he said, referring to the likelihood of contraction. “Because really, we didn’t.”

Generally speaking, though, Tavares is satisfied with the current state of the franchise. He would like to see a few more wins, not to mention a few more fannies in the seats at RFK Stadium, but he believes a solid foundation is in place for the Lerners and Kasten to build from.

He will stay on the job for another month or two until the transfer becomes official. During the interim, he will try to work with the new owners on as many issues as possible.

After that, Tavares has some personal matters to attend to. He has needed knee replacement surgery for the last five years but has had to put the procedure off all this time because he couldn’t afford to take two months off from work to recover. He will return to his full-time home in Reno, Nev., make up for all the lost time with his wife, Elizabeth, and his young grandson, Jack.

Eventually, Tavares plans to start his own consulting business, one in which he can assist prospective baseball and hockey owners who are looking to purchase franchises.

He won’t rule out the possibility of running another pro sports team someday. But he made it clear he did not try to convince any of the groups bidding on the Nationals to keep him on.

“I’m proud of the integrity we dealt with here in not trying to align ourselves with any of the groups,” Tavares said. “In fact, we made people sign a document saying they wouldn’t engage in that kind of behavior. We stayed out of it.

“I’m proud to say that Bud never received a call from me lobbying for one group or another. He made the decision he thought was in the best interests of baseball. And I think the Lerner group will certainly be a terrific owner over the long haul and will build a team that Washington will be proud of.”

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