- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

Friday morning, a story in The Washington Post revealed that the Lerner group, the owners of the Washington Nationals, have refused to pay rent to the city for the new $611 million ballpark in a petty contract dispute.

Then, late Friday night, an ESPN.com story reported that the feds and Major League Baseball are investigating Nationals general manager Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo in connection with a financial scandal involving the signing of players from the Dominican Republic and the skimming of signing money designated for prospects.

I don’t think this is what the team had in mind when they scheduled their “Christmas in July” event at the ballpark this weekend.

While they were collecting toys outside the ballpark with volunteers from the U.S. Marine Corps for the Toys for Tots Foundation, inside the ballpark the Lerners were refusing to cough up $3.5 million - which will buy a lot of Toys for Tots, by the way, as well as needed city services and programs - in a battle with District officials over the issue of whether the ballpark was truly completed by the deadline of their contract.

Then again, $3.5 million will cover a lot of legal fees.

We may finally find out after this 24-hour public relations disaster how immune the Lerners really are to the pressure of perception. Their fight with the city, along with the product they have put on the field for fans paying new ballpark ticket prices, would indicate that if they believe they are right, they really couldn’t care less what the public perception is of the franchise.

It would lead one to believe that they don’t subscribe to the often wise notion of “sometimes the juice just ain’t worth the squeezing.”

The Lerners would appear to want every drop.

This federal probe, though, is something altogether. This involves the FBI, not a bunch of District bookkeepers.

It also involves a new sheriff in town, the investigative unit of Major League Baseball that was recently formed out of the Mitchell steroid probe. This is not the previous security arm of baseball, which existed to put out fires.

Investigators like to collect pelts. It’s what they do.

The ESPN report says that MLB also added four Latin American investigators to its staff, each with a background in drug enforcement. At least two of those new hires have been working in the Dominican regularly during the past three months, visiting every club’s Dominican camp within the past month, and that the unit is “looking at everything, A to Z, speaking to players, scouts, people that run the academies,” the source said.

The unit also is delving into the issue of access to, and distribution of, steroids to ballplayers in the Dominican, the report said.

Bowden, who was identified by the ESPN reporter as “the highest-ranking official known to be under investigation,” told reporters Friday that while he met with FBI investigators, the questions did not center around himself or Rijo.

“Myself, the entire Nationals organization and I would assume all 29 [other] clubs are going to cooperate fully with the investigation that’s going on,” he said.

When asked whether he had knowledge of any money skimming in the Nationals organization, Bowden replied, “Absolutely not.”

Speaking to reporters Saturday, team president Stan Kasten said he would not discuss “specific innuendos or allegations or rumors. That wouldn’t be fair. That wouldn’t be right, and that’s what I’m admonishing all of you to be mindful of as you’re covering this story. Be fair, be responsible, and don’t just go for the cheap headline.”

I would be careful, if I were Kasten, about using that word “cheap.”

It is certainly reasonable that if baseball is conducting a wide-ranging investigation in connection with Dominican baseball, investigators would want to talk to Bowden and Rijo, whether they were targets or not. The Nationals have been active in the Dominican market, and Rijo is an influential figure in Dominican baseball.

When I wrote recently about the canceled Nationals giveaway jerseys being seized by customs as part of an investigation (I would assume unrelated), I joked that with all this international intrigue, on the heels of the opening of the Scoreboard Walk bar, the team should consider another promotion - Casablanca Night at the ballpark, and perhaps open a version of Rick’s American Cafe.

Given the events of this weekend, though, it may indeed be time to open another bar.

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