- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Major League Baseball is expected to set a fixed sale price for the Washington Nationals to try to reduce the field of eight bidders vying for the franchise.

That price could be set by the end of the week and likely will be about $450 million, according to several sources familiar with the process.

“They are going to set a price and ask the groups if they are willing to pay,” one source said. “If they set a price and only one party is willing, that could be a problem. But I expect a couple of bidders will meet that price. Then they can start choosing by other factors than money.”

That ultimately means the group with which baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the owners of the other franchises would be the most comfortable.

When the Boston Red Sox were sold in 2002, Selig awarded the franchise to a group with strong connections to baseball: Larry Lucchino, the former San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles president; John Henry, at the time the owner of the Florida Marlins; and Tom Werner, the former owner of the Padres.

None of the eight groups vying for the Nationals has baseball connections that strong. However, the bidders include former Seattle Mariners owner Jeffrey Smulyan, who heads a communications company; former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten; Fred Malek of the Washington Baseball Club, who once held a minority stake in the Texas Rangers; and Corey Busch, the former San Francisco Giants executive who was Selig’s point man in choosing relocation sites for the Montreal Expos and now is with the group led by businessman Franklin Haney Sr.

Some of the competing groups could merge once the process narrows the list to two or three bidders. Several industry sources said the group that is picked will have to take on Kasten, whose backers never have been revealed, to run the baseball operation.

But as one baseball executive said, “That can prove to be difficult. Someone has to be in charge, which means others who might have wanted to do that have to be willing to take a lesser role.”

Other bidders for the Nationals include the Lerner family, area real estate developers; Jonathan Ledecky, a former part-owner of the Washington Capitals; the Northern Virginia group established by William Collins and now led by Sallie Mae chairman Albert L. Lord; and the group led by Chicago attorney and businessman Yusef Jackson.

If the process continues as anticipated, baseball likely will choose a winner by the end of August or the beginning of September. The end of October is the target for a closing for the sale.

The success of the Nationals this season — with 25 games still to be played at RFK Stadium, the club has drawn nearly 1.9 million fans — has helped drive up the asking price.

The controversial deal that puts the Nationals television rights in the control of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, under the umbrella of his Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, has not scared off bidders nor seriously affected the asking price.

A $450 million sales price would more than double the amount for which the last major league franchise sold; the Milwaukee Brewers were purchased for $223 million in January. The record remains the $700 million deal for the Red Sox, but that transaction included Fenway Park and the New England Sports Network.

Major League Baseball purchased the Nationals franchise — then the Expos — in 2002 from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million. That sale allowed Loria to buy the Marlins from Henry for $158 million and allowed Henry to join the group buying the Red Sox. Major League Baseball has since operated the Nationals franchise.

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