Prospective Washington Nationals owner Jonathan Ledecky wasn’t handing out bumper stickers and buttons last week when he appeared in Southeast to announce a new baseball-themed charitable foundation and the support of four D.C. Council members for his bid for the club. But he might as well have because the race for control of the Nationals now shows all the markings of a high-stakes election campaign.
Most of the political ramp-up surrounds Ledecky himself, who held the unusual session as a means to demonstrate his intent to use baseball as a vehicle for social and economic betterment within the District, as well as his local political alliances.
“Major League Baseball has made it clear that the main two criteria for becoming owner of this team are going to be price and commitment to the community,” Ledecky said. “And it’s not enough to just pledge something for the future or come in for just two minutes.”
He is not alone. The Washington Baseball Club, led by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, similarly holds public endorsements from District Mayor Anthony Williams, prominent D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, and Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican. Davis, who has benefited from Malek-organized political fund-raisers, stirred up a fuss recently by declaring Ledecky’s addition of global financier and Democratic activist George Soros a black mark for baseball and followed up his comments with a hollow threat to strip the game’s antitrust exemption.
Politicking and Washington typically go hand-in-hand, to the point of being practically inseparable. But in this instance, the Nationals-related stumping is a high-risk, high-reward activity since Major League Baseball normally prefers to conduct team sales with the utmost of secrecy and control. MLB, current owner of the Nationals, also is extremely sensitive to how each team owner operates within the larger fraternity of baseball and discourages maverick behavior. As a result, several suitors for the club are resisting the pull into the campaign mix.
“I think it was a mistake,” said a member of one of the other bidding groups. “Baseball sees through all of this and doesn’t like to be told what to do or receive a whole lot of political pressure. I don’t see how this benefits Ledecky or Malek. They’ve each got their competing camps now, but if either of them win, they’re going to have to work with everybody. Maybe this turns out to be a wise strategy. But right now I don’t see the benefit and I do see the downside.”
The inverse theory to that cautionary logic is that after the Nationals’ drama-filled relocation and division over the financing for the club’s ballpark, establishing baseball in Washington will require constant care and different operational approaches than those used for other teams.
The Nationals’ new owner similarly will be expected to be a visible community leader. And not only is baseball held to higher societal standard than other major professional sports, the other local team owners have either alienated large blocks of their fan base or retreated from public view. That leaves the future No.1 National, whoever that turns out to be, with a large bull’s-eye on his chest.
Fortunately for fans, election night on this front almost certainly will arrive sooner than November. MLB is still targeting later this summer to select an owner, with a formal closing on the long-awaited transaction to occur sometime around the World Series. And with an extensive laundry list awaiting the new owner — ranging from advancing the stadium construction efforts to improving local TV distribution — the test for all the recent campaigns promises to be stern and immediate.
“We’re walking the walk about investing in this community, and that’s precisely what we intend to keep doing,” Ledecky said.