- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

Three bidding groups seeking to buy the Washington Nationals met with Major League Baseball executives yesterday in Chicago. Each was interviewed at length on details of its bid and plans to operate to club.

Bid teams led by Maryland developer Mark Lerner, District philanthropist Jonathan Ledecky, and District businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients took their turns before an ad hoc committee reviewing proposals to buy the Nationals.

The sessions were part of a deliberate, high-stakes process designed to end MLB’s four-season ownership of the Montreal Expos-turned-Nationals. According to industry sources, MLB now intends to brief commissioner Bud Selig on the status of the Nationals auction around next month’s All-Star Game and commence a second round of bidding in late July or early August. That timetable is slower than first envisioned by MLB executives, who initially hoped to have the field cut down to a smaller group of finalists by now. But the end goal of selecting the new Nationals owner by early September remains intact.

The first round of bidding, according to the sources, produced at least three bids above $400 million for the club and a minority stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, slightly higher than first believed. But with several offers thought to be clustered tightly together, MLB executives are spending considerable time reviewing the proposed capital structures and debt loads of each offer. Leading baseball’s review committee are MLB president Bob DuPuy and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Also at play among the bidders is an attempt to show extensive connections with the District and federal governments. MLB covets the opportunity for the Nationals to become a conduit toward better relations with Capitol Hill. To that end, a political skirmish has developed over Ledecky’s addition of global financier and Democratic activist George Soros to his group. Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House government reform committee, told the Roll Call newspaper he believed a Soros entry into baseball’s ownership would be a black mark for the game.

The statement from Davis, who initiated the Congressional inquiry into steroid use in pro sports, has brought predictable outcries from Democrats. Soros, however, would only be a junior investor in the transaction, with Ledecky standing as general partner.

Also bidding on the Nationals are Indianapolis communications executive Jeffrey Smulyan; Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten; District and Tennessee developer Franklin Haney Sr.; Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord; and California billionaire Ron Burkle.

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