- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

Billionaire financier George Soros has money, power and influence beyond the wildest dreams of nearly everyone on the planet. But is it enough to get him into one of the most exclusive fraternities in the world — the ownership ranks of Major League Baseball?

Mr. Soros, who this week joined a bid led by D.C. philanthropist and entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky to buy the MLB-owned Washington Nationals, continues to be the talk of sports, financial and political circles. It’s not hard to understand why.

Mr. Soros, a longtime Democratic Party activist, last year poured $26 million into an extremely personal and strident campaign against President Bush’s bid for re-election, even likening the Bush administration to Nazism. The president is a former owner of the Texas Rangers and remains close to the mostly conservative group of MLB owners.

But Mr. Soros, worth an estimated $7.2 billion, also provides Mr. Ledecky’s group with financial firepower for a fiercely competitive auction likely to exceed $400 million. And MLB executives have made it clear price will be a prime consideration in selecting the owner. MLB paid $120 million for the then-Montreal Expos in 2002, has spent more than $60 million in additional funds since then to cover operating losses and now is looking for a major payoff.

“I cannot imagine that Soros’ politics will not come into play during this process,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports-industry consultant who has advised on many team sales. “He funded arguably one of the most one-sided and vitriolic campaigns we’ve seen.

“It’s no secret Bush is a close friend of baseball, and a hallmark of Bud Selig’s tenure as commissioner has been to seek out like-minded owners he and the others can count on when things get tough,” Mr. Ganis said. “There’s a certain radioactive element to Soros, but money is still probably the biggest issue in this sale. If they outbid everyone else, I still think they’ve got a very good shot of winning.”

If his group were to win, Mr. Ledecky would be the Nationals’ lead owner. But Mr. Soros, 74, would become one of the most prominent minority partners in sports history. Mr. Soros, like Mr. Ledecky, has operated in sports before, serving as one of D.C. United’s original investors in 1996 and also has considered bidding on other MLB franchises.

Mr. Soros’ status as a lightning rod does not stop at presidential politics. He has backed numerous drug-legalization initiatives, and his polarizing stance there runs counter to Mr. Selig’s recently heightened efforts to rid baseball of illegal drugs and performance-enhancing substances.

But again, Mr. Soros’ status as the 24th-richest man in America makes it impossible to discount him as a factor in the Nationals race. MLB executives declined to comment on Mr. Soros’ bid for the Nationals. Industry sources, however, said MLB is pleased with Mr. Ledecky’s addition of Mr. Soros, believing his presence will intensify bidding for the club.

The private reaction of most of the six other suitors for the Nationals — a star-studded field including groups led by D.C. financier Fred Malek, Sallie Mae Chairman Albert Lord and prominent local real estate developer Mark Lerner — has been similar. If they can match or beat what Mr. Ledecky’s group offers, they feel good about their chances. But they acknowledge that task probably became harder with the arrival of Mr. Soros.

Mr. Ledecky also will be banking on Mr. Soros’ extensive record of charitable giving, now exceeding $5 billion and often extending into the third world.

“We have one of the greatest investors in history on board to validate our group’s financial strength and ability to successfully manage this franchise,” Mr. Ledecky said earlier this week when the Soros addition was announced. “We also have a concerned, caring and committed philanthropist interested in the well-being of our city.”

MLB owners are a generally conservative group. Perhaps foremost among them is Cincinnati Reds owner Carl Lindner, who is an active and substantial donor to various Republican organizations.

But some Democrats also have gained Mr. Selig’s trust and friendship, most notably Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Long a Democrat Party supporter and donor, Mr. Angelos now sits on MLB’s executive council and played a key role helping represent management in baseball’s more recent labor negotiations with the players union.

“It’s not really the party affiliation with Soros. It’s that he made it so personal with Bush,” Mr. Ganis said.

But Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor and a frequent author on baseball, disagreed.

“I don’t think this really hurts the group. Baseball wants good, solid investors for this club with as little debt as possible,” Mr. Zimbalist said. “Soros definitely helps in that regard. And if he can raise the profile of baseball, all the better.”

Sources close to Mr. Soros said yesterday he is not looking at the Nationals as a political platform, but rather as an investment.

“This is a good business deal with a good syndicate, pure and simple,” said an industry source familiar with Mr. Soros’ thinking.

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