Wednesday, November 9, 2005

If Major League Baseball has a heart, and perhaps a brain, its choice of an ownership group for the Washington Nationals should be obvious: Bill Collins and his American Baseball Capital LLC gang.

This assumes the lunkheads who routinely run their sport into the ground have either one — perhaps an unreasonable assumption. And that commissioner Bud Selig and his lapdog owners will get around to making a decision before folks start opening and returning Christmas presents.

Conventional wisdom lately seems to be that three front-runners have emerged from the eight bidders wooing Selig and his minions: A group headed by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, another fronted by the Lerner family and a third led by former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan. Collins says this perception is nonsense and blames what he calls “an obvious bias” toward the Malek-Zients group by The Washington Post and chairman Donald Graham.

“We have as strong a chance as anyone,” Collins said yesterday. “There’s no question about our baseball credentials. There’s no question that we are great citizens. We’ve been patient and worked very hard. If there’s a sentimental favorite, we’re it.”

There it is again — the wacky notion that sentiment and logic should affect this or any other business matter more than money and cronyism. If the latter isn’t the case, why in the name of Bob Short is Smulyan in the running, an out-of-town guy who did his darndest to wreck the Mariners a few years ago?

Even though he is or ought to be sweating bullets these days, ya gotta admire American Baseball Capital CEO Collins for hanging in there through thick and thin, not to mention through MLB’s traditional reluctance to make decisions. He has put together a strong investment crew that includes Albert Lord as chairman and former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald as a partner.

When Collins began seeking a team for Northern Virginia in 1993, Slick Willie was a freshman president and you could still fill your gas tank without checking your bank balance first. Along the way, however, the luck of the Irish turned its back on Collins.

He thought American Baseball Capital, formerly called the Virginia Baseball Club, had a chance of collecting one of two expansion franchises awarded in 1995. Instead MLB foisted the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays on us.

Then Collins made a deal to buy the largely unloved Houston Astros from Drayton McLane Jr. That fell through when the Oilers deserted Houston and a referendum to build a new ballpark so the Astros wouldn’t leave passed with 50.3 percent of the vote.

Finally, Arlington Board chairman Charles Monroe had the three votes necessary for the county to finance a park for Virginia Baseball — a move that might well have prompted MLB to pick Northern Virginia rather than the District as a home for the Montreal Expos. That possibility evaporated after Monroe suffered a fatal heart attack during his first meeting as chairman and the board later nixed a stadium.

Could it be that Somebody Up There has it in for Collins?

Collins laughed heartily — and ruefully.

The man’s own baseball background seems perfect for running a franchise hereabouts. He was born in Southeast D.C. a few miles from the proposed Nats stadium, dad Bill Sr. was a Cleveland farmhand and Indians catcher Jim Hegan presented the newborn with his own catcher’s mitt. Subsequently, Collins indeed caught for DeMatha High School and George Washington University, the latter as a roommate and close friend of Baltimore Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. Then Collins was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers — owned by Bud Selig, of all people — and spent three years beating the bushes before deciding his future lay in business.

Now the question is, does his future lie in baseball?

I dunno. Neither does Collins.

“I think [hope?] Major League Baseball recognizes that we would be tremendous owners,” he said. “Our group has owned two minor league franchises [in Greensboro, N.C., and Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, Mich.]. We have business people who have lived here all their lives and invested heavily in the community. We have great relationships [with District officials].”

Those great relationships do not necessary include ones with Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Council finance chairman Jack Evans, who are backing the Malek-Zients group. Said Collins: “I’m surprised their support has been so one-sided.”

If and when Collins becomes the Nats’ principal owner, he said he will “take a look at the entire landscape” when it comes to filling key roles.

“I think [Nats president] Tony Tavares and [general manager] Jim Bowden have done tremendous jobs, and I guess they’d have a leg up [on retaining them],” he said. “With little time, the way they conducted themselves and the team’s success this year was a tremendous accomplishment.”

And manager Frank Robinson?

“Anybody who knows me knows I ask in-depth questions,” Collins said. “Frank has a tremendous record, but he’s never gotten to the top echelon. I’d like to know how players perform for him and how he handles young players.”

Of course, if his buddy Perlozzo were still available …

All this will be mere speculation, of course, unless the phone rings and the man on the other end says, “Bill, this is Bud. Congratulations!”

And if the phone never rings?

“I’m pretty resilient,” Bill Collins said. “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it was never meant to be. … But regardless, there’s a real positive — the return of major league baseball to the Washington area, and we feel we were instrumental in that. In fact, it wouldn’t have happened without us.”

But like I say, if Major League Baseball has a heart, and perhaps a brain …

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