Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Washington Nationals ownership saga is starting to resemble an episode of “Seinfeld.” All that was missing yesterday at RFK Stadium was George Costanza screaming, “Let’s get nuts!” because we are definitely stepping into Crazyville.

First, there was the report from WUSA Channel 9 that the Lerner Group had been selected as the new owners of the Nationals, and supposedly the source for this information came from none other than Jeff Smulyan, one of the finalists competing to own the Nationals.

This makes no sense on a number of levels — not the least of which being that Cadillac Bud had just met in Milwaukee — but at this point, trying to make sense of the ownership process makes no sense at all.

The more ridiculous, perhaps more likely it is to be true, but both baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig and Smuylan denied there was any truth to the report.

But by the time I arrived at the press box for yesterday afternoon’s series finale against the Cincinnati Reds, I was ready to believe what made no sense, because the day was already off to a bizarre start.

I get a call on the way to the ballpark from a public relations company representing Smuylan asking if I wanted to talk to Ken Griffey Jr. about Smuylan’s bid for the Nationals and Smuylan’s time as the owner of the Seattle Mariners. Griffey broke in with the Mariners when Smuylan owned the team.

Now, Junior has about as much to do with all of this as Paris Hilton. But, hey, it’s Ken Griffey Jr., and what the heck, it could be interesting, and I figured it would be my contribution to Crazyville.

So I get to the ballpark and, just before the Reds locker room is about to close, I see Rob Butcher, the club’s public relations director. I explain to him that I am supposed to talk to Griffey about Jeff Smuylan.

Butcher looks at me like the idiot that I am and says, “Griffey’s not here. He’s back in Cincinnati rehabbing [a knee injury].”

So when I got upstairs and heard about the Channel 9 reports — that Smulyan, whose people supposedly were arranging for me to talk to someone at RFK who wasn’t even there, had told Channel 9 that he wasn’t getting the team and that the Lerners were — I figured, “Why not? It doesn’t make any sense, so it must be true.”

Then the denials started pouring in — first from Nationals president Tony Tavares, who had spoken to Cadillac Bud and relayed these comments from the commissioner: “Anyone who is saying that they received word that anyone has been selected is not telling the truth.”

Tavares said that Cadillac Bud told him he was “baffled” (now there’s a scoop) by the report and that “he had not made a decision.”

Then there was Smulyan’s official denial: “I made no such statement to any reporter at any time, anywhere. We are demonstrating every day that we will be the best stewards for baseball and are leading the way with minority investors and have been committed to diversity since day one. We are optimistic about our chances and are proud to offer baseball such a historic opportunity.”

Then came the official Major League Baseball denial from Bob DuPuy, MLB president: “There has been unfortunate speculation rampant in the media in Washington, D.C., today, that commissioner Selig has selected one particular group to acquire the Washington Nationals and a press announcement would be made on this Friday to announce the decision. Those rumors are baseless.”

While the denials are coming in, I get a phone call from Smulyan’s public relations man apologizing for setting up an interview with a guy who wasn’t even in town, and asks me, “Would you like to do something on the phone this afternoon?”

OK, Ken Griffey Jr. is going to call me to talk about Jeff Smulyan. He insists he can set it up and makes arrangements for Griffey to call me yesterday afternoon. I am thinking, “I hope he doesn’t call when I am talking to Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. I’d hate to put one of them on hold.”

The afternoon goes by, no call.

Meanwhile, on the field, the Nationals are being Expos-ized right before our eyes. The crowd yesterday, 19,380 for a 5-0 loss to the Reds, who swept the three-game series, was the second smallest in the team’s short tenure in Washington. The smallest was Monday night, when they drew 19,264. Granted, April is a tough time to judge attendance, but the 19,000 seemed more like 9,000. There was more excitement at Olympic Stadium when Expos fans used to bang the empty seats up and down as noisemakers.

There is little life at RFK these days, either in the stands or in the dugout. When asked if he was concerned about the bad vibes, Tavares said, “Of course I am concerned. But I can’t control how these guys play, and that in many cases determines how much excitement there is at a ballpark. … We just haven’t been an exciting team to watch so far.”

For this, a bidding group is going to pay $450 million. Cadillac Bud had better name an owner soon, or else the bogus reports are going to be about groups begging not to be picked. Up is down in Crazyville.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the>Sports Page

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