- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

After spending months working with Major League Baseball officials over a lease agreement for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams will travel to San Diego this weekend to encourage officials to name a new owner for the franchise.

Williams plans to meet with MLB commissioner Bud Selig and other executives, who will be in San Diego for the semifinals and finals of the World Baseball Classic.

The naming of a new team owner is considered the final key step in the Nationals’ transition to Washington after being relocated here from Montreal following the 2004 season. MLB has owned the team since 2002 but refused to sell the team to a new owner until it finalized a lease agreement for the Nationals’ stadium. After a long and tense negotiation with the city and D.C. Council, MLB signed off on the lease earlier this month.

The city unveiled the design for the stadium earlier this week and is expected to begin construction of the ballpark within the next month.

“Now that the District has approved the lease, announced a ballpark design and moved forward in preparation for ground-breaking at the stadium site, MLB officials need to name an owner for the Nationals without any additional delay,” Williams said.

MLB officials have said they would name an owner within about a month after the stadium lease is approved. But bidders for the team said they don’t expect an announcement until after Opening Day.

Williams has supported the Washington Baseball Club, led by local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, as the owner for the team. The club was instrumental in lobbying MLB to bring the Nationals franchise to Washington and is considered one of the leading bidders.

But there is also support within MLB for Indianapolis communications executive Jeff Smulyan and a group led by the Lerner family, which runs a local real estate development company. Five other groups also submitted bids for the team, which is expected to sell for about $450million.

“This situation of the team not having an owner has lingered for far too long,” Williams said. “The delay has been very hurtful to the team in many ways — setting it back competitively, hurting morale of the ballclub, depressing turnout and leaving a big question mark hanging over the team.”

The ultimate decision on ownership will be made by Selig, who has a history of combining bidders to form a group with which he is comfortable. Former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, who submitted a bid of his own, has been in talks with several bidders — including the Lerner group — over the last year. Both he and members of the Lerner group have met separately with Nationals officials during spring training games in Florida this month.

Smulyan, meanwhile, has strong support in MLB circles because he was a former owner of the Seattle Mariners and has experience working with the players union and the league’s broadcast partners.

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