- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

NEW YORK — Circle this date on your calendar, Nationals fans: July 21, a Friday night game against the Chicago Cubs.

That, according to the Lerner family and their partners, will be the “rebirth” of the team, the start of a second honeymoon at RFK Stadium.

“On July 21, people will see a difference, and it will go on for the rest of the summer and into next year,” Mark Lerner said.

There you have it: the first concrete promise from the new owners, the first tangible thing for which you can hold them accountable.

Please do so, by the way. You’ve earned the right. You’ve been used and abused by baseball for 35 years now.

Now there is a new ownership group in Washington. Mark and Ted Lerner and company yesterday went before the 29 other major league owners — 30, if you count Nationals president Tony Tavares, who bizarrely got to officially vote himself out of a job — and received unanimous approval to take over the relocated Montreal Expos franchise.

They received a standing ovation from the owners after the vote, though we don’t know if Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos led the applause.

When asked if Angelos spoke to him, Ted Lerner said, “We just exchanged greetings.” We don’t know if it was “hello” or “hey” or if there was any mention of the word “television” mixed in with a few expletives.

It would be nice if most Nats fans at home could watch the rebirth of the franchise at RFK come July 21. But there were no promises made about settling the MASN-Comcast dispute that is keeping most of the team’s games off television.

“The TV deal is on that first page of immediate to-do items that we have to deal with,” said fellow owner and future Nationals president Stan Kasten.

Is it No. 1? It should be.

“It’s on that page, tied for first with a lot of other things,” Kasten said.

The new owners, though, did not waver about making RFK Stadium a better place to watch baseball.

“We want to make the experience the best that we can,” Mark Lerner said. “Obviously, the resources at RFK are limited. But we want people, when they get off the Metro and walk in the stadium, to see a difference. The hot dogs will be better, there will be life in the place.

“We’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve got. I’ve seen the things that are wrong, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make it better.”

That includes a team that is much more involved in the community. When the Nationals traded Brad Wilkerson and let Jamey Carroll go, they lost two-thirds of the community relations department on the roster, leaving just Brian Schneider to carry the load. That, the new owners say, will change as well.

“The team will be much more visible,” Kasten said. “It’s something we all think has to happen, no question about it. We have had many talks about it. We see a lot of opportunities out there, and we are going to try to take care of every opportunity.

“It’s going to have to more than just me out there talking. We’re going to need players and managers and GMs and whoever. We need to be out there.”

They will need a lot of hot dogs, beer, balloons and autographs to keep the focus away from the field. If the grand rebirth is on July 21, the grand dismantling begins on the July 31 trading deadline.

The Lerner group insists it is committed to player development. If you had a nickel for every time Kasten says the words “player development,” you could have bought this team yourself. But in order to have player development, you need players to develop. The Nationals have very little of that in their farm system right now. So, though no one was saying so yesterday, say goodbye to Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen and maybe even Livan Hernandez and Jose Vidro.

“Every baseball team has limited resources, and you have to make decisions on how you deploy your resources,” Kasten said. “If you’re not ready to win and you squander money at the expense of player development, [it] is foolish. Job one for us is getting to a position where we can win as fast as possible. In my judgment, the way to do that is to commit our time and energy and resources to player development. As soon as we are in a position to win, and I don’t know if that is this year, next year or the year after, we’re going to go for it.”

“This man,” Kasten said, pointing to Ted Lerner, “wants to win a world championship and I want to help him do that. But there is a way to do it, and we think the way to do it is to start with player development. That is what we are going to be focusing on.”

For now, though, the focus for Nationals fans should be July 21. The new owners likely will take over before then — the changeover should occur by the end of June — but they have determined they can have an impact by that third week in July.

So if your beer is warm and your hot dog is cold, don’t complain anymore to baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig. He doesn’t want to go through this again.

If it was a relief for Cadillac Bud to finally end it, it was the final step of a dream come true for the Lerners. When the press conference was over, Mark Lerner was looking for a copy of the press release announcing the approval of the Lerner group. He wanted to frame it.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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