- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

NEW YORK — Major League Baseball team owners this morning unanimously approved the sale of the Washington Nationals to the family of local real estate developer Ted Lerner, allowing the transfer of the team’s ownership to take place as soon as next month.

“This family is going to own this team for generations,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said after two days of meetings with league owners. “They are the right ownership group in the right city under the right circumstances.”

The Lerners, along with incoming team president Stan Kasten, responded to the vote by announcing that there will be noticeable upgrades to the fan experience at aging RFK Stadium when the Nationals return from a road trip on July 21.

“There isn’t a lot we can do physically at RFK for this year, and time makes it impossible to start over,” Kasten said. “But we can, I think, demonstrate to our key constituents, our customers and others like that, that we’re here now, and this is just a taste of what we hope we can bring you down the road.”

The closing of the sale of the Nationals will end an arduous chapter in the league’s history that began in 2002 when MLB’s team owners collectively bought the struggling franchise, then known as the Montreal Expos, with the intention of contracting the team. MLB officials eventually changed course and decided to relocate the franchise to Washington beginning with the 2005 season.

“I know there’s been a lot of comment about this process,” Selig said. “As commissioner of the sport, I was very sensitive to it and nervous about it. I understood all of the potential conflicts. Would I do this again? No. But there was an emergency, and we reached a point in the situation where we didn’t have much of a choice. So it’s a huge relief for me.”

The Nationals will sell for $450 million, with the proceeds split evenly among the 29 other team owners. MLB paid $120 million for the franchise in 2002, but officials have bristled at the notion that other team owners profited heavily from the sale. The team lost millions of dollars between 2002 and 2004, and the league incurred additional expenses while it battled with the city over development of a new ballpark for the Nationals.

Selig had refused to announce a new owner for the Nationals until it completed negotiations with the city on a lease and construction agreement for the team’s new stadium. Those details were finalized in early March and Selig announced his choice of the Lerner family on May 3.

The ownership group is led by Ted Lerner, 80, who founded a major real estate company responsible for billions of dollars in development in the last 50 years. His son, Mark, also is a majority owner along with Ted Lerner’s sons-in-law, Robert Tanenbaum and Edward Cohen. Kasten, a former president of the Atlanta Braves, also is a major investor and will replace Tony Tavares as the Nationals’ top executive.

“As a kid who grew up as a huge Senators fan, this vote represents a dream come true,” Ted Lerner said yesterday. “Making the national pastime viable again in our nation’s capital, my hometown, is important, not just to our fans in Washington but to all fans who love the game.”

The new ownership group cannot make any on-field changes to the team until the sale is completed, perhaps as soon as mid-June. But the Lerner family and Kasten have already starting making suggestions about the Nationals’ new $611 million waterfront ballpark, which broke ground earlier this month. Soon, the group must help decide whether parking garages planned near the site will be constructed underground, and whether it will pay for the rights to build retail space on First Street, outside the stadium’s east wall.

Meanwhile, Kasten and family members have been assessing how to upgrade RFK Stadium, which has become a haven of complaints involving poor concession service and generally poor atmosphere. Beginning with the July 21 series with the Cubs, fans will see a cleaner stadium, better concession service and more activities in and around the stadium, the new owners said.

“There are some nuts and bolts things that, frankly, the Lerner family has more experience with than anyone else,” Kasten said. “We’re looking forward to that grand re-opening.”

In addition, the Lerner family said they will soon reveal details about a community-relations initiative, in order to repair the strained relationship between baseball and many D.C. residents. While the family refused to reveal details, they have met with nearly all members of the D.C. Council. There is some early talk of the group helping to add baseball teams to high schools that don’t have them, and working with MLB on creation of a baseball academy in Ward 7.

“You have an entire generation of people who live in Washington that don’t remember the Senators,” said Jarvis Stewart, one of nine minority investors in the group, who will be involved in community efforts. “Is there some bridge-building, or repairing of the bridge? Of course. That’s with every deal, and it’s always the responsibility of owners to do a little bridgework, and we’re knee-deep in those efforts.”

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

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