- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Lerner-Kasten group has hit the ground running with the announcement four senior level vice presidents will take over when the new owners assume control of the Washington Nationals, which should happen before the end of June.

They will have an executive vice president (Bob Wolfe), a senior vice president of business affairs (Mike Shapiro), a senior vice president of external affairs (Al Maldon, and just what are external affairs anyway? Things beyond their control? Sounds more like a CIA post) and a senior vice president of marketing (Tom Ward, whose job it will be to remind much of the area population that there really is a baseball team in town, even if you can’t find them with your TV remote).

That’s all fine and dandy, but while that might get the business affairs-external affairs-marketing community buzzing, it hardly will resonate with Nationals fans. They want to know who will be the new vice president in charge of getting good players and assembling a good team, otherwise known as the general manager.

That guy — next to, of course, the Lerners and Stan Kasten and the rest of the guys who sign checks — will have the biggest impact on everything to do with the Washington Nationals. Because Kasten, the team president, has made it clear the team will be constructed through player development, the person making the decision on those players is clearly the most important person in the Nationals future. If you pick bad players, they develop poorly, and so do your business affairs, external affairs and marketing as well.

Though Kasten said no decisions on anyone’s future in the organization have been made, it is safe to assume current GM Jim Bowden won’t be that guy for a host of reasons: from his personal problems relating to the DUI arrest in Miami Beach to the simple fact that he is identified as part of the Major League Baseball-owned tenure that has left many fans with a sour taste in their mouths.

Because Kasten spent so many years as president of the Atlanta Braves and was part of a successful player development program that led to 14 consecutive National League division titles, five pennants and one World Series championship, it generally has been assumed he will dip into the Atlanta pool to find the new GM in Washington. Two assistant general managers in Atlanta, Dayton Moore and Frank Wren, are possible candidates.

Moore, who according to industry sources may be the favorite for the Nationals job, is already a candidate to take over in Kansas City. The Royals have asked the Braves for permission to talk to Moore, according to the Kansas City Star. For Wren, coming to this organization would be a homecoming of sorts. He began his career as a center fielder in the Montreal Expos farm system in 1977, and coached in the minor league system from 1981 to 1984. Of course, he was the GM in Baltimore for one year in 1999, but owner Peter Angelos determined he didn’t really want a general manager and fired Wren, replacing him with Syd Thrift.

But why not take a shot at the big fish himself first? The Braves’ general manager, John Schuerholz, is a future Hall of Famer who has been the architect of the Braves player development system (and he is executive vice president for all of you exec VP fans).

The time may never be better to grab Schuerholz. It appears the Braves are about to be sold to another corporate entity, Liberty Media — and that has not received an enthusiastic response in Atlanta, where they have not been particularly thrilled about being owned by Time-Warner in recent years.

“If a guy who has a personal interest in the Braves buys the team, he’s more apt to take the money that he makes off the team and put it right back into the team — such as Ted [Turner, the former owner] did,” Chipper Jones told reporters. “Time Warner didn’t do that. Obviously, selling out to [Liberty Media], I don’t see things being any different.”

Schuerholz, who has been the Braves general manager since 1991, was diplomatic about his response to a new set of corporate owners. “I have not operated one iota differently under an individual owner or a corporate owner,” he said. “I’ve had as much authority and support from one to the other.

“We are as aggressive as we’ve always been in scouting and player development. We are as aggressive as we’ve always been in putting together our major league roster.”

But it is different, and the formula for much of the success Schuerholz has enjoyed is here in Washington — family ownership and a franchise run by Kasten, who Schuerholz worked with in Atlanta until Kasten stepped down in 2003. It may be time to leave behind the Atlanta legacy — still haunted by winning just one World Series — and face a new challenge.

Schuerholz is under contract in Atlanta through 2007, but creative people can make things happen. And with all of these new vice presidents in the Nationals front office, there should be enough creativity to make this happen — if Schuerholz is willing to listen.

When asked if he would consider leaving Atlanta for Washington, Schuerholz told reporters, “I’ve got the job I love.”

But this is close to home for Schuerholz, and people love coming home. He is a Baltimore native and graduated from Towson State. There was always conjecture he might come back to work for the Orioles, where he got his start in 1966. But as long Angelos owned the franchise, that was not going to happen unless Schuerholz committed some kind of unspeakable crime and was sentenced to be the Orioles GM — and even then, he might have chosen to flee the country instead.

It’s the same league, the same division, the same team president and an owner named Ted (as in Ted Lerner) — but it is a jewel that requires polishing, instead of the finished product he has been running in Atlanta. For a master jeweler like John Schuerholz, the Washington Nationals are the Hope Diamond, ready to be discovered.

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