- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Citing a preference for a family-centered ownership group, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced yesterday that the league will sell the Washington Nationals to an investment team led by Bethesda-based real-estate developer Theodore N. Lerner and his son, Mark.

“For a kid from the District, this a very exciting day,” said Mr. Lerner, 80, who held back tears during a press conference. “It’s a lifetime dream.”

The decision ended four years of drama involving the Nationals organization, which has been owned by Major League Baseball (MLB) since 2002 and last year moved to the District from Montreal. For Mr. Selig, the decision ended a long and arduous process to choose an owner for the team from among eight bid groups with strong credentials.

Mr. Selig called it one of the most difficult decisions he has made in his 14 years as commissioner.

“This was painful because every one of these groups was so well qualified and so good,” Mr. Selig said. “I agonized over it.”

Mr. Lerner, whose fellow investors include family members and former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, could take control of the team in June. The 29 other owners will vote on the sale when they meet in New York on May 17 and 18, and approval is expected to be unanimous.

The Lerners edged out a group led by local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients and another group of local investors led by Indianapolis communications executive Jeff Smulyan.

Mr. Selig compared the Lerner group to the family-run ownership groups of the New York Mets, Minnesota Twins and San Diego Padres.

“Family ownership has been a strong model of ownership for baseball,” said Mr. Selig, who also complimented the Lerners on their “scrupulous adherence” to MLB’s selection process.

The Lerners said they intend to maintain that family ownership of the Nationals for a long time, passing the team down through generations. Included as principal owners in the group are Mr. Lerner’s sons-in-law, Robert Tanenbaum and Edward Cohen.

“This is an asset and a treasure that will stay in this family,” Mark Lerner said. “We all hope we are a part of this over the long term.”

Mr. Selig also said he thinks the Lerners will be an advocate for baseball overall. Baseball sources said Mr. Selig prefers owners who will stand by league officials in negotiations with the players union, broadcasters and legislators.

“I have a strong belief that if you are a really great owner in your sport, you put the sport and the sport’s interests above your own,” Mr. Selig said.

The Lerners were criticized by some city leaders in recent weeks for a lack of minority investment in their group and for adding minorities only recently and at the request of MLB. The group also was criticized for being too private, although the family yesterday said they were simply following a directive from MLB for all bidders to keep a low profile. Mr. Selig dismissed the criticisms and said he thinks any bad feelings will diminish once the transfer of ownership takes place.

“Much of that has been overblown,” he said. “As of today, we all wear the same uniform, and it says Washington, D.C., on it.”

Mr. Lerner has listed at least nine minority investors, including Rodney Slater, a lawyer and secretary of transportation under President Clinton; B. Doyle Mitchell Jr., owner of the District’s largest minority-owned bank; and Paxton Baker, an executive with Black Entertainment Television. CBS sportscaster James Brown and Texas-based engineer Raul Romero also are investors in the group, along with Falls Church technology consultant Faye Fields. Minorities constitute about 10 percent of the equity stake in the team, and that could grow, members said.

“I’ve seen nothing to indicate diversity is not important” to the Lerners, Mr. Mitchell said. “I wouldn’t be standing here if that were the case.”

But the key piece to the team is Mr. Kasten, who is given credit for helping to build the Braves dynasty of the 1990s and with the construction of Turner Field in Atlanta. He will serve as the Nationals’ president, replacing Tony Tavares.

“It became clear we were a match made in heaven,” Mr. Kasten said of the partnership that began with a conversation with Mr. Lerner in the fall of 2003. “I found what I was looking for. This is the top of the mountain in professional sports. If we do things right, we’re going to become a phenomenon for baseball nationally.”

Mr. Selig said he expects the Lerner group to put a strong team on the field, even after spending an estimated $450 million to purchase the team.

However, the Lerners will take over a team that faces serious problems.

For one thing, the Nationals’ new stadium, for which ground will be broken today, will be built on an extremely tight budget. Mr. Kasten and Mr. Lerner are expected to work together to help the city build the new ballpark in time for Opening Day 2008, but they said they have no plans to contribute any money toward the project. The city has capped its own contribution to the stadium at $611 million.

Many fans can’t watch broadcasts of the team’s games on cable because of a dispute between Comcast and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which produces Nationals’ telecasts. Attendance at RFK Stadium has dipped dramatically since last season. And the Nationals, after a magical debut season in Washington, have struggled badly on the field this year.

Still, Mr. Selig says the Lerners have the means and will to turn things around.

“There’s no question they will have the money to be competitive,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind they know exactly what they are getting into.”

For the Nationals’ players, news of the sale brought a sense that the franchise’s tough years might be gone for good.

The team, while based in Montreal, lived a vagabond existence, playing some “home” games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a means to generate revenue and to avoid playing in a near-empty stadium in their Canadian hometown. The franchise was bought by baseball four years ago, and MLB officials at times publicly discussed eliminating the team.

Those days, happily for the players, appear to be at an end.

“Everybody has been waiting for this moment. The city has been waiting for this moment, too,” said pitcher Livan Hernandez, the staff ace. “We had an owner before, but it was Major League Baseball. It’s going to be a new organization because [Lerner] is going to put his hands on the team and help the team more. It wasn’t easy for the players. Every year, we heard that a new owner was coming and then nothing after three months. Let’s see how everything works.”

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