- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

Imagine Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder writing a column praising the Washington Wizards’ playoff effort after losing their two best players before the postseason began. Or Abe Pollin going online to defend the recent draft selections of the Redskins.

It seems highly improbable, but that is what has been happening with another sports owner in town and a neighboring franchise.

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has come to the defense of the Washington Nationals’ “plan” for building a successful team on the field twice in the past three weeks, criticizing the coverage of the baseball team in The Washington Post and, just a few days ago, pointing out that the Nationals and the New York Yankees, with their massive payroll, had the same number of wins.

“The last time I looked, the Yankees payroll was in excess of $200 million,” Leonsis wrote in his blog, “Ted’s Take.” “I guess money doesn’t always buy happiness.”

Neither does penny-pinching. Somewhere in the middle, though, probably would suit both Nationals and Caps fans just fine.

The owner of the Capitals writing about the Nationals’ personnel decisions is certainly unusual, and it doesn’t matter how good friends Mark Lerner and Leonsis are or whether Leonsis is a Nationals season ticket holder. There is a pie called sports entertainment in this region and only so many slices to go around for everyone. Both the Nationals and the Capitals are fighting for a piece of that pie — corporate sponsorship, fans pocket books, ad dollars, etc.

But Leonsis said he is writing as a blogger when he writes commentary like this May 10 passage, which came in response to a Post article:

“The ownership of the Washington Nationals has been clear and honest with their plan. They must rebuild the team from the ground up. It will take awhile but be well worth it when the Nationals have a strong core built from within, a new stadium and new revenues which will allow them to add to the core via free agency. The goal of the franchise is to win a championship — not to be a good .500 team — and offer entertainment in the short term.”

He went on to write: “How about a little belief in the plan? How about letting the plan take root? I am a season ticket holder of the Nationals. I believe in the plan and am happy that ownership has outlined and communicated to us what their intentions are and how they will build the team the right way. It is better to have a plan than to not have a plan and play willy-nilly with signings to make sports reporters happy and have things to talk about in the media.”

Could he have been writing about another sports team with that last reference?

On Monday, he compared the spending of the Yankees to that of the Nationals.

“It is like being a columnist and I can write about whatever hits my fancy,” Leonsis wrote in an e-mail response. “My blog [which Leonsis says on a good day gets 15,000 hits] is usually about tech developments; AOL; sports; the teams; my film; my family; and media in general; and just general life facts. It is fun to be able to comment on the commentators now too.

“Mark [Lerner] is one of my partners in the Caps. He and I are friends; I am a season ticket holder. When I read the articles — I read them carefully — and when they are wrongheaded I now have a forum to say so. But it isn’t just about the Nationals, it is about my team — and anything else that moves me that day.”

His defense of the Nationals’ plan also might appear to be a defense of the plan of the Capitals, who also have a low payroll and an emphasis on player development. Leonsis said the clubs aren’t comparable because they operate under different financial systems.

“We have very different circumstance,” he wrote. “The NHL has a hard cap of $44 million for last season; the midpoint, which is what the league on average must meet, is $36 million, which is what we pretty much paid out with our salaries, bonuses and what we had to pay for [Jaromir] Jagr. The floor was $32 million. The swing is no more than $16 million from top to bottom; we as a team should always be about midpoint, so $8 million from the top spenders or so in round numbers. This assures competitiveness in the league.

“MLB has no cap. [The] Yankees spend more than $200 million. Some teams spend $25 million. I think Roger Clemens’ pro rata salary is more than some MLB franchises. So I don’t really compare apples to apples — Nats to Caps. Much different systems.”

The philosophy, though, remains the same, and here’s the difference for Caps fans: They had a team to watch since 1974, a team that made the playoffs 17 times and went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.

All Nationals fans had were three decades of emptiness. They didn’t even know they were Nationals fans when the Caps were in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Lerner was out of the country and could not be reached for comment about Leonsis’ defense of the Nationals, but team president Stan Kasten, who knows Leonsis from Kasten’s days when he ran the Atlanta Thrashers and when they were both working for Time Warner, said his writings are not a surprise.

“Ted has his own style,” Kasten said. “Mark Cuban will step out and comment on things that don’t pertain to his team. It’s just Ted’s style to comment on issues, and right now the Nationals are an important issue in town. So it doesn’t surprise me. That’s who Ted Leonsis is.”

“Important issue” might be relative, considering the Nationals, coming home after a successful road trip to face the marquee Los Angeles Dodgers on a beautiful evening, drew just 18,000 people at RFK Stadium on Tuesday night.

Kasten acknowledged as well that Leonsis’ defense of the Nationals might be personal, too.

“He is also a partner with the Lerners in the ownership of the Caps,” Kasten said. “I know he loves the family, and I think when he sees that criticism he takes it personally because he really is very fond of them.”

Maybe this will start a trend. Who knows what Kasten might write about Redskins training camp or Snyder about the Caps’ upcoming season?

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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