- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

What if the Washington Nationals franchise had never come to pass? What if the Expos had not moved from Montreal, or baseball simply refused to come to Washington?

It might have meant the future owners of the Chicago Cubs could have been Stan Kasten and Ted Lerner.

The Cubs are — just like the tickets sold for last night’s Cubs game at Nationals Park — a premium sports franchise and have been on the market now for more than a year.

If the Washington opportunity had never come along, Kasten said he would have likely been interested in pursuing the Cubs, and he believes Ted Lerner would have as well.

“Of course,” Kasten said when asked if he would have been interested. “When I was retired, I was looking at everything, but didn’t know I would ever do anything, but obviously the Cubs are a unique, iconic franchise.

“Moreover, although I never asked him, I would have to believe that Ted Lerner would have been interested, too,” Kasten added. “The first time Ted and I ever spoke, it was before the Montreal Expos had even thought about moving to Washington. He was interested in the business of sports, so I am sure a person like him would have loved to have an opportunity to do that.”

Like the Nationals sale — a team owned by Major League Baseball put up for sale in city that hadn’t had baseball for 33 years — the sale of the Cubs is like no other in the game, because of 94-year-old Wrigley Field.

The historic, beloved ballpark is an entity unto itself and perhaps has a bigger place in the hearts of Chicago sports fans than the baseball team itself, which is one of the reasons the sale of the team is being held up. The future of Wrigley Field is much more of a source of conversation and consternation than the future of the team.

When the Boston Red Sox were sold for $700 million in 2002 to a group led by John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, it included the team, Fenway Park and the regional New England Sports Network.

In Chicago, there has been much debate over whether the sale will include the ballpark, which is owned by the Tribune Co., as well. The entire package — the Cubs, the ballpark and the stake in their cable sports network — could be valued as high at $1 billion.

But new Tribune owner Sam Zell reportedly wants to sell the entities separately, and talks have bogged down with the state of Illinois, which wants to buy Wrigley Field to protect it from whoever will own the franchise as much as anything.

“We have two assets that are unique and attractive — Wrigley Field and the team,” said Crane Kenney, the Tribune Co. executive in charge of the franchise. “There is a certain paternalism about the ballpark. People worry that the charm and character will be lost. They fear new owners will change the ballpark. That is why there is more interest.”

The bidders for the team are reportedly not pleased that the package might not include Wrigley Field, and there will likely be a lease battle between the state and the new owners that may have to be worked out before any sale of the team. Still, there should be no shortage of bidders, reportedly including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, former Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and banker John Canning, a limited partner in the Milwaukee Brewers.

So far, none of losing bidders for the Nationals — Jeff Smulyan, Ron Burkle — have surfaced in the hunt for the Cubs.

Yesterday, after the Cubs arrived at Nationals Park, team officials were given a tour of the new ballpark by Nationals owner Mark Lerner.

“It is a great ballpark,” Kenney said. “We’re envious of some of the player and fan amenities here that we don’t have in a ballpark of our age.”

Cubs manager Lou Piniella got a look at the ballpark and the Nationals clubhouse from Lerner and general manager Jim Bowden.

“It is a beautiful new stadium,” Piniella said. “The home clubhouse is huge. You can actually play a night game there and stay overnight, get up in the morning, have the chef cook you eggs and hash browns and bacon, and you’re ready to go to work the next day without having to leave.”

But as much as Piniella liked what he saw, he was smart enough not to say anything to indicate that he’d rather be playing in a facility like Nationals Park than Wrigley Field.

“Wrigley Field is a very special place,” he said. “The atmosphere is special. I am not envious at all.”

Most likely, in their brand new $611 million ballpark, neither are Kasten nor the Lerners.

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