When Andy MacPhail was hired as president of the Baltimore Orioles, I asked Washington Nationals president and part owner Stan Kasten whether he was a friend of MacPhail’s. He said he was.
“Then why didn’t you tackle him before he walked into the B&O Warehouse?” I asked jokingly.
Turns out it was Kasten who may have needed the mercy takedown when he merged with the Lerner family in the bid to buy the Washington franchise.
Kasten’s legacy as one of the most successful sports executives of his time during his tenure running three Atlanta sports organizations - the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers - is in danger of earning a tarnished asterisk with the Nationals.
If Kasten is not steering this ship - and it’s difficult to believe that he is - then he needs to find a life preserver and jump because, as the great Micheal Ray Richardson once said, “The ship be sinking.”
The franchise has become a source of bewilderment and amusement throughout the industry, the butt of jokes and the subject of embarrassing national media reports of mismanagement within the organization that are all too evident to those who have watched this debacle unfold here.
The team has been abysmal, on its way to a 100-plus losses - the worst record of any team opening a new ballpark since the Camden Yards era began. Sure, the Nationals have been hit hard by injuries, but it doesn’t explain the poor play and the wasted money on those players who have underperformed when they were on the field.
They have squandered the benefit of opening the new ballpark and are on pace to draw 2.4 million, which would rank as the second-lowest figure for any first-year ballpark since Camden Yards. They have been fortunate that the ballpark itself has been so well received or else it could have been worse. But ownership has even poisoned that positive vibe, with the Lerners refusing to pay the District rent in a contract dispute.
No one is watching on television, with ratings so low that baseball is investigating the numbers because they are so difficult to believe. And it turns out no one is listening on the radio, either, again with shockingly poor radio numbers for a major league team.
The Nationals have gained a reputation throughout the game of being difficult to deal with when it comes to money, with reports of delayed payments for the smallest of items and micro-managing financial decisions. The atmosphere inside Nationals Park is one of despair and resignation, not hope and excitement.
The front office has touted its plan to build the franchise through player development and last year made major strides in that direction. But the momentum has slowed toward that goal this year. The team failed to sign its first-round draft pick, and even if the blame should be on the shoulders of Aaron Crow and his agents, how does that explain the lack of financial activity in the international market? I know this may be a sore subject, given the federal investigation going on, but where is this summer’s Smiley Gonzalez?
If the Lerners are not spending the money on payroll, not spending the money on high-priced draft picks and not spending the money on international signings, then where is the money going? There is money, lots and lots of it, even with the mediocre attendance figures because of the dramatic increase in revenue from the luxury boxes, higher priced tickets and ballpark sponsorships and ads - and don’t forget the MASN money Peter Angelos is forking over, even though no one is watching.
And as a rule, I have found that if things seem really bad from the outside looking in - they’re actually much worse.
Kasten has maintained a positive party line. He would chew broken glass rather than reveal any internal turmoil. But it is clear this is not the work of a seasoned sports executive, especially one as highly regarded as Kasten. In a 2006 article in The Washington Post, NBA commissioner David Stern declared, “They’ve gotten themselves a first-class sports executive. It’s fair to say it would be hard to replicate somebody with Stan’s wide range of experience and his successes.”
The decisions and operations of this franchise do not mesh with the track record of a sports executive who ran what was considered the model organization in baseball for years, the Atlanta Braves. Between the Braves and the NBA’s Hawks, he helped them to 30 postseason appearances.
No, the fingerprints that are all over this franchise now are those of amateurs - the Lerners.
The most asked questions from visiting team officials and players, besides those about the ballpark, have been these:
“What the heck is going on here?”
“What is up with Stan?”
The first question is because it is difficult to believe that intelligent people could be blowing such a golden opportunity that has presented itself - baseball returning to the nation’s capital with a fully financed ballpark in one of the richest areas in the country.
The second question is because it is difficult to believe Stan Kasten would be part of it.