- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

Stan Kasten had just finished putting the pieces back together after the Dominican baseball scandal. He was at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, Fla., meeting with fellow owner Mark Lerner and chief operating officer Alan Gottlieb when he got a call from his daughter.

Kasten said to himself he would call her back later.

Then his sister called. And Kasten figured he would return the call later.

Then he got a call from his brother. Kasten thought, “What an odd coincidence.”

More phone calls, then an e-mail. Kasten had been in crisis management mode since news surfaced about the federal probe into general manager Jim Bowden, including the age and identity fraud perpetuated by a prized prospect who had been known as Esmailyn Gonzalez.

But the Nationals’ team president knew he had to step away from the carnage to deal with something far more personal: the death of his mother.

“After I got the e-mail from my daughter, I said [to myself], ‘OK, I know what this is,’ ” Kasten said. “I had to go to the press conference to announce the new [front office] structure and who would have new duties. Then I said, ‘Guys, I have to leave.’ ”

Kasten flew to New Jersey, where he was born and raised, to be with his family and say goodbye to his mother. Sylvia was a brave woman who had survived the Holocaust and came to the United States with her husband, Nathan, who had spent years in concentration camps. Sylvia had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She didn’t know any of us for five or six years,” Kasten said. “As bad as it was, it was time for her.”

Kasten said the family was going through some photos and other mementos after his mother died, and someone found his father’s displaced person’s certificate. He was in a camp for survivors whose lives had been pretty much erased by the Nazis.

“They had no homes, no cities, no families to go back to,” Kasten said. “All my dad’s family was eradicated. My mom had half her family left. My dad had no one left. My mom was never in the camp. She posed as a gentile because she could speak unaccented Polish, and she changed her name.

“This was at the same time the Smiley Gonzalez thing was happening, who also is a victim of having changed his name for one purpose. My mom did the same thing - changed her name and age - but for a little different reasons. … The timing of all this was bizarre.”

It was a tough spring for Kasten, but he grew up with the perspective that there are hard times and there are nightmares. If you have role models who survived the nightmares, you deal with the hard times. So when faced with a scandal that was mushrooming into a crisis for an organization already suffering from a reputation as baseball’s biggest joke, Kasten got in front of it.

After news broke that the focus of an FBI probe into the skimming of bonus money for Dominican baseball prospects was zeroing in on Bowden, Kasten conducted a conference call with reporters that, for someone who despises his business being aired in public, was forthcoming and blunt. Days later, Bowden, a Lerner family favorite but a lightning rod for controversy, resigned.

Kasten sent assistant general manager Mike Rizzo to the Dominican to cut ties with Bowden’s special assistant, Jose Rijo, and set up a new Dominican operation. Kasten then named Rizzo acting general manager.

It was clear Kasten, who according to sources inside and outside the organization saw his influence diminish under the rule of the Lerner family, was in charge again.

“I like to hold things back and keep things private, but this wasn’t the time for that,” he said. “I stepped out. I tried to be forthcoming about what had happened in the Dominican. We all, with the support of ownership, took action that we thought was appropriate and cleaned it up. Everyone in the organization who is still here deserves a lot of credit for pitching in to do that.

“It is what I am supposed to do. You don’t get a medal for doing that.”

Maybe not but the perception of the franchise is different now.

“[Bowden] cast a wide shadow in a very important department,” Kasten said. “But I think the goals of ownership haven’t changed. We are managing through hurdles that we had. As I said two months ago, we had already had a good offseason, and by now we have had an even better offseason on the field. …

“Jim’s departure, Jose’s departure - I suppose you could say it is different. Jim had his own style, and in a lot of ways it was unique. It wasn’t exactly conventional. So yes, not having that here anymore changes things. I’d like to take this opportunity to make the change be one for the better, but we are still in that transition. …

“Turmoil isn’t a good thing. It is certainly something I’ve worked hard all my life to avoid. I have prided myself on building organizations that you could respect, even when we were losing. That’s what we have to get to here. Of course, we have to stop losing. We have worked hard on that.”

The Smiley Gonzalez scandal was the low point for the organization, which is coming off a 102-loss season and disappointing attendance for the inaugural season of Nationals Park. But it could turn out to be the turning point. Kasten believes the Nationals can turn things around quickly.

“I can only say to you that I’ve been here before, and I’ve seen other people in these circumstances,” he said. “My favorite example is the mid-1980s, when the Phoenix Suns, who had one of the most superb, professional sports administrators in history, Jerry Colangelo… they went through a period where they had scandal after scandal. They had a death. They had a horrible team, and it all kind of bubbled up at once. Within a year or two, it had all been transformed. So I do know in sports that if you do the right things, it can turn around quickly.”

The Nationals, who open the season Monday in Florida against the Marlins, may finally be doing the right things.

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