- - Thursday, October 25, 2018

Baseball, as it has expanded over the years, has become a more regionalized sport. It’s where the local TV ratings are, it’s where the marketing for the sport takes place.

So while they have two teams like the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers have interest beyond their borders, some fans still in places like Kansas City and Atlanta and Washington still search for a hook to reel themselves into the drama of the Fall Classic.

Typically, it’s a former player on their team now on the roster of one of the World Series clubs. Nationals fans have choices on both sides, though hardly fan favorites — Boston catcher Sandy Leon, who was a backup catcher in Washington from 2012 to 2014, behind the plate for just 34 career Nationals game, and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Ryan Madson, a far more familiar figure to Nationals fans (69 appearances in 2017 and 2018) who did nobody in Washington proud by blowing up twice in fifth inning appearances for the Dodgers, helping put his team in a 2-0 hole going back to Dodger Stadium game three Friday night.

There are far stronger, though, if forgotten, connections between both teams that should interest Nationals fans that go to the very existence of the franchise.

It was the Boston Red Sox who helped facilitate the return of baseball in Washington in 2005, and it was a key figure with the Los Angeles Dodgers who was instrumental in the ownership and development of the franchise in its early days following the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington.

In 2002, the Boston Red Sox were up for sale, as per the terms of the late owner of the franchise, Jean Yawkey, and the foundation named for her, the wife of former Boston owner Tom Yawkey. It was a coveted franchise, one of the most iconic in sports, and it came with historic Fenway Park and NESN — the New England Sports Network.

There were no shortage of bidders, including Cablevision’s Charles Dolan and Boston developer Frank McCourt. But Commissioner Bud Selig put together a particular group in mind, already well-connected in baseball, led by former Baltimore Orioles owner and president Larry Lucchino, Florida Marlins owner John Henry and former San Diego Padres owner Tom Werner.

This was the group that the Yawkey Foundation made the deal with the sell the franchise, ballpark and network, even though their reported $660 million winning bid fell short of several other bidders, including Dolan’s reported $755 million offer.

What made this deal historic — and what led to baseball in Washington — was essentially the three-franchise swap that Selig engineered — an unprecedented transaction.

In order for Henry to be part of the Boston ownership group, he had to sell the Marlins. Baseball arranged for him to sell the Marlins to controversial Expos owner Jeffrey Loria for $158 million – who, in turn, sold the Expos for $120 million to Major League Baseball, which took over ownership of the franchise starting in the 2002 season.

That three-way franchise deal set the stage for baseball decide three years later to relocate the Expos to Washington, and then, to sell the franchise for a fixed-price of $465 million.

And now we get to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their team president and co-owner, Stan Kasten.

Kasten had been president of the Atlanta Braves from 1986 to 2003 (he would also run the NBA Atlanta Hawks franchise and the defunct NHL Atlanta Thrashers club, all under the direction of owner Ted Turner) and had become one of the game’s most respected figures. He was looking for new opportunities when he left Atlanta in 2003, and Selig had tremendous trust in Kasten and wanted him to be part of baseball in Washington.

There were several competitive bids for the Nationals — the Washington Baseball Club, with Fred Malek and Jeff Zients, and former Mariners owner and radio executive Jeffrey Smulyan, who had assembled a strong local minority ownership group and has the strong support of powerful Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Yet, once the Lerner family agreed to partner with Kasten, it locked them in for the winning bid. It’s likely that without Kasten’s presence, the Lerners are not selected as Nationals owners.

Now, when Kasten got here, he found his relationship with the Lerners, who don’t like outsiders, did not work, and he was unable to truly wield his power within the organization like he wanted to. But one move he made changed the direction of the organization. It was Kasten who hired Mike Rizzo in 2006 as assistant general manager to Nationals general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden. He couldn’t force Bowden, who had endeared himself to the Lerner family, out, but he figured it would only be a matter of time before Bowden would so something to force himself out. That happened in spring of 2009, when he was forced to resign as a result of the Smiley Gonzalez scandal. Kasten put Rizzo in charge, and since then the franchise has won four National League East division titles and has been a perennial winner since 2012.

Kasten had signed a five-year contract to be team president, and when that ended in 2010, he couldn’t wait to get out the door. He had his sights already on his return to baseball, watching the developments of the divorce proceedings between Dodgers owners and husband and wife Frank and Jamie McCourt. It forced the couple to sell the franchise, and Kasten, with a group that included financier Mark Walter and basketball legend Magic Johnson, bought the Dodgers for a record $2 billion in 2012.

Since then, the Dodgers have gone to the postseason six times, starting in 2013, with two straight NL pennants and World Series appearances. He’s done pretty well for himself.

His legacy will include his role in the early days of the return of baseball to the nation’s capital. And that return may not have happened without the three-way franchise led kicked off by the sale of the Boston Red Sox, who with three World Series championships on their resume and now shooting for a fourth, have done pretty well for themselves as well since that deal.

• You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and also on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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