Wednesday, November 16, 2005

MILWAUKEE — A top Major League Baseball official yesterday dismissed criticism that delays in naming a new owner for the Washington Nationals are hindering the team’s ability to attract free agents and insisted the team can be competitive in 2006.

During a break in meetings with MLB owners, league president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy insisted the time line for naming a Nationals owner would have no bearing on the team’s success.

“All of that is patent nonsense,” DuPuy said of the criticism, which was levied last week by Nationals manager Frank Robinson and some city officials. “The team is being professionally and competently managed, and it has been throughout. Tony Tavares is a wonderful and experienced baseball executive who did a wonderful job. We won’t drop a beat with regard to the operation of the team.”

The announcement for a new owner was thought to be imminent as early as Labor Day, and many sources in the city and MLB believed owners would vote on the issue this week.

But MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who had been busy working with the players union to complete a new steroids policy, still must meet with three of the eight groups bidding to own the Nationals before making a selection.

First, however, the league must finish a lease agreement for the Nationals’ new ballpark. DuPuy yesterday said MLB and the city hope to get the agreement done by the end of next week. But the two sides are still apart on several key issues despite intense negotiations that have lasted more than a month.

The District, facing rising costs for the $535million stadium in Southeast, has asked MLB for a $24million letter of credit to cover the city in case the Nationals can’t play at the new ballpark for some reason. It also wants $20million to cover the cost of some underground parking for VIP ticket holders, which the league has requested. MLB is resisting these additional costs and is balking at a $6million guaranteed annual lease payment.

“We believe the demands of the city vary from what was agreed to in the stadium agreement,” DuPuy said. “There are creative solutions to almost every problem, and hopefully either in dealing directly with lending institutions or dealing with the city we’ll be able to come up with some creative solutions. I’m hopeful this can be resolved next week.”

MLB has insisted the lease agreement be in place before it selects a new owner for the Nationals, and the city needs the lease agreement in place to get financing for the stadium in place by the end of this year.

DuPuy said Selig will offer further detail on the lease negotiations today. The completion of a tougher policy toward steroid use in the sport likely now opens up time for Selig to address the Nationals’ ownership situation, DuPuy said.

League officials acknowledged yesterday Congressional pressure was the primary reason they pushed for a new policy toward steroids that calls for a 50-game suspension for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.

“We had an agreement in place, and there was really no reason for them to change that agreement absent the threat of legislation,” said Rob Manfred, MLB’s vice president of labor relations. “We felt the existing policy was effective and was dealing with the issue, but to restore people’s faith in the integrity of the game, it was necessary to do more. Even if the other one was getting it done, the public needed more.”

Manfred said the league would resist any effort by Congress to mandate even stiffer penalties. Congress originally had proposed a standard similar to the one governing the Olympics, which includes a two-year ban for a single positive test.

“Olympic athletics is very different than a sport where you play 162 games in a 183-day season,” Manfred said. “We negotiated a policy that made sense for our sport.”

MLB and the union are expected to present a formal version of the policy to Congressional leaders soon, in time to institute the new policy Feb.1.

Meanwhile, Selig is expected to announce more details today about the World Baseball Classic, a “World Cup”-style baseball tournament to be held this March in cities around the world. Owners are also discussing a transfer of controlling ownership with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and could talk informally about new members of the ownership group for the Cincinnati Reds.

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